The moral test of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Hollywood movie's is drawing protests for its positive portrayal of torture to gain information.

Hollywood movie’s is drawing protests for its positive portrayal of torture to gain information.

This Friday (Jan. 11), “Zero Dark Thirty,” a Hollywood movie about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden, will open across the country. Numerous commentators criticize the film for implying that the graphic torture it depicts was crucial to finding bin Laden, who is killed in the final scenes. 

A recently completed 6,000-page report on the CIA interrogation program from the Senate Select Intelligence Committee makes clear that this narrative is false, according to Committee Chair Sen. Dianne Feinstein and committee members Senators John McCain and Carl Levin.

 Based on an exhaustive review of 6 million pages of CIA records, the senators concluded that:

[The] CIA did not first learn about the existence of the [Osama bin Laden] courier from detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.  Nor did the agency discover the courier’s identity from detainees subjected to coercive techniques.

Director Kathryn Bigelow insists that the film is fiction rather than a documentary. Yet she sets the audience up to expect accuracy in the opening minutes of the film, when the audience is told that the story it is about to see is “based on first-hand accounts of events.” 

Can torture be turned into morally neutral entertainment?

Bigelow and the film’s screenwriter, Mark Boal, claim they were not trying to “judge” the interrogation program. Jane Mayer, leading journalistic expert on torture, objects to that rationale, asking, “Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?” 

The torture in this film is situated between two events that are emotionally charged for many Americans, 9/11 and the killing of bin Laden.

Glenn Greenwald writes that the film “immediately goes from its emotionally exploitative start — harrowing audio tapes of 9/11 victims crying for help — into CIA torture sessions of Muslim terrorists that take up a good portion of the film's first forty-five minutes.” The information given up under torture is portrayed as key to finding bin Laden in the final scenes.

Beyond the fact that this narrative is false, Mayer complains that the film “doesn’t include a single scene in which torture is questioned.” She recalls that “in reality, the CIA’s program of calibrated cruelty was deemed so illegal, and so immoral, that the director of the FBI withdrew his personnel rather than have them collaborate with it, and the top lawyer at the Pentagon laid his career on the line in an effort to stop a version of the program from spreading to the armed forces.”

Mayer writes that “the film’s CIA interrogator claims, without being challenged, that ‘everyone breaks in the end,’” a phrase that echoes the credo of the television series, “24”.  Mayer had already questioned the role of entertainment in shaping American views on torture in a 2007 article about the show:

Since September 11th, depictions of torture have become much more common on American television. Before the attacks, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization. Now there are more than a hundred, and, as David Danzig, a project director at Human Rights First, noted, “the torturers have changed. It used to be almost exclusively the villains who tortured. Today, torture is often perpetrated by the heroes.”

And heroes are what “Zero Dark Thirty” makes of its intelligence agents, according to Glenn Greenwald.

“The controversy preceding the film arose from the deep access and secret information given to the filmmakers by the CIA,” Greenwald says. “Indeed from start to finish, this is the CIA’s film: its perspective, its morality, its side of the story, the Agency as the supreme heroes.”

According to Peter Maass writing in the Atlantic, the film “represents a troubling new frontier of government-embedded filmmaking … creating cinematic myths that are favorable to the sponsoring entity … the CIA.”

Torture: a moral test

Senator Feinstein protests these “myths” and their moral “damage” in a letter to Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment: 

…the fundamental problem is that people who see 'Zero Dark Thirty' will believe that the events it portrays are facts. The film therefore has the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner. Recent public opinion polls suggest that a narrow majority of Americans believe that torture can be justified as an effective form of intelligence gathering. This is false. We know that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.

The use of torture should be banished from serious public discourse for these reasons alone, but more importantly, because it is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, because it is an affront to America’s national honor, and because it is wrong. The use of torture in the fight against terrorism did severe damage to America’s values and standing that cannot be justified or expunged. It remains a stain on our national conscience. We cannot afford to go back to these dark times, and with the release of 'Zero Dark Thirty,' the filmmakers and your production studio are perpetuating the myth that torture is effective. You have a social and moral obligation to get the facts right.

Senator Feinstein senses the moral test the film puts before us. We see a story that tempts us to choose torture as the moral good. We want security, we look across the desert of our fear, and we see a mirage that offers us safety through torture. The 6,000 pages of the Senate committee’s CIA torture report expose torture’s alleged efficacy as a dangerous illusion.

