Torture in 'Zero Dark Thirty'

The controversial film is a necessary reminder of the ugliness of war.
January 22, 2013

Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” is receiving extensive condemnation for its graphic depiction of torture. Critics, however, are denying a depiction of the reality of the enhanced interrogation methods used by the CIA in their quest to capture Osama bin Laden.

The movie shows an Arab man inside a cell, at an undisclosed location, being interrogated about the whereabouts of his alleged co-conspirators. The man is starved, sleep deprived, beaten, paraded in a dog collar, made to sleep in a box, stripped naked and waterboarded. Actress Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, a high-ranking CIA official, looks relaxed while the man is being tortured. She then offers the man a chance to help himself by talking and giving up his al-Qaida accomplices.

The scenes are graphic, yet accurate depictions of what went on in places like Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and other secret cells throughout the world. The CIA and parts of the U.S. Armed Forces used these techniques despite our promises against these actions in Habeas Corpus, the Geneva Conventions and our Constitution.

It was extensively reported during the Bush administration that alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and many others were waterboarded more than 100 times. The administration was castigated by the media, the Arab world and the international community when reports of torture saw light. The nation was split between those supporting freedom from cruel and unusual punishment and those touting national security.

In 2008, then-presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama had criticized the Bush administration’s stance on torture and promised that those practices would not continue. McCain, a former prisoner of war who had himself been subjected to waterboarding, was very outspoken and branded it torture while also calling it ineffective. In 2009,  Obama outlawed such practices via executive order.

In the “Zero Dark Thirty” torture scenes, the chain of information from the detainees to big al-Qaida players and the execution of bin Laden have many pundits recently defending torture. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey said Mohammed “broke like a dam” under harsh techniques, including waterboarding, and his “torrent for information” included “the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden,” perhaps the one who is central to the movie’s narrative.

But there are those who see the moral bankruptcy in idolizing cruelty and the lack of effectiveness with torture, claiming that a person will say anything to make it stop, even throw out fictionalized information.

I have no sympathy for jihadists, murderers or anyone that wages war on the U.S., and I really want to thank organizations like the CIA and Department of Homeland Security for standing between my loved ones and those who would harm them. But I’m not comfortable with torture. It is morally wrong and ineffective.

The U.S. has a volatile standing throughout the world. Our words must be backed by our actions. Torture jeopardizes the fairness and equality we seek to build throughout the world.

Those who claim torturing individuals traumatized by war will be an effective intelligence strategy are delusional. It took us nearly 13 years to find bin Laden. To say that torture was an effective part of our plan would fail to see it the context of an intensive, decade-long investigation.

Let us treat the torture scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty” as a dark but necessary reminder of our past and let it caution us into not treading down that road again.

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