It’s good that the movie shows torture for what it is – brutal, disgusting and immoral. And if the filmmakers left it at that, I’d appreciate them exposing the truth behind weasel words like “enhanced interrogation techniques” that were dreamed up by lawyers to get around the legal prohibitions against torture. But the film doesn’t leave it there.
Instead, whether out of a misguided attempt to appeal to those who believe our country has never made a mistake, or just in an effort to tell a good story, the filmmakers chose to imply that torture provides good intelligence. And that’s not just false, it’s dangerous.
We are told by those in the know, those who have access to the classified record and have the expertise to evaluate the issue, that torture is ineffective for obtaining reliable intelligence. This point has been made by interrogators Ali Soufan, Matthew Alexander and Glenn Carle.
Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have publicly refuted the idea that torture provided critical intelligence in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Senator McCain, in fact, directly criticized “Zero Dark Thirty,” saying that the filmmakers fell “hook, line and sinker” for a false narrative about how we obtained the intelligence to track down bin Laden.
The use of torture endangers our country. Torture leads to false intelligence which can put our soldiers in harm’s way. American use of torture is a potent recruiting tool for our enemies. And, by degrading the international standards against torture – standards which the United States helped create – our government has diminished what should be universally agreed upon protections for American soldiers captured in future conflicts.
But above all else, torture is immoral. Americans of all faiths are taught the importance of treating each other with decency and dignity – and God does not grant exceptions to that rule. The use of torture does not reflect what most Americans consider to be American values. A major pop culture meme is that in order to be tough, you have to be bad. That’s wrong. In fear and anger and hurt, it’s easy to be bad, but it’s hard to be tough. Tough is doing the hard thing, the right thing, even when times are bad, and even when you don’t want to.
In the days and years after 9/11, the tough response, the American response, would have been to capture suspected terrorists, interrogate them humanely, and release those with no connection to terrorism.
Obviously, as the film shows, that was not the response our government leaders chose. We have begun to transition to that approach now, and it’s working. It’s an approach that is consistent with American values – and American values are good, smart values.
In its defense, “Zero Dark Thirty” is entertaining. It’s a two-hour detective story with a half-hour climax. You get to watch the characters put the clues together and then, without any definite proof, conduct a risky, but successful, raid on bin Laden’s compound. It is unfortunate, however, that the filmmakers omitted showing effective use of humane interrogation techniques in favor of torture. It makes for an entertaining movie, but one that bears limited relation to the facts.
The Senate Intelligence Committee recently adopted (with a bipartisan vote) a more than 6,000 page report on the CIA’s use of torture. This report is the result of a more than three-year investigation and is based on the information contained in several million pages of documents about the detainee interrogation program. This report contains the facts about torture. In light of the misleading implications in “Zero Dark Thirty” and similar attempts to provide fictional support for the use of torture, it is critical that this report be made public as expeditiously as possible. Entertainment is one thing, facts are another. We need the facts.
Hawthorne is the policy director at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.