Who We Are In The Dark: Zero Dark Thirty & Torture…
That Zero Dark Thirty should come under fire for its use and portrayal of torture is not surprising. The film deserves to spark debate about how we respond to these sorts of threats, and critically examine our claim to the moral high ground. However, the debate seems overly simplistic. It has been suggested that the controversy over torture cost director Kathryn Bigelow a Best Director nomination, and that’s a shame. The fact she’s felt to the need to respond to these relatively shallow commentaries is less than heartening.
Zero Dark Thirty has a lot to say about torture. It’s a lot of thoughtful and insightful and nuanced stuff, and Zero Dark Thirty actually gets to the nub of the issue, very clearly condemning the culture of “enhanced interrogation”, in a way that is much more effective than any of the commentators seem to realise.
I’m fascinated by the role of morality in cinema, and our reaction towards the various ways that it can be presented. Sometimes, earnest condemnation of a particular philosophy or movement or practise is necessary. Most would agree, for example, that Schindler’s List is a tremendously powerful piece of cinema that is not diminished by the direct approach it takes to its subject matter. There is not ambiguity in its depiction of a historical atrocity, because there is not ambiguity about that historical atrocity. Sometimes we need to be confronted with these powerful and shocking images so that we might move closer to comprehending the horror of what occurred.
However, sometimes that earnestness can be too much – particularly for recent events. There is a reason that The Washington Times referred to The Dark Knight as “the first great post-Sept. 11 film.” One of the most powerful explorations of murky War on Terror morality came from a blockbuster about a man dressed as a bat chasing a clown around Chicago. More earnest films like Lions for Lambs or Rendition had tackled the issues too bluntly, trying to reduce an entire moral quagmire into a selection of glib moral cliff notes far too simplistic to really delve into the issues.
Let’s talk about torture. It’s an issue that has dwelt on the public consciousness for quite some time. Even before those iconic images of the prisoners in Abu Gharib were released, the question of how we respond to the threat of global terrorism plays a significant role in defining the morality of the twenty-first century. It’s worth noting that Zero Dark Thirty is not set at the same level as those abuses occurred. The torture depicted in the film is not conducted by a bunch of soldiers recording their actions for their own perverse pleasure.
The “enhanced interrogation” in the film is mostly conducted by Dan, the CIA operative played by Jason Clarke. Clarke is not a low-level army officer. He’s a veteran CIA officer. He keeps (and feeds) monkeys. He has a PhD and is characterised as quite intelligent. He uses words like “tautology”, and it’s clear that he has some idea what he is doing. While he manipulates those people in his custody, he is consistently portrayed as level-headed and rational. He’s not an angry sadist lashing out some pent up frustration or aggression at a hapless victim.
Reading that description, it’s easy to see how the film could be argued to be “pro-torture”, as many of its detractors have claimed. Certainly, it avoids making easy choices that could be read as condemnation. After all, quite a few of the conventional criticisms of torture are not really handled here. There’s a stock supply of arguments that people who object to the application of torture will present to support their position. There’s the question of what happens if we torture the wrong person, for example. Or the question of whether we can trust the information we receive under torture.
Neither of these arguments against torture gets a lot of space in Zero Dark Thirty. If anybody in the film is wrongly accused, we never hear about it. There’s never a moment of realisation where our investigators pick on a character we know to be innocent, or who later turns out to be innocent. Of course, we have only the word of the characters that these suspects are guilty. A few give up information that would point to their guilt, but there are a couple who we don’t see offering anything insightful or meaningful. So, in its portrayal of torture, the film never really delves into the question of guilt of the victim.
Similarly, we never question the information we receive under torture. Early in the film, the operatives fail to stop a high-profile terrorist attack. Quite simply, they do not “break” the suspect in time. The attack goes ahead, and people die as a result. This might seem to acknowledge the fact that torture doesn’t work, but it’s hardly a black-and-white condemnation. After all, no other method of information-gathering proves more effective, and the torture of the same suspect proves to ultimately pay off.
The CIA agents rather shrewdly trick their suspect into thinking that he broke and then get him to reveal all his information over a nice meal together in the sunshine. Some might argue that this is not a depiction of torture procuring vital information, but that is a bit over-simplistic. After all, the trick is only possible due to the short-term memory loss that develops as a result of the sleep deprivation, which is a method of torture employed by the CIA.
So Zero Dark Thirty avoids these two easy arguments against torture. However, I wouldn’t consider that as evidence of a pro-torture bias. Those arguments aren’t the root of the reason that we condemn torture. There’s a reason that they are used so frequently, but they aren’t the core of the issue. We use the “wrong victim” argument and “incorrect information” argument to attack the practicality of torture. They’re easy to relate to, and to understand. They are possibilities, of course, and they grab us because they directly affect us.
Somebody we know could be wrongly tortured. We could be wrongly tortured. It’s easy enough to see how such an argument makes a compelling case against torture. Would you really trust the state not to make a mistake? Would you really give the government that much power? It’s a raw, visceral, powerful argument – but it’s not the heart of the issue. Similarly, the argument about incorrect information is easy enough to understand. Would you really do that to a person if nothing of use would come from it? I mean, even if you knew you had the right person? And, based on that other argument, that’s a big “if.”
These arguments are appealing. They are easy to understand. They are useful in the argument against torture. However, they dance around the central point. They are practical arguments that skirt around the real moral issue. After all, surely if you are against torture, you should be against torture even in situations where you have the right person and it will give you the information that you need? Because if you accept that there is one case where torture would be justified by meeting a set of hypothetical circumstances, then it becomes a numbers game.
