Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This guest post was written by Joe Suhre, of Suhre & Associates, LLC, a firm with offices in Chicago, Illinois, Dayton, Ohio, and Columbus, Ohio. Joe previously wrote a post on Defending Loki.

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.

19 responses to “Captain America: The Winter Soldier

  1. “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.”

    Sorry if you find this a pointless aside, but I’m suspicious of any argument that uses the word “inhuman” in it seriously. It seems very easy for people to forget that the Holocaust (and every other known genocide over the past few thousand years) was knowingly ordered and carried out by humans, not some science fiction monster. Also odd for that to be in a work that argues for treating all humans equally.

    • Philo Pharynx

      Joe did use the term inhuman (and he wasn’t referring to Black Bolt & crew), but he later makes a point of explaining why an average person might support these policies.

      It’s easy to support profiling when you don’t fit the profile. Profiling is efficient – it deals with underirables quickly. It’s the errors that cause problems.

  2. Thanks Gyre,

    Your point is well taken and accurate from the perspective you mention and from that perspective I agree with you. However, my use of the word “inhuman” was based on the dictionary’s broader definition “1 lacking human qualities of compassion and mercy; cruel and barbaric.”

  3. Ori Pomerantz

    Two points:

    1. We crave order because in a state of hunter/gatherer anarchy 10%-20% of people die of violence (see The Better Angels of Our Nature).

    2. Profiling, as a tool of law enforcement, might allow them to focus on trouble spots more effectively. If you’re looking for somebody who assaulted somebody else, it is more likely to be a man than a woman. However, as a tool of war it gives a false sense of security. To take one example, imagine we target our anti-terrorism searches on people who look Arab. Al Qaeda would soon see that, and respond by using either Black Sudanese or perfect Caucasians from the Caucus mountains.

    • That’s a good point, though (even though I’m not a police officer) I did witness a case where everyone was certain that an assailant was a man and it turned out to be a woman. So profiling might have some use, but I’ll agree with the original post that it is dangerous to rely extensively on.

    • I agree with your phrase “false sense of security.” However, I believe it applies to local law enforcement as well. When Ted Bundy was living in Salt Lake City, he went unnoticed because he didn’t fit any police profile. In fact, profiling allowed him to kill 35 women in 6 states since his “type” wasn’t on anybody’s radar. And in Oklahoma City, while everyone was scrambling to locate the Arabs responsible for the bombing, it was a freak traffic stop that caught Timothy McVeigh. If there is a “trouble spot” as you mention, focus on the spot and be aware of anyone’s behavior, not just a particular type of person.

      • Ori Pomerantz

        You’re right about profiling and law enforcement.

      • Bob Mozark

        It wasn’t a freak traffic stop. In keeping with his anti-government views, McVeigh had removed the license plates from his car. Law enforcement officers tend to notice that sort of thing.

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  5. Good to see someone talking about the political aspects of The Winter Soldier with balance and thought! You inspired me to revisit the movie in my own blog; I usually talk about a new movie once and move on.

  6. One third of one percent? Ghastly, when we consider that Daniel Linderman considered .07% sufficient and justified.

    • James Pollock

      Compared to the number of citizens currently incarcerated, both .33% AND .07% seem rather trivial.

  7. James Pollock

    How you frame the debate is everything.

    For example, if you phrase it in terms of goals, you can get lots of popular support for this one:
    “Should police wait for crimes to be committed, or try to pre-empt them from occurring in the first place?”
    I don’t think there’s any doubt that a vast majority of citizens would prefer that police attempt to pre-empt crimes, when possible.
    If you phrase it as “should police detain and investigate suspicious persons when they encounter them?”, I think you’ll still get high numbers of popular support.
    It isn’t until you phrase it as “should police detain and investigate suspicious persons when they encounter them (and of course, people speaking Spanish or possessing darker-colored skin are always suspicious.)?” that we have a real problem. I think NY’s plan wasn’t intended to fall into this category when conceived, but fell into it when it was put into practice. I think Arizona’s program was always intended to target only brown, Spanish-speaking individuals, and had it been understood as meaning police could (and would) stop white, English-speakers to check citizenship status, it never would have passed. (I could be wrong about this… the dislike of illegals is very high in Arizona, so maybe a majority of Arizonans would accept being regularly hassled by police as the price they’d have to pay for ramped-up enforcement… but this is a state that outlawed photo-radar, so I doubt it.)

    I think the problem is that a very large number of people have the opinion that you can recognize criminals (and/or illegal immigrants) just by looking at them.

  8. Terry Washington

    Profiling(racial or religious) is much like a drunk’s attitude to a lamppost-he/she clings to it as a means of support as opposed to illumination!

    ‘Nuff said!


  9. Thanks Joe – as a European living in Europe, it is heartening to know that one of the stereotypes of Americans does not hold true.
    No irony intended here, although as I write this comment in praise of your balanced views (and you are citing ‘Captain America’ – Thank You again), then a sense of other-worldliness creeps around the edges of my peripheral vision.
    I feel that you would welcome my comment ‘because you are American’. Nuff’ Said?

  10. Begging the guest writer’s pardon, but I can’t help but feel that this post was a bit lacking in actual legal analysis, straying instead into mere philosophizing. I believe that it would be more interesting, not to mention more pertinent to the topic of this blog, to use the issues raised in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to address the legal nitty-gritty stuff of NSA spying, the PATRIOT Act, and, yes, profiling. More specifically, I don’t mean to tell Messrs Daily and Davidson how to do their job, but I do feel that a more detailed, concrete analysis is in order.

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