The new movie about the successful hunt to find and kill Osama bin Laden will surely cop a few Academy Awards. It is well done and worth seeing.
But this is not intended to be a movie review. Rather, ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ raises difficult issues about the morality of America’s campaign against violent Islamic radicalism. In this riveting new release, the use of torture by C.I.A and military interrogators is central to the narrative. One captured Al Qaeda operative is severely manhandled for what seems as long as a full quarter of the show.
Despite what you may have heard or read, the movie is ambiguous – or at least murky — about the link between the revelations obtained from the U.S. torturers and their essential relevance to the successful Navy Seals search-and-destroy operation on bin Laden. But the inclusion of torture scene after torture scene triggered outrage from the right wing of American politics (that none of this gruesome stuff really happened) as well as from the left wing of our politics (but that if it did, it was not effective because torture always is).
Thinking of al-Qaeda and the bin Ladens as mortal enemies (which clearly they are) means that the remorseless reality of war applies. You can have as many Geneva Conventions as you want and the slog of war will yield inhumane practices and procedures in the field. This clever movie has a quick scene in which the C.I.A. case officer on the hunt for bin Laden is warned by a supervisor leaving her behind as he returns to Washington to be very careful not to be the last agent using torture before the inevitable fact-finding commission is sent out from Washington.
The C.I.A.’s acting director has denounced the movie’s emphasis on the role of “coercive interrogation”. “Zero Dark Thirty”, claims Michael J. Morell, “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Laden. That impression is false.” If one were not so cynical about official U.S. statements about these matters, one might view that as a ringing endorsement for the movie’s verisimilitude.
All movies – sometimes even alleged documentaries — take factual liberties, to be sure, but my sense is that this one – by ‘Hurt Locker’ director Kathryn Bigelow — tacks close to the core of the truth. Action movies, as this one is in its essence, are not didactic, and moral lessons should be left to us professors, or to preachy journalists (or some of us who may be both!). Yet forgive me if one sincerely hopes that the audience for this movie is vast and that some in the audience will leave unsettled, pondering the questions of who we are or, rather, what we have become.
All governments do bad things in the name of good reasons. But the best government determine what the limits will be and stick to them. And those limits are credible as long as they are observed.
The government of China has a nuclear weapons policy that stipulates they will never be the first to use them. That has been observed. The United States has a nuclear weapons policy that does not forswear the use of nuclear weapons. And, at the end of world War Two in the Pacific, that was also observed, in the nuclear bombing of two Japanese cities.
In much of the world citizens are not permitted guns and the result is that, while they have other serious problems, something like Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School just recently could not have happened in those places. Gun possession the U.S. is constitutionally protected. And hence the differences in result.
Whether in the movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ or in the reality of Sandy Hook and Columbine, our culture that resorts to the violence of weaponry in order to settle its scores is abundantly in evidence. This behavior arises from a deeply historic worship of the cowboy-character. It’s in our DNA. You can have all the commissions you want or even some new gun laws — but embedded DNA doesn’t change overnight. This is our problem.
Tom Plate is an American journalist and the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University. In 1981 he wrote, with Andrea Darvi, “Secret Police: The Inside Story of a Network of Terror’ (Doubleday). His latest book is ‘Conversations with Ban Ki-moon: The View from the Top’.