Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate

The new Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal collaboration, Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatic depiction of the 10 year hunt for Osama bin Laden has been subject to considerable controversy in recent weeks, primarily due to its depictions of torture of suspected al Qaeda operatives at the hands of the CIA and American allies. Critics have claimed that the film tacitly endorses the use of so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, intimidation, and physical violence, through a) the unrepentant practice of those “techniques” by several key characters; and b) the role intelligence extracted through torture influences the (eventually) successful elimination of Osama bin Laden.

Let’s consider the first criticism, the willingness of the characters in Zero Dark Thirty to participate in torture and their unapologetic stance throughout the movie. The first sequence in the film depicts in graffic detail the waterboarding, restricted confinement, prolonged shackling in stress positions, and abject humiliation of an already severely beaten al Qaeda facilitator by a CIA agent/contractor named “Dan”. Dan is a serial torturer who repeats these tactics on several individuals throughout the film and at times laments the public and political outrage associated with the revelation of these acts as a constraint on a “necessary tool”. Dan quickly leads the squeamish protagonist “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) another CIA analyst and the key figure (she’s actually a composite of several individuals) in the search for Osama bin Laden, away from the sidelines into active participation in torture. While Maya never seems completely comfortable with torturing her detainees, her willingness to continue employing such tactics even in Dan’s absence does put the movie into somewhat of a moral grey area. Kathryn Bigelow creates a strong suggestion that Maya sees the use of “enhanced interrogation” as an unpleasant necessity in her increasingly obsessive quest to find bin Laden, which could easily be read as a tacit endorsement of the Bush administration’s torture regime. Add to that Dan is portrayed more as the comic relief in the movie than a menacing monster (he returns state-side because he’s seen “too many naked guys” – men he’s sought to break by humiliating them) and you have the potential for a toxic concoction. Bigelow is aware of this and has defended herself on the merits of artistic license:

“Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no film-maker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time… This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds …”

And Bigelow isn’t wrong. It isn’t unfair to assume that those CIA agents or contractors that participated in the torture of al Qaeda subjects whether in Bagram, Gitmo, or some black site probably remain remorseless to this day. Whether they should be wracked with guilt for the remainder of their lives is perhaps beyond the scope of this movie, and Bigelow isn’t necessarily required to add that epilogue. This is especially true given that there have been ZERO legal ramifications for those who orchestrated and perpetrated this systematic and unquestionable crime against humanity. People do not operate in a moral vacuum. In the real world people are morally flawed, and one of the key requirements of film is to accurately depict the human condition. I believe that Zero Dark Thirty does that. That isn’t necessarily a commentary from Bigelow on whether justice should be done in the real world.

The second criticism deals with the role played by intelligence gathered through torture in locating Osama bin Laden. This criticism, explored from the affirmative (Glenn Greenwald) and the negative (Andrew Sullivan), focuses on the permissibility of torture based on its efficacy. The argument goes that torture should not be used as an intelligence tool due to its inability to provide reliable actionable intelligence. Critics of the movie, including Greenwald, and the more eloquent Steve Coll, argue that Zero Dark Thirty creates a dangerous narrative by suggesting that the key piece of intelligence that eventually led to the location of Osama bin Laden came via the torture of one of his adherents. Personally I can’t see how anyone would disagree with Greenwald or Coll’s take that vital intelligence, the naming of bin Laden’s key courier who is hunted by Maya through the remainder of the movie, is depicted as having been derived (even if not directly) via torture. While Greenwald, Coll, and even Sullivan strongly disagree with the veracity of this narrative (they are joined by Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain who claimed the movies’ depiction of events is “grossly inaccurate”) the bigger question is whether that should matter. If torture did prove crucial in finding bin Laden, or even more broadly, could be found to be a reliable intelligence source in any situation, would Greenwald, Coll, and Sullivan still disapprove of its use? Should the key determinant of whether we employ torture be its efficacy? When the debate over the crimes committed in the name of the “war on terror” is framed primarily in this light it seems to me that a number of individuals who appear to be unwavering opponents of what were clearly crimes against humanity seem to be creating a bit of daylight in their otherwise steadfast positions – this is troublesome.

The utility of intelligence derived from torture should never determine whether the practice is accepted. Even beginning that debate seems to me to detract from the rudimentary reason for opposing torture in all its forms: it is morally reprehensible. A society built on the premise of the fundamental importance of legal and political equality cannot condone inhumane practices, whether performed on citizens or foreign enemies. Permitting its use in any situation creates a slippery slope that is difficult to retreat from. Some might counter that president Obama’s repudiation of Bush II’s torture regime is proof-positive that torture can be employed in exceptional circumstances without any long-term negative impact. Maybe at first glance this appears true given Obama’s strong rhetoric about the subject, however, if we look beyond the narrow frame of “torture” we know this to be false. The extension of executive power under Bush II has clearly proven tantalizing to even a “principled” man like Obama, who has continued Bush’s policy of indefinite detention without charge, and even extended executive power to the extraordinary policy of legalized extrajudicial killings of American citizens. Decisions were made after September 11 that have had an immeasurable impact on the freedoms we enjoyed, maybe even took for granted, and I expect that we’ll be living under these unique circumstances until those responsible for throwing our legal traditions out the window in the name of security are brought to account in a legal setting.

But I digress.

The overall point is that whether Zero Dark Thirty shows torture to be effective or not, and the veracity of the film’s claims are beside the point when we consider whether we as a society should endorse torture. Those who have framed the debate as such have maybe missed a larger point. The real danger in Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of torture’s utility and the callousness of the film’s characters towards its (in)human effects isn’t so much how it reflects Katherine Bigelow and Mark Boal’s attitudes towards torture, but how such simplistic presentations will influence public opinion. The only proper way to counter this is through a difficult moral debate.


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