Brazil and Bush's War on Terror

by Robert Blumen

We are living in Brazil. The future as foretold by Terry Gilliam's 1985 rich and multi-layered film masterpiece Brazil is upon us. First released fifteen years ago, Terry Gilliam's Brazil was astonishingly accurate in forecasting political trends. In a previous essay, I examined the film as a critique of socialist central planning. In this piece, I will discuss how Brazil portends Bush's War on Terror.

The world of Brazil shows a totalitarian society in which freedom has been forfeited for a false promise of protection from terrorist attacks. Gilliam shows how the threat of terrorism is manipulated by the state as a means of political control over the population. The threat of terror is created by the internal security police in order to generate public acceptance of totalitarian police powers.

Gilliam's exposition raises some important questions: Is the terror created by the power of the state in the alleged pursuit of terrorism worse than the terrorism itself? And are they really any different?

The ministers of state in Brazil have succeeded in creating a society organized around a continuous response to the threat of terrorism. Random bombings occur regularly. The protagonist Sam and his mother must go through a security check in order to enter a restaurant. And then during their meal a large explosion blows out the back of the dining room; they continue eating while bodies are dragged away.

As in modern America, there is some doubt about whether Brazil's "War on Terrorism" is really working. At the opening of the film Minister Helpmann, the Deputy Minister of information (the internal security agency), appears on TV immediately after a bombing takes place:

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that the government is winning the battle against terrorists?

HELPMANN: Oh yes. Our morale is much higher than theirs, we’re fielding all their strokes, running a lot of them out, and pretty consistently knocking them for six. I’d say they’re nearly out of the game.

INTERVIEWER: But the bombing campaign is now in its thirteenth year.

HELPMANN: Beginner’s luck.

Now in the US, we are told by the Bush administration that the war on terrorism will become a more or less permanent state of affairs.

U.S. war may last decades Military pushed to think broadly By KAREN MASTERSON

WASHINGTON – The U.S. war on terrorism may rage for decades and has forced Pentagon strategists to think more broadly than they’ve had to since World War II, a top military official said Sunday.

“The fact that it could last several years, or many years, or maybe our lifetimes would not surprise me,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

The film has been reissued on DVD with commentary by the director in which he states that it was his intention to convey that there were so many government plants, double agents, agents provocateurs, moles, infiltrators, etc. that at some point even the government did not know for sure whether there were any real terrorists or whether all of the terror was fabricated by the police as part of their anti-terror campaign. 

In a conversation between Sam and Ministry of Information office Jack Lint, Lint reveals how he — as a key member of the internal security department – understands the events that are taking place:

SAM: You don’t really think Tuttle and the girl are in league?

JACK: I do. Goodbye.

SAM: It could all be coincidental.

JACK: There are no coincidences, Sam. Everything’s connected, all along the line. Cause and effect. That’s the beauty of it. Our job is to trace the connections and reveal them. This whole Buttle/Tuttle confusion was obviously planned from the inside.

As the audience of the film, we know that the Tuttle/Buttle confusion was caused by a computer error within the department, and that "the girl" (Jill Layton) became involved as a concerned citizen trying to investigate a wrongful arrest. The irony here is that a random chain of events kicked off by the Ministry's own error is seen from inside ministry as further evidence of a terrorist conspiracy.

Revisionist historians have suggested that many wars and other events are staged or at least allowed to happen and then used by the government to manipulate public opinion in the direction that they want it to go. Michael Ruppert has provided voluminous research suggesting that the US intelligence agencies had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks and chose to allow them to occur, much the way that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor and did not prevent it. And there is the tradition of US enemies having once been funded by US intelligence agencies.

Bin Laden comes home to roost His CIA ties are only the beginning of a woeful story By Michael Moran MSNBC

NEW YORK, Aug. 24, 1998 – At the CIA, it happens often enough to have a code name: Blowback. Simply defined, this is the term that describes an agent, an operative or an operation that has turned on its creators. Osama bin Laden, our new public enemy Number 1, is the personification of blowback. And the fact that he is viewed as a hero by millions in the Islamic world proves again the old adage: Reap what you sow.


What the CIA bio conveniently fails to specify (in its unclassified form, at least) is that the MAK was nurtured by Pakistan's state security services, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, the CIA's primary conduit for conducting the covert war against Moscow's occupation.


Yet the CIA, concerned about the factionalism of Afghanistan made famous by Rudyard Kipling, found that Arab zealots who flocked to aid the Afghans were easier to "read" than the rivalry-ridden natives. While the Arab volunteers might well prove troublesome later, the agency reasoned, they at least were one-dimensionally anti-Soviet for now. So bin Laden, along with a small group of Islamic militants from Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian refugee camps all over the Middle East, became the "reliable" partners of the CIA in its war against Moscow.

Brazil shows a world of meek and helpless people, devoid of any artistic or aesthetic pleasure. There are two heroes in the film: Tuttle, the renegade heating repair engineer, and Jill Layton, a woman who takes it upon herself to fight the wrongful arrest of her neighbor's husband. The protagonist, Sam, is a happy cog in the great machine, content to waste away his life shuffling papers within a vast bureaucracy.

Social life is dominated by suspicion and fear. And who is behind this?

INTERVIEWER: Deputy minister, what do you believe is behind this recent increase in terrorist bombings?

HELPMANN: Bad sportsmanship. A ruthless minority of people seems to have forgotten certain good old fashioned virtues. They just can’t stand seeing the other fellow win. If these people would just play the game, they'd get a lot more out of life.

Compare this to President Bush’s Address on Terrorism to Congress:

Americans are asking, ”Why do they hate us?”

