(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 21).
The International Film Festival has done the rounds of the provinces for another year. Normally I would seize the chance to binge on movies of the type that don’t usually make it to the town where I live, but this year I managed to see only one: a New Zealand documentary called The 5th Eye.
You’ll be familiar with the subject matter. The three central characters sabotaged a satellite dish at the Waihopai electronic spy facility in 2008.
They were a distinctly unworldly trio, driven by their fervent commitment to a Catholic peace movement called Swords into Ploughshares.
The Waihopai Three were convinced that innocent people were dying – in Iraq, especially – as a result of Waihopai’s inclusion in an international network of Western spy bases operating under an alliance known as Five Eyes.
The saboteurs used this as justification for slashing an inflatable plastic dome with a sickle. According to the government, the repair bill came to $1.2 million
Using the Waihopai saboteurs as its anchor point, The 5th Eye built an elaborate case implicating New Zealand in a sinister international conspiracy to spy on people and to use the information obtained to kill and wage unjust war – all in the political and economic interests of America.
It’s a skilfully crafted propaganda film that owes a lot to the techniques of the left-wing American documentary maker Michael Moore.
I suspect I was a minority of one in the audience. While most of the people around me obviously saw the Waihopai Three as heroes, I regarded the men as zealots, so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they considered themselves above the law.
But here’s an admission: I came away with a more charitable view of the saboteurs. I had always accepted that they were sincerely motivated. What I wasn’t prepared for was that they were such a likeable bunch of bumblers. There was something almost endearing in the amateurish way they went about their act of vandalism.
I’ve no doubt that their religious motivation, their implacable belief that they were doing God’s work and their disarming candour helped persuade a jury to acquit them of burglary and wilful damage charges.
At the time, the verdict made no sense. The satellite dish had been vandalised and they admitted they were responsible. How could they possibly get off? They admitted they expected to go to jail. Around the court it became known as the “No-hopai” case.
But the dynamics of the court room can produce strange outcomes. The quiet conviction of the men’s testimony and the passionate advocacy of their defence counsel resulted in the jury accepting the novel argument that because the men believed the satellite dish was the cause of human suffering, their action was lawful.
As far as I know, they have never paid any penalty for what Helen Clark, who was prime minister at the time, accurately described as an act of criminal vandalism.
Where The 5th Eye succeeds as a piece of propaganda is that having captured the audience’s sympathy for these religiously motivated men, it uses that sympathy to provide a platform for a parade of familiar left-wing activists – Nicky Hager, Murray Horton, John Minto, Laila Harre, Keith Locke, Jane Kelsey, even Julian Assange – whose objectives are strictly ideological and political rather than spiritual.
I got the unsettling feeling that the three protagonists had been exploited in the pursuit of a more secular agenda – anti-West, anti-capitalism – than the one they perhaps had in mind.
I also noted that while The 5th Eye played heavily on claims that the Five Eyes alliance kills innocent people, it was silent on the flip side of that argument – namely, that electronic surveillance is a means of thwarting terrorist acts. These kill innocent people too.
Am I saying we should trust the government and its intelligence agencies always to act in our best interests on matters of security and surveillance? Not at all. Their record is decidedly dodgy, as the documentary makes clear – but I’m suspicious of the motives of their left-wing critics too.
In any case, for me the film ultimately fails on a very basic premise. Being sincerely motivated doesn’t entitle people to take the law into their own hands.
Let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that people who feel strongly about abortion (as many do) used that belief as justification to burn down an abortion clinic. The left – the same people who have anointed the Waihopai saboteurs as heroes – would be incandescent with rage. But what’s the difference?
That remains the problem with the Waihopai Three. For all their apparent humility, there remains an underlying conceit that their beliefs, presumably being sanctioned by God (at least in their minds) entitle them to do whatever they think is right.
But civil society can function only if people respect democratic institutions and the rule of law. If they don’t like the status quo, there’s a way to change things: via the ballot box.