Amnesty International protests torture with a message on the wall of the Newseum in Washington D.C. during the premiere of 'Zero Dark Thirty'.

Amnesty International protests torture with a message on the wall of the Newseum in Washington D.C. during the premiere of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.

Would we approve torture if we knew it would be effective? We experience this question in the context of our human weakness. Power is tempted to ever more power. A nation longs for the comfort of nationalist pride. Individuals may succumb to their deepest anxieties.

International humanitarian law renders the question of efficacy unimportant. The U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Punishment, adopted by U.N. General Assembly 1984 and ratified by the United States in 1994, states that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Earlier statements against torture in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions of 1949 similarly allow no justifications on the basis of need. 

It is precisely the lack of exceptions that makes these agreements so valuable. International humanitarian law reflects centuries of human experience with violence and suffering, articulated and codified during more sober times.  When fear engulfs us in response to threat, this tradition keeps us from abandoning our moral and rational constraints.

The world portrayed in “Zero Dark Thirty” with its torture, arbitrary imprisonment, and offshore prisons like Guantanamo, contrasts dramatically with the civics lessons I learned as a senior in Mr. Tom Brown’s government class at Gibsonburg High School in 1971. 

For me, security has resided in the belief that the rule of law I studied as a teenager is unshakable, that our nation will stand by it in times of threat, and that its real strength lies therein. Can the rule of law now be so easily subverted in the service of calming fear, bolstering leaders’ political power, and securing box office profits or an Oscar? 

The ultimate moral test, however, may reside in the one-on-one encounter between filmgoer and the protagonist on the screen. We watch the interrogator, and we see someone who could be our son, our sister, or our father. We ask ourselves what happens in that person’s soul as he or she overcomes aversion to inflicting cruelty and pain. Will the torturer become the victim of moral injury, “a violation of what is right, a tear in what some people freely call the soul?”

We watch the tortured victim. Is he innocent? What happens when the rule of law no longer stands between innocent people and such horrifying treatment? Is he guilty? Can we find it in our souls to recognize the fundamental dignity of this human being, without regard to questions of guilt? Can we honor the call to love, trusting that God has given us the capacity to find just means toward a just end?

Our response

I’m saddened to know that “Zero Dark Thirty” opens on the 11th anniversary of the day the first detainees arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Jan. 11, 2002. Some of those men are still there. Most have never been charged or tried. Many have been cleared for release yet continue to be held. Many of those men were tortured repeatedly in the early years of their detention. Some still experience the cruelty of forced feedings, solitary confinement, the denial of a fair trial, and the fear that only death will release them from this prison.

I will be joining fellow activists from Witness Against Torture  who have been in Washington, D.C. on a week-long “Fast for Justice” to protest Guantanamo, torture, and the practice of indefinite detention.  

On Jan. 11, they will join Amnesty International and the Center for Constitutional Rights in a rally and march from the U.S. Supreme Court to the White House. Each of these organizations has information for further advocacy at their websites.

In addition, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, NRCAT, has designed a “Fact or Fiction” campaign to help educate the public about “Zero Dark Thirty” and U.S.-sponsored torture, featuring many online resources. 

The spoken word poem, titled “There’s A Man Under That Hood,” delivered by Luke Nephew at the Department of Justice on Jan. 11, 2011, serves as a fitting conclusion (poem and YouTube below).



“There’s A Man Under That Hood,” by Luke Nephew

We are not here to make angels out of prisoners.
We don’t know them. But we know that they are men…
And so we defend those who disappear under hoods and into jumpsuits,
Bringing back into the light every CIA black cite, because right now…
There is a man under that hood
There is a brother breathing prayers of desperation,
Striking hunger so hard that his ribs are about to crack,
There is a man under that hood in Afghanistan, Guantánamo and Iraq
That is being treated as less than human…
His rights have been dismissed with the label terrorist
And just for saying this, they’ll probably put my name on a list
But this is too dangerous for us to not resist…
Mr. President, I want you to know, that if it were you hooded and chained
We would be standing right here, demanding the same- basic human rights for you…


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7 Responses to “The moral test of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’”

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  4. Michele Joseph

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    Josie, thank you for your thorough and thoughtful treatment of this issue. I was particularly moved by your line about “the desert of our fear.” Fear is behind so much inhumane treatment, yet when we act out of fear in a way that sows seeds of cruelty, we do not reap security, we reap more fear.

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