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The documentary blends narration from Scahill and others with media clips, congressional testimony, and interviews with policy actors. Glimpses of our covert war carry the narrative. In 2009 a cruise-missile attack in Yemen kills 21 children; according to the film, journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye, who covered the story, remains in prison at the personal request of President Obama. In 2010 a secret night raid staged by the president's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) kills two pregnant women and an Afghan police official in Gardez, Afghanistan. Somalis are so fearful of the U.S. that when Scahill arrives at a local teahouse, the mere presence of an American journalist makes the patrons uncomfortable and Scahill's handler suggests a quick exit.
Scahill's journey through places most Americans couldn't find on a map makes disturbingly clear the brutal effects of wars secretly fought in the name of U.S. citizens. In Somalia, in Yemen, and in Pakistan, citizens live in fear; in the U.S. they live in ignorance. One scene shows Scahill at the Virginia home of Nasser al-Awlaki, who shares with the reporter videos and photographs of his son Anwar, alleged to have recruited men for al Qaeda, and 16-year-old grandson Abdulrahman. Both were killed by American drone strikes in Yemen.
In a Q&A following the Chicago premiere on Friday, Scahill and musician Lupe Fiasco fielded questions about nationalism, terrorism, and foreign policy from a capacity crowd. Though the talk was marred by technical difficulties and cut short by the next showing, it brought forward the important issue of blowback—the unanticipated consequences of covert operations like those described in the film. In the movie Scahill describes the global war on terror—an overwhelmingly secret enterprise—as a pinwheel, spinning out of control and causing more harm than good. His comments on Friday reinforced this: "In all different languages, I heard, 'I was taught growing up to admire the United States, and now I want to put a suicide vest on and blow myself up among the Americans. . . . We agree, al-Qaeda is terrorism. But . . . we also see your drones as terrorism.' . . . What does national security even mean when your own policy is undermining your own security?"