Regarding Rights

Academic and activist perspectives on human rights

Zero Dark Thirty: Airbrushing Torture

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By Cynthia Banham

Centre for International Governance and Justice

Regarding Rights is pleased to re-publishZero Dark Thirty: Airbrushing Torture” by CIGJ PhD scholar Cynthia Banham, originally written for the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter. Zero Dark Thirty has generated considerable controversy for its portrayal of torture; readers may also be interested in this article from the New York Times, which locates the film within debates about whether Hollywood has an obligation of fidelity to ‘historical truth’.

We thank the editors of The Interpreter for their permission to post Cynthia’s article here.

For three years I’ve been researching the use of torture by liberal democracies after September 11, and my thinking about the subject has changed.

I used to believe a valid argument against torture was to point to the inherent dangers of unreliable confessions. Rather than have their fingernails pulled out or be locked in an airless box, people would say anything, so what was the point? The Enlightenment philosopher Cesare Beccaria cited this as one reason to abolish torture. With torture, he wrote, the ‘very means employed to distinguish the innocent from the guilty, will most effectually destroy all difference between them’.

But in these post-September 11 times, where a film like Zero Dark Thirty celebrates the role torture played in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, such a position seems incomplete – and frankly, a little dishonest. Because the utility or otherwise of torture is not the point. Any defence of the prohibition on torture must be based on values.

It is more truthful and convincing to acknowledge that, yes, sometimes, however infrequently, torture might well extract useful intelligence of some kind. And then to ask, ‘what do liberal democracies believe in?’ The inherent dignity of every individual, no matter who they are or what they have allegedly done, and a justice system founded on the rule of law? It’s for these reasons that torture, which may begin as an attempt to glean intelligence but really ends up being about humiliating and punishing the enemy, goes against everything we stand for.

And it’s because of this that I found Zero Dark Thirty, supposedly based on real life events, so disturbing. The film normalises torture. It asks us to accept that the use of torture in finding bin Laden was routine, uncontroversial, effective, and critical.

Unlike a film likeThe Battle of Algiers, say, it airbrushes away any critical self reflection on the moral dilemmas implicit in the use by security forces of torture. It ignores any mention of the consequences of torture for the victims (including the innocent ones) and their families, or for the society from which those victims emerge (which then becomes radicalised), or for the torturers themselves (who also suffer psychologically).

I consider Mark Bowden of The Atlantic to be an apologist for the Bush Administration and its ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (see for instance his 2003 article on ‘The Dark Art of Interrogation‘) But I think Bowden got it right in his review of Zero Dark Thirty when he wrote:

The truth about torture itself is not clear-cut. Those who argue that it simply does not work go well beyond saying that it is wrong. They may not even consider it a moral question. After all, if threatening or mistreating a detainee will always fail to produce useful intelligence, who other than a sadist would bother? I am not convinced. I think the moral question arises precisely because torture, or fear, can be an effective tool in interrogation. If we as a nation ban it, we do so despite that fact. We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.

And so my question for the film-makers, up for a Best Picture Oscar, is: what exactly are they saying about contemporary America? Is it really the case that America (and its allies) has changed so much since September 11 that it no longer needs to ask itself whether torture is right or wrong? Somehow, I don’t think so.

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