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Guantanamo Bay is like when Abraham Lincoln suspended the rights to habeas corpus: Steven Spielberg

Guantanamo Bay is like when Abraham Lincoln suspended the rights to habeas corpus: Steven Spielberg

Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg has drawn parallels between the US internment camp Guantanamo Bay, the imprisonment of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in 1957 and the withdrawal of the right to a fair trial during the American civil war.

Speaking to the Guardian to promote his new film, Bridge of Spies — which depicts the capture, conviction and eventual swap of Abel with a US pilot — Spielberg drew parallels between the cold war U2 programme and the drones that the US military use today.

“There are a lot of similarities there. There are similarities with what happens in Guantanamo Bay and with the way in which they took Rudolf Abel off the book and tried to turn him into a counteragent, to work for us. [They] offered him all kinds of deals and he stood his ground and said no.”

Asked if it would be harder now for due justice to be served to non-US nationals on trial in America, Spielberg said Guantanamo Bay meant such a scenario “hasn’t been tested. What happened in Guantanamo Bay is not unlike when Abraham Lincoln suspended the rights to habeas corpus in the national interests in trying to keep this country united. So there is precedent in American history for the kind of stuff that’s happening.”

Spielberg’s previous film — a biopic of Lincoln starring Daniel Day-Lewis — picked up two Oscars and 12 nominations in 2013. His latest looks set to be a contender at next year’s awards, with critics praising the script, direction and performances by Mark Rylance, as Abel, and Tom Hanks as James B Donovan, the attorney commissioned to defend and then trade him.

In the film, Donovan frequently cites the constitution in his fight to grant Abel due process in the courts, in the face of revulsion from the public and his colleagues. Spielberg said he felt that the values that for him define American patriotism include a “respect for other countries and their founding fathers and mothers”.

Bending such principles in the fight against supposed terrorism is, he said, to hand America’s enemies victory. “If we lose our core values, of course, we’ve lost the fight. Core values are everything. I was raised to believe in that. But we haven’t lost our country; we’ve lost our spirit to continue.”

Spielberg, who received the presidential medal of freedom on Tuesday from Barack Obama, said he felt economic and technological pressure had meant the focus of most US citizens was increasingly narrow.

“I think that people are really concerned with their own lots in life: about [whether] the government is being fair to them; about joblessness, healthcare and whether their children get a good education. Things that concern the nuclear family more than the civic and national interest.”

Rather than fostering a sense that we are all citizens of the world, social media has contributed to such insularity, he said.

“There’s actually too much noise — bickering and yelling and shouting down and shaming — and people are really concerned about what the future is going to be like for their grandchildren. Rather than being more mindful of the bigger picture, people need to be more self-protective.”

Bridge of Spies premiered in New York last month to warm reviews, with many seeing it as a veiled broadside against Obama’s failure to shut the US detention centre in Cuba, despite his assurances to the contrary. The film also addresses the effect on society of mass surveillance, with the monitoring of Abel’s communiqués leading to his arrest, and the CIA insisting that Donovan aid them by breaking client confidentiality.

At a press conference following the first screening, Spielberg had said that “the cold war was polite in terms of the way we were spying on each other”. Asked by the Guardian to define the current situation, Spielberg said: “What’s happening now is everybody’s sort of in everybody else’s bananas.”

“There is cyber-hacking, all kinds of gossip and innuendo. I would call it sports spying; it’s not even for trade secrets or national secrets. Not everybody is Edward Snowden. Some stuff is just [from] trying to get dirt on people or find out stuff that would make headlines for the snooper and embarrass the victim.”

Spielberg continued: “There’s so much observation going on today — more news and information than any of us could possibly ingest — and at the same time you are losing your freedom to have a private life. The digital days have made you earn your rights to privacy.”

—By arrangement with the Guardian

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2015

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