They hate what they see right here in this chamber, a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

The utter irony of this is that Bush and Helpmann depict terrorism as primarily a sort of arrested emotional development by those who did not learn in grade school to be good losers. The little boy who took his ball and went home became a terrorist when he grew up. This rhetorical tactic forestalls any inquiry into the religious or political movements that the terrorists might be seeking to advance or whether they have any real case against the American foreign policy. An irony here is that the moral virtue claimed by both Bush and Helpmann is undermined by their own terror game.

The use of propaganda is another tactic used by totalitarian regimes to generate support for their program. In Brazil as in Orwell's 1984, this takes the form of euphemisms.

KURTZMAN: I’ve tried that! Population Census have got him down as dormanted, the Central Collective Storehouse computer has got him down as deleted, and the Information Retrieval have got him down as inoperative, Security has him down as excised, Admin have him down as completed.

SAM: Hang on…he's dead.


Besides being used to hide unpleasant meanings, euphemisms are also used to portray falsehood as truth. The sinister internal security division is darkly named the Ministry of Information Retrieval. They "retrieve" information from citizens by torture. In a visual motif reminiscent of Soviet era propaganda, posters with banal slogans appear on buildings and in offices. In case you can't read them all as they go by during the film, I have copied them from the excellent Brazil FAQ:

  • “Be Safe: Be Suspicious”
  • “Suspicion Breeds Confidence”
  • “Trust in haste, Regret at leisure”
  • “Don’t suspect a friend, report him”
  • “Who can you trust?”

This is not so different from modern America. In case some American suspects a friend of theirs, Bush will make it possible for you to report him:

Operation TIPS Trips Up? August 8, 2002

(CBS) In the aftermath of Sept. 11, President Bush laid groundwork for “Operation TIPS," a program which would organize a volunteer army of citizen lookouts to report “suspicious” activities to the federal government.

Under “Operation TIPS," transportation workers, utility crews and letter carriers could sign up to snoop on members of their communities. Attorney General Ashcroft argued such vigilance could thwart terrorists, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.

“You have the ability of people who have a regular perception, who understand what’s out of order here, what’s different here, and maybe something needs to be looked into,” Ashcroft said.

The plot of Brazil is driven by a series of accounting errors that are initiated when the Ministry of Information arrests and tortures the wrong man. The arrest scene is a terrifying exhibition of police state tactics: several black-garbed troopers simultaneously burst through the walls and doors of the Buttle's apartment. They are followed a paper-pushing official who reads the banal statement of arrest to Mr. Buttle as he is about to be dragged off in a canvas sack and tortured to death:

OFFICIAL: I hereby inform you under powers entrusted to me under Section 47, Paragraph 7 of Council Order Number 438476, that Mr Buttle, Archibald, residing at 412 North Tower, Shangri La Towers, has been invited to assist the Ministry of Information with certain enquiries…

The accounting problems stem from the wrongful arrest of Mr. Buttle because they charge torture victims for the cost of their own torture. These charges are necessary for efficiency, according to the Deputy Minister.1

INTERVIEWER: And the cost of it [i.e. the Ministry's campaign] all, Deputy Minister? Seven percent of the gross national product…

HELPMANN: I understand this concern on behalf of the taxpayers. People want value for money. And that's why we always insist on the principle of Information Retrieval Charges. It’s absolutely right and fair that those found guilty should pay for their periods of detention and the Information Retrieval Procedures used in their interrogation.

Later, when the Sam is arrested for a long list of crimes and brought back to Information Retrieval for processing, the Ministry even offers him a consumer financing plan to that they provide to help torture victims bear the cost:

OFFICIAL C: Now, either you plead guilty to say, seven or eight of these charges, which’ll bring the costs down to within your reach, or you can borrow a sum to be negotiated, from us, at very competitive rates.

OFFICIAL D: We can offer you something at say, eleven and a half per cent, over thirty years. But you will have to buy insurance to qualify for his scheme.

This type of plan brings to mind Paul Craig Roberts' critique of current US judicial proceedings in which people are charged with a long list of related offences for a single crime then encouraged to plea bargain by pleading guilty to only one of them. Also, compare Sam's travails to a trial balloon that was floated by the Bush administration:

Officials consider tapping Iraqi oil to pay war costs Some in Bush administration consider oil funds to be ‘spoils of war’

WASHINGTON – Bush administration officials are seriously considering proposals that the United States tap Iraq’s oil to help pay the cost of a military occupation, a move that likely would prove highly inflammatory in an Arab world already suspicious of U.S. motives.

In another amazing parallel, the interior spaces of the rooms in Brazil are overrun with ugly meandering heating ducts. And as US citizens we are told to stock up on duct tape.

How could a film produced fifteen years ago have foreseen these developments in such remarkable detail? Perhaps because they are not new: they are recurring patterns in the way that states use and manufacture the threat of warfare in order to control their own citizens. State power tends to grow during wars because citizens become more willing to trade liberty for the security that states are willing to promise them. But when a war ends, the pendulum swings back at least partially. So why not manufacture a permanent state of war during which freedoms can be indefinitely suspended? Gilliam was writing history as well as foretelling the future. By creatively retelling the past as a work of fiction about the future, he exposes the totalitarian impulse.


  1. My own thoughts on this were augmented by points made in the FAQ, part 9.

Favorite Brazil Sites

  1. FAQ.
  2. Script.
  3. Buy the new DVD release featuring a documentary about the film and Gilliam's commentary.

Robert Blumen (send him mail) is an independent software consultant based in San Francisco.


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