If it’s right to torture that one guy to save thousands of lives, then can we balance the possible mistake against that metric? Fighters may be dispatched to shoot down a hijacked passenger airplane; innocents will die, but more lives will be saved. If your objections to torture are purely practical, then it becomes a simple question of scaling the numbers. How many lives does “enhanced interrogation” have to save before you’re willing to write off one mistake, one miscalculation, one error?
These arguments are susceptable to the “ticking clock” scenario, one very common in the early years of 24. The notion that torture is only objectionable because of the chance of harming an innocent party, or because it is potentially ineffective, suggests that there are situations where one might somehow be able to mitigate those risks, or counter them entirely. These objections to torture are easy to understand, and are quite appealing, but they also belie the root philosophical problem with torture.
Any sincere objection to torture must be grounded in the notion that any application of torture – no matter what surrounding circumstances or outside concerns – is inherently immoral. Torture is wrong, even if you are torturing a guilty party. Torture is wrong, even if it will get you the information you want. The fact that the party might be innocent and the information may be incorrect are concerns, and are very serious possibilities, but they don’t form a fundamental objection to the philosophical idea torture. And it is shallow to suggest that just because a movie doesn’t play to either of these arguments, it must be “pro-torture.”
A strong argument against torture must be rooted in the concession that it might be possible to torture a guilty person, and it might be possible to garner useful information from it. In Zero Dark Thirty, the nugget that leads to Bin Ladin doesn’t originate under torture, but the revelation of this pre-existing piece of information during torture solidifies its importance to our lead character, Maya. In the opening scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, a terrorist is tortured and he gives information that prompts our protagonist to find Osama Bin Ladin, years later.
And – here’s the thing – it’s possible for Zero Dark Thirty to show an effective use of torture and still condemn it. In fact, its condemnation is stronger because it concedes the appeal of torture. The CIA did not have a systemic policy of “enhanced interrogation” because the technique was entirely useless. It trained interrogators and operated secret facilities because those methods produced information that was of use. From a purely financial and resource-driven point of view, there wold be no reason to use “enhanced interrogation” if it didn’t work. And it is very important to concede that just because it could be useful doesn’t mean that it’s right.
A fundamental objection to torture doesn’t care if torture is completely entirely effective. It doesn’t care that the person being tortured might be guilty. The fundamental objection to torture doesn’t believe that torture can be mitigated or tempered by success. Torture taints. It doesn’t just taint when it fails, it also taints when it succeeds. Every time it is used, it says something about our society. Not every time it is used against an innocent, or every time it fails to stop an attack. Every single time torture is used, it diminishes us and says something about our way of life that we should be ashamed of.
And that is what Zero Dark Thirty argues. Those torture scenes are damn uncomfortable to watch, and they should be.The CIA might use the term “enhanced interrogation”, but what we see is cold-blooded torture. We see waterboarding up close. We see suspects kept awake and delirious. We see them walked around on leads like dogs. We see them locked in boxes. We see them beaten. We see them tied up so long that they soil themselves.
This isn’t meant to be heroic. This is mean to be unnerving, disturbing and sickening. It is tough to watch. It is repulsive. There is no ambiguity there. Dan suggests that there’s “no shame” if Maya wants to stand outside. We might suggest that there’s no shame if Kathryn Bigelow had opted to whitewash all this out and pretend it never happened. Certainly the temptation must have been there. After all, if she had left these scenes out, the film would have probably generated less controversy. Personally, I bet she’d have an Oscar nomination.
However, to leave those scenes out would have been dishonest. It would have been cheap, and it would have avoided a vital issue. It is very easy to rationalise and justify torture if we ignore the fundamental unpleasantness of the act, the way that it cheapens us and undermines our authority and morality. This conduct isn’t fiction, and neither is the idea that it might provide workable intelligence. To ignore either reality is to do a disservice to an anti-torture argument. To pretend it’s not there, or to pretend it is always ineffective, cheapens any stance against this.
These scenes taint our view of the characters, and they should. Maya doesn’t directly participate in the first torture scene, but she is compromised by association. She enables. She passes Dan the water to waterboard a suspect. She uses the information garnered. Maya never directly tortures. Later on, she even uses a surrogate pair of hands. However, the film is absolutely unequivocal. She is torturing. And that torturing taints her.
We see that with Dan as well. He might be smart, and he might be educated, but it’s clear that he has been tainted by what he is doing. Mid-way through the film, he opts to get out of the torture unit. And he complains about the death of his monkeys. It’s a moment that exists to make his priorities clear. This is a man who routinely tortures and causes suffering to human beings. At the end of it all, however, the only sympathy he has is for a bunch of monkeys. If you want to talk about the dehumanising effect of torture, it doesn’t get more effective than that.
Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t opt for a feel-good simplistic condemnation of torture. Instead, it dares to suggest that torture is inherently abhorrent even if you torture the right people and get the right information. It’s a brave and thoughtful argument, and one well constructed. It’s a shame that so many missed the point.
- Thou shalt not torture (theglobeandmail.com)
- History is written by the Oscar winners (nearprojection.wordpress.com)
- matt taibbi: ‘zero dark thirty’ is osama bin laden’s last victory over america (blkcowrie.wordpress.com)
- NYT on Zero Dark Thirty (nytexaminer.com)
- Racism and stereo-typing still rife says stars of controversial Channel 4 torture film Complicit (independent.co.uk)
- Context and a Movie: Zero Dark Thirty (wnyc.org)
- David Bromwich: Torture and Zero Dark Thirty (huffingtonpost.com)
- Why Criticizing ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ Is Not an Assault on Free Expression (alternet.org)