Honest Speech on Torture

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Annapurna Pictures

Review by Ken Ross

Zero Dark Thirty is the latest film from gifted director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture. In its promotional literature it is described as “a dramatization of history’s greatest manhunt for the world’s most dangerous man” — Osama bin Laden.  Zero Dark Thirty presents an unflinching view of the use of torture in the pursuit of bin Laden.

Debate about the Zero Dark Thirty provides a fascinating glimpse into the national psyche, with commentators projecting their feelings onto the film to an unprecedented degree. Although the usefulness or uselessness of torture is not the point of Zero Dark Thirty, it has become the focus of conversation about the film, which has been widely criticized as a propaganda piece. Bigelow, for her part, has said, “Depiction is not endorsement.”

A central question concerns whether torture works — interesting for its pure practicality or utilitarianism. Before seeing Zero Dark Thirty, I had an interesting conversation with a longtime friend and colleague who served as a CIA operative and station chief, and on the National Intelligence Council: a highly intelligent and thoughtful veteran, and person of integrity.

According to my friend, the question is not whether torture works — it does — but whether it is moral. Apparently many in our intelligence community presume the former and feel the weight of the latter. It is not a matter of sadism but a kind of dispassionate pragmatism.  What I find interesting in this debate is that the usefulness or uselessness of torture is both defended and criticized on utilitarian grounds. Is it worth inflicting pain on one person to save a thousand? The question is only meaningful if torture works.

For others, the question of outcomes is irrelevant. Regardless of whether torture works, it is subordinate to a higher moral principle: torture is intrinsically wrong. This is the “deontological” argument, which can appear morally absolutistic, but ought not be dismissed on that account, least of all by Christians, even when the argument is made by otherwise thoroughgoing relativists.

We should all feel the weight of the dilemma. If torture works, the deontological argument comes with a price that can be measured in human lives. And that is one of the problems with moral decision-making: it is never simple. Too often, moral decisions must be made in the context of a confusing and contradictory matrix of competing values. The value of human dignity, and the expectation of humane treatment, is weighed against the potential benefit of saving lives.

Watching the beginning of Zero Dark Thirty is difficult. Even if you approve of torture, it doesn’t mean you enjoy watching it. Only a sadist would take pleasure in torturing another human being. It is good, however, to feel the terrible, heavy burden of those charged with keeping us safe. Is there a “good” kind of torture? The question is perhaps easier to answer in the abstract, especially if we bear no personal responsibility for the consequences.

Zero Dark Thirty is ambiguous on the question of whether torture led the CIA to the doorstep of bin Laden, but you would never know that from the reviews. The rhetoric surrounding this film is astonishingly contradictory: “the plotline is built around a lie,” “the movie effectively excuses and implicitly condones the torture that was done,” “[the film] is morally skewed,” “[Bigelow takes] a deliberately neutral stance,” “Bigelow’s fidelity to truth maniacal,” “[with regard to torture and its outcome] Zero Dark Thirty is accurate.”

At the least, the facts about torture’s usefulness are contested, the events leading to bin Laden’s death disputed, and the full narrative may never be known. In spite of such imponderables, we still need a meaningful national discourse about torture.

In the absence of agreement on the facts, the default position for many is the ad hominem argument. Some critics have implied that Bigelow is either too stupid or too naive to understand her own film, or that she is a liar. One critic described her as a “fetishist and a sadist.” Such intemperate language does not further the conversation.

So what about Zero Dark Thirty in purely cinematic terms? Like Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker, which won six Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty has inspired considerable critical admiration. Matt Taibbi, amid an excoriating review for Rolling Stone, describes the film as “unbelievably compelling.” And Joel Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal calls Bigelow “a commanding filmmaker who is willing, as well as able, to confront a full spectrum of moral ambiguity.”

Christians should see this film, and then go home and talk about it. Admit that you don’t know all the facts; no one does. Avoid easy slurs. Resist self-confirming hypotheses. Do not give in to projection. Forget George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Focus on the moral issue and its complexities. Are you a utilitarian or a deontologist? Neither? A little of both? Something else altogether?

Irrespective of where you come down on torture, be honest. You will note that I have not used the euphemism “enhanced interrogation.” Let’s call it what it is and have a principled conversation, sans shrill partisanship. We can do better.

Ken Ross works in the mineral exploration industry in the United States and West Africa and is a member of the Living Church Foundation.

Image of Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty courtesy of Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

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