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“Zero Dark Thirty” and Torture as Entertainment


From 24 To Homeland to Zero Dark Thirty, Hollywood has been profiting off the depiction of torture as sometimes necessary in the ongoing War on Terrorism. The marketing of Zero Dark Thirty was based almost entirely on extensive mainstream media arguments over whether director/producer Kathleen Bigelow and screenwriter/producer Mark Boal were accurate, with no less than three US senators – John McCain (R-AZ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Carl Levin (D-MI) – writing a letter blasting Sony for falsely crediting torture in the Osama bin Laden capture and killing.

The greatest falsehood in these productions, however, is the implication that these wars have been worth fighting, that we are safer as a result. Homeland, despite being based on fanciful assumptions about a brainwashed American POW turned suicide bomber bonding with a bipolar medicated CIA analyst, at least points to a larger reality: that all the counterterrorism, including torture, employed since 9/11, will not protect against an apocalypse of retaliation.

The problem with these depictions is that they distract American attention away from the harsh reality that our country is losing – or certainly not winning – these wars and planting the seeds from which more malign shoots of terrorism and vengeance arise.

On the Zero Dark Thirty controversy, the neo-conservatives are gloating over the portrayal of torture as a factor in obtaining the name of bin Laden's courier. So great is their delight that one would think America won the Iraq War, and is winning the wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali and other undisclosed locations; that today we are safer. But there is no evidence to substantiate such claims. We eat our popcorn and enjoy scripted versions of reality.

Hollywood could produce films engendering a reality-based climate of doubt in the sanity of our ways, as Dr. Strangelove did for nuclear war, Apocalypse Now did for Vietnam, and Salvador did for Central America. But instead the illusion goes on. The film Argo even assures us that the CIA is doing many good things for us that must be kept secret.

Whether torture is ever effective turns on the proper definition of effective. In the classic Battle of Algiers, French torture leads to the destruction of cells of resistance, but cannot prevent the popular uprising not long after. In Zero Dark Thirty, the two filmmakers surely go too far in depicting torture as a key causal ingredient. They reinforce a public acceptance of the techniques. But it's the wrong question anyway. Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are unwinnable wars, with or without torture.

Senators McCain, Feinstein and Levin all have supported these wars to one degree of another. Their letter to Sony denying torture's effectiveness is ambiguous:

"The CIA detainee who provided the most significant information about the courier divulged the information prior to being subjected to coercive interrogation techniques."

Come again?

Was there a detainee or two who provided less significant information, and what happened to them? Why was the more important CIA detainee tortured after he provided the key information? The senators' letter also refers to an odd May 2011 assertion by then-CIA chief Leon Panetta, that:

“…no detainee in CIA custody revealed the facilitator/courier’s full true name or specific whereabouts. This information was discovered through other intelligence means.”

That is no denial of torture having played a role. The detainee could have been in someone else's custody; could have given up a partial rather than full name; or a general “Abbotabad,” rather than the specific location of the compound.

CIA Director Michael Morell added his spook-speak to the controversy. On December 21, he acknowledged, “some [evidence] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques,” adding credibility to the filmmakers depiction. Morell added that whether torture was "the only timely and effective way to obtain information…cannot and never will be definitely resolved."

The senators can clear this up by releasing a three-year, 6,000 page Senate investigative report, which purports to conclude that torture produced no actionable intelligence. Since the report was approved only on a 9-6 Senate vote, the public might want to evaluate the evidence themselves. There’s an entertaining idea. 

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