Introduction by James Daily: This post contains significant spoilers for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s a very good movie, and if you haven’t seen it you should definitely check it out!
(Introduction continued) Recall that, in the movie, the Hydra scientist Dr. Arnim Zola was captured by the Allies and worked with the US government as part of Operation Paperclip. In reality he used the opportunity to continue Hydra’s work of corrupting the government from within for decades. Later his brain was uploaded to a computer, bringing him to the present day. Eventually we learn that Zola was responsible for designing the algorithm used by Project Insight to determine which people to target for preemptive assassination. Unbeknownst to many of the Project’s supporters, the algorithm would serve Hydra’s goals by killing political and military leaders, superpowered individuals, and many others.
Dr. Arnim Zola’s Algorithm
Political ideology and euphemisms aside, we should refer to Dr. Zola’s Algorithm for what it is—profiling. Dr. Zola’s version of profiling in Captain America: The Winter Soldier might be a little more sophisticated than racial or other types of profiling—after all, his is based on math—but it doesn’t make it less inhumane and unjust, despite its carefully thought out formula.
The problem with profiling is that so many people can be convinced that it is a good idea*. The film introduces a few arguments that favor profiling early on in the story when Nick Fury introduces Captain America to the new fleet of helicarriers and the concept of a preemptive strike against evil. The ever morally unconfused Captain America was quick to denounce the idea, even before realizing the full magnitude of the project.
“This isn’t freedom; this is fear.”
Captain America’s comment above certainly depicts the nature of Project Insight but also is an appropriate description of profiling in general. In our version of the Multiverse, profiling as an unsanctioned police tactic creates fear. Ask any victim of profiling; after they have been pulled over a few times for spurious reasons or stopped while walking down the street, they begin to feel fear every time they leave their home. And they don’t feel free.
When we meet Dr. Zola in Captain America: The Winter Soldier he had become one with his computer network, infusing his mind into the circuitry. He had become pure rational thought. Since I believe Dr. Zola lost all of his humanity as a Nazi, I found this incident as redundant, although his manifestation as a computer program was an excellent metaphor for his inhumanity.
Anyone who profiles tends to demonize that segment of the population which they are targeting. They see them as less deserving of equal protection under the law by virtue of their reduced human value. Ironically, as with Dr. Zola, those who profile lose their own humanity in the process. The YouTube audio recording of the stop of New York teen Alvin Melathe makes my point better than words.
What role did Hydra really play?
I know Hydra is the go-to organization of bad guys in the Avenger’s Multiverse but what real role did Hydra really play in Project Insight? It seems that several highly placed patriotic Americans were already in favor of this type of large-scale profiling without the help of Hydra.
Diplomats, lawmakers, and even men like Nick Fury, weary of war and pervasive evil could be persuaded to target every enemy all at once, ushering in a new era of peace. Rather than face ongoing war, wouldn’t a preemptive strike appeal to rational men and women? And Alexander Pierce, as head of the World Security Council, might logically see such a plan as being within his authority to implement.
What these people evidently needed from Dr. Zola, was not only the mental capability to create an algorithm to profile every person on the planet but the vacuous conscience of a Nazi doctor who never had to face a war-crime tribunal. His algorithm would not only target the right people, it would be cold, calculated, and without mercy.
As one of the insiders of the original Hydra, Dr. Zola was also the perfect teacher to instruct his “new best friends”** on the value of Hydra as a shadow government. After all, Hydra sprouted and thrived in Nazi Germany, the most tight-fisted government in the 20th Century; what better organization to infiltrate the US government, the U.N., and other organizations to create support for Project Insight?
Selling Genocide as Altruism
All Pierce wanted was peace on earth for 7 billion people, in exchange for one third of one percent of the population. That is all. In medical terms, it is laser hair removal. As the miniscule means to such a glorious end, it is easy to see how Hydra persuaded so many people to stand behind Project Insight, to set the targets, and even pull the trigger.
In any genocide, giving the horrific act a proper name that followers can rally around is very important. Hitler called the Holocaust the final solution; other names for mass murders have included cleansing, purging, and even a great leap forward. Such was the case with Project Insight. Calling it Insight made it feel pragmatic and enlightened.
Another common thread in each of these events was the same as we mentioned above, an insidious campaign to demonize and dehumanize a specific group. By getting everyone to agree that the identified group was a detriment and threat to civilized society, profiling was an easy sell. Racial, cultural, ethnic, and even idealistic profiling preceded each of the above events.
Give Alexander Pierce a Break
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of Alexander Pierce; nor do I endorse his reasoning, but as a criminal defense attorney with an emphasis in DUI defense, I see his kind all the time. They don’t feel profiling is wrong, if they even call it that; they see it as efficient, time-saving, and effective law enforcement. These people listen to the rhetoric of Alexander Pierce and rationalize his math as reasonable. They see profiling in the name of security, safety, and order as patriotic. They also see nothing wrong with a preemptive strike. They are the same type of people who continue to push tactics such as Stop and Frisk, a unique strategy that combines both profiling and a preemptive strike together.
And what of Doctor Zola?
Men like Dr. Zola are always in the shadows, inventing new ways to identify and purge from society anyone who might disrupt order. I dare say, some modern Zola’s may walk away from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and begin working on algorithms of their own.
As a species, we must crave order, since in the last 75 years tens of millions of people have died at the hands of soldiers and politicians in the name of order. We look back on these events and lament that we did nothing to save them, yet allow ourselves the luxury of indulging in the same thing on a smaller scale.
It is obvious to most people that everything done in the name of Hydra was illegal, yet those same people will wink at denying due process to someone who drinks and drives or illegally searching someone simply because they are walking down the street looking “suspicious.” (Suspicious, meaning Black, Hispanic, or any other person fitting the profile.)
It is easy for most people to see the insidious and inhumane nature of Project Insight. But how many people can make the connection between what Pierce expected to accomplish and the methods used on a smaller scale by cities across America to accomplish the same thing?
The bad guys don’t always say “Hail Hydra.”
* Pulse Opinion Research, LLC, the polling arm of Rasmussen ReportsTM claims that 60% of Americans favor racial and ethnic profiling by police to verify immigration status and by TSA agents during airport screening.
** Colonel Chester Phillips’ reference to the recently spared Dr. Zola.