Zero Dark Thirty and our perception of torture

Posted on Jan 28 2013 - 5:01pm by Lacey Russell

The last months of the year are known for the release of a slew of Oscar-bait movies. One of the most buzzed-about movies going into this awards season was “Zero Dark Thirty,” director/producer Kathryn Bigelow’s vision of the 10-year manhunt for Osama bin Laden. Anyone not living in an isolated compound in Abbottabad will know how this movie ends.
In addition to the critical praise and award nominations, “Zero Dark Thirty” achieved notoriety of a different sort. It raised some very difficult questions about the United States’ methods of “enhanced” interrogation, even earning the film studio a letter from three senators condemning the movie for suggesting that torture actually aided in finding bin Laden.
It seems obvious to say that torture is bad; it’s not something we want to be associated with as a country. Murder and cannibalism, like torture, are also behaviors we identify as wrong. However, critics decrying the depiction of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” weren’t up in arms when Hannibal Lecter ate someone’s liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
The vocal denouncement of the depiction of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty” stems from our own tenuous relationship with torture. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, there was a different mindset. A new specter loomed large over the county; the nebulous threat of the al-Qaida terrorist was a foe we had never faced before and knew little about. There was an “ends justify the means” mentality that was pervasive both to catch the perpetrators of the attack and to prevent another one from happening.
In 2002, many of the highest-ranking legal minds in the government wrote memos with legal justifications for torture. It’s easy to decry this now as manipulation of legal theory for the sake of expediency, especially with 11 years of distance between us and the attacks and 11 years of knowledge into the workings of these terrorist groups. Torture was never a popular option, but legal justification removed some of the uneasiness associated with its use.
All of that changed in 2004 with the release of the photos and accounts of the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison. There had been a blissful ignorance of torture; rationally we knew it was happening, but we didn’t know the particulars. With those photos, torture became the elephant in the room we could no longer ignore. With the outlawing of torture by the Obama administration in 2009, the tide of public opinion had definitively turned against torture.
While none of this makes torture an acceptable practice, it doesn’t change the fact that it happened. What has changed is the public feeling about torture. Midway through the movie, a character warns that when public opinion turns against torture, you don’t want to be the last guy holding a dog collar. This denouncement by the government officials is an attempt not to be seen as the last guy holding that collar.
What the critics also get wrong is that the movie implies that bin Laden could not have been found without torture. The vital piece of information that leads to finding bin Laden’s location was gleaned from torture but was also from a tip in an unread file. In eight years of torturing, bin Laden wasn’t found. Instead, bin Laden was found after two years of detective work and intelligence analysis. If that was an endorsement of torture, it was lost on me.
Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal created a movie that made us question our own recent history. The uneasy truth depicted in this movie makes us uncomfortable, and it should. While it’s easy to condemn the actions committed almost 10 years ago, it is our own unease that causes us to denounce the filmmakers who have depicted a very real moment in our own history. Torture wasn’t right then, and it certainly isn’t right now. That doesn’t change the fact that the torture happened, and our discomfort with that fact is no reason to indict “Zero Dark Thirty.”

Brittany Sharkey is a third-year law student from Oceanside, Calif. She graduated from NYU in 2010 with a degree in politics. Follow her on Twitter @brittanysharkey.