Thomas Sutcliffe: The cinematic battle for hearts and minds

Click to follow

I found myself defending al-Qa'ida propaganda last week. Or rather, to be a bit more precise, defending Brian De Palma's film Redacted. And, to be more precise still, the charge wasn't that it actually was al-Qa'ida propaganda – just that if al-Qa'ida had set out to make a propaganda film they couldn't have done better.

This is a fine distinction, but it may be important to De Palma himself, whose film has provoked fiercely personal attacks in America, including one from the right-wing commentator Bill O'Reilly who pointed out – wistfully – that under the war-time restrictions instituted by Franklin D Roosevelt, De Palma would have been jailed. In fact, Roosevelt's Executive Order 8985 was entirely concerned with the protection of military information and includes nothing that would justify the jailing of De Palma, but then fact isn't always a priority for Bill O'Reilly when his blood pressure is up.

His point was clear anyway – in making a film about an incident in which a group of drunken soldiers raped a 15-year-old Iraqi and murdered her and her family, De Palma was offering succour to the enemy and should be regarded as a traitor.

My defence of Redacted was not exactly unequivocal. It is a flawed film which either cannot manage – or cannot be bothered – to remain true to its own internal logic. But its presentation of the crime at its heart does convey something of its horror. It would be dishonest to pretend that it doesn't generate a rage about what the war has done – and that that rage is far more likely to focus on the fate of Iraqi victims, rather than the brutalised American boys who also count as collateral damage. So it is not hard to see why those who argue that the Iraq war was morally justified might be inclined to dismiss it as a self-inflicted wound.

Two things need to be said about that charge, though. The first is that the true propaganda coup for al-Qa'ida was the original incident itself – not De Palma's reconstruction of it. It seems often to be forgotten by hawks, who disparage civilian interrogation of frontline actions, that in a campaign like Iraq every unnecessary death is a small triumph for al-Qa'ida. Indiscipline so helpful to the enemy's recruitment efforts and so liable to provoke retaliation is a kind of treason in itself.

The second thing to be said is a question: what would it actually look like if the film-maker was minded to propagandise for the coalition? You might initially imagine an Iraq war equivalent of John Wayne's 1968 film The Green Berets, which explicitly set out to counter increasing criticism of the Vietnam war. But you will have to imagine such a thing because it is very unlikely you will actually see it.

The hallmark of all existing fictions about the war in Iraq is deep disquiet – about the justification for the war and its subsequent conduct. It was true of Nick Broomfield's Battle For Haditha (broadcast last night) and of Paul Haggis's film In The Valley Of Elah (also with an American war crime at its heart) and of Redacted too.

For hawks such as Bill O'Reilly this is evidence of a dangerous fissure of self-doubt in the west. I prefer to see it as proof of moral superiority over al-Qa'ida – an assertion of values which include holding ourselves to account without being forced to.

These films might not look like propaganda for the US Army, but they are still a kind of propaganda for what they are notionally fighting for.

Forget travel cards, the world can be your oyster

Struggling to report a child's lost Oyster card, I come across an interesting report on a technology website which notes that the encryption on the MiFare Classic RFID chip – found in the Oyster cards used by thousands of Tube travellers across London – has now been broken.

Indeed, YouTube features a striking clip in which a group of student types wave a wand over a card reader, retrieve its encryption key, cyber-mug a passer-by for the details of his card and then clone it with the help of a lap-top. Achieving this feat no doubt involved some high-end technical skills but, by the looks of it, a well-trained chimp could replicate it. I guess those guys who sell on one-day travel cards will make the move to plastic quite soon.

* As the US Supreme Court prepares to consider the constitutional issue of the right to bear arms (astonishingly, the plaintiff thinks that current laws are too restrictive, I expect another outing for that old gun lobby chestnut – "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns". It is true that the desire to pack heat is not part of my cultural patrimony but this remark has always puzzled me. Only outlaws will have guns? Good. At least we will know exactly where we stand when someone pulls one out – and in any case it is not outlaws or criminals that should really worry us.

They often have an excellent professional reasons for not using their guns. It is the teenagers and office drudges and bad-tempered neighbours we should be nervous about – the types who are perfectly law-abiding until they snap – and their otherwise harmless breakdown is rendered lethal by a gym-bag full of mail-order weaponry.