In an Academy Award season mostly bereft of controversy, Zero Dark Thirty has filled the void with its brutal and frank depiction of torture. The film, a dramatization of the American military operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, was written based on conversations with people who had first hand knowledge of the events in question. Condemnation of the movie has come from many different angles, the vast majority of which has coalesced into variations on the issue of torture.
The first point of criticism centres on the contention that the movie’s torture scenes are not grounded in actual events, and give viewers the misleading impression that torture was partially responsible for finding Bin Laden. While this is a vital point of historical debate, there simply isn’t enough proof to support any one position. A few U.S. Senators, led by John McCain, have claimed to have seen confirmation that torture played no role in catching Bin Laden. Others, like former CIA director Michael Hayden, have said that torture was involved. Much of the evidence that would illuminate the matter is classified information, and thus, the question remains unanswerable at this time.
A more interesting criticism, which is a permutation of the first, is that the use of these torture scenes endorses torture. Viewers see a key detainee tortured, leading to his supplying testimony that eventually led to the location of Bin Laden. It was thought that upon being shown a utilitarian value to torture, the public will begin to perceive it as an important and legitimate tool to be used by the defence community. While this is possible, I think that this criticism ultimately misses a far more important point.
Criticism of torture can reside on two different levels: moral and utilitarian. Although both play into this discussion, the moral issue is typically considered much more important. If torture is inherently wrong, which most would concede, any potential utility it may have is a moot point. Any other conclusion would go grossly against the basic principles of justice. Comparably, denying people the right to ‘habeus corpus,’ or being able to search a suspect’s property without a warrant may have utilitarian value if the principal desired result is to obtain a conviction. However, because these actions would be moral wrongs, law enforcement officials are not allowed to engage in this behaviour. Similarly, even if torture can garner useful information, itself a contentious proposition, the gross moral wrong it creates means that it should not be practiced.
Back to the movie: if the above is true, the movie cannot be said to endorse torture. The viewers see despicable acts being carried out against the detainee, and the moral wrong is clear in this unjustifiable violence. The fact that the detainee eventually gives the torturers information is then seen as an ends reached through decidedly improper means.
Besides this philosophical interpretation, the movie itself addresses much of the criticism lodged against it. Yes, the detainee does share information, but he does so outside a setting of torture, baited by the promise of good treatment and a decent meal. Also, after the successful raid against Bin Laden’s compound, the main character, a CIA officer, breaks down into tears—seemingly overwhelmed by the pointlessness in expending so much time and effort into achieving this goal.
I do not see the movie as endorsing torture, but rather, presenting an imperfect history of regrettable and despicable actions carried out in the name of finding justice for victims of 9/11. Surely, these dark moments of American history should not be glossed over. The movie provides an excellent forum for debate, and a way to re-examine preconceived notions of the ongoing war on terror.