Enlightened Barbarism: On Zero Dark Thirty and the Torture Debate

Whenever anyone declares that what they are doing is neutral or free of ideology we ought to be suspicious. This is even more so in relation to contemporary terrorism. How would it be possible to take a neutral stance on post 9/11 events and even have anything to say? And yet this is precisely what filmmaker Katherine Bigelow has insisted upon with respect to her new film Zero Dark Thirty, a film that narrates the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Bigelow has stated that ‘the film doesn’t have an agenda and it doesn’t judge. I wanted a boots on the ground experience’. Like her previous work The Hurt Locker Bigelow uses the contemporary terror war as backdrop for examining the actions of a small number of individuals but in a way that renders the larger context inert. The new film deals with the CIA’s interrogation and torture methods during the attempt to find Bin Laden and at a basic level it works as a tense action thriller. Yet as Jane Meyer asks ‘can torture be turned into a morally neutral entertainment?’

The film begins with the statement that it is ‘based on firsthand accounts of actual events’. This implies that the film has some authenticity—that its narrative is as much documentary as it is entertainment, and indeed the film’s narrative unfolds like a police procedural. Times, dates, locations are shown on the film as if events were being reconstructed. Yet the film is also an artifice, a constructed narrative using deliberative plotting, music, images, camera shots and the like to create a tense plotline that keeps audiences riveted. This slippage between journalism and ‘art’ has allowed Bigelow and writer Mark Boal to dodge criticism. To those who claim the film glamorises torture, the filmmakers reply that they are just presenting events as told to them—as if they were journalists. On the other hand when facing the most serious criticism that the film falsifies the facts by asserting that the use of torture provided information that led to Bin Laden, the filmmakers declare (in the words of Boal) that ‘it’s a movie, not a documentary’.

This slippage of genres has become commonplace within our mediasphere, news fuses with entertainment, reality TV is part documentary, part soap opera/gameshow and the like. But in hiding behind the hybrid nature of their project the makers of Zero Dark Thirty, in purporting to make an ‘apolitical’ film about the hunt for Bin Laden have in fact made a seductive and unsettling piece of propaganda. That the film was made with the cooperation of the CIA makes it possibly the first contemporary example of what Peter Maas has called ‘government-embedded’ filmmaking. The film’s use of high tech military equipment including state of the art helicopters also indicates state cooperation on another level. How then does the film reflect such ‘embeddedness’?

Zero Dark Thirty opens with a distinctive choice: no visuals at all. Instead we face a blank screen and hear the distressed voices of 9/11 victims trapped in the towers, one voice fears that she’s ‘never getting out’. The audience, too, is visually trapped; we are made to feel something of what the victims felt. It is a powerful but manipulative opening, enshrining the logic of victimhood and the desire for revenge. Sure enough the following scene shows a detainee being tortured at one of the CIA’s ‘black sites’. Maya, the lead character is new to the interrogation and asks of the detainee’s chances of release. The definitive answer comes; ‘he’s never getting out’. The repetition of phrases invites a comparison between the 9/11 victims who are ‘never getting out’ and the detainee. Indeed from this point onward we share the perspective of the CIA who maintain control of people and spaces. The film creates a sense of intense intimacy, a world of secret interrogations and shifting CIA ‘black sites’ stretched across the globe—punctuated only by violent acts that come from outside. By remaining exclusively within the perspective of the CIA we are invited to share this feeling of hermetic power—of a fragile hegemony broken only by acts of terrorism. Indeed apart from the conclusion all of the violence in the film is perpetuated by Muslims upon American victims. We get 9/11, the London bombings, various other terrorist attacks but not the Iraq or Afghan war.

There’s already been a lot of debate about the depiction of torture in Bigelow’s film. Some claim the film glamorises torture but the reality is more complex. The scenes of torture in the film—while they show waterboarding, sexual humiliation, and physical abuse—actually seem to have little by way of affective content. In fact the film adopts a modesty of sorts in depicting torture—one detainee has his pants removed to create a sense of humiliation in front of Maya but his nakedness is shot from the back and from a distance so we are not invited to share in his shame. We are told at one point that a prisoner has soiled himself but are not shown this. All this might seem slight but it indicates how slippery the film is when it comes to torture.

One prisoner is fitted with a dog collar and led around Abu Ghraib style—the reality is that this kind of amateurish humiliation was not used by the CIA as an interrogation technique. From what we know the clinical and bureaucratised mode of interrogation-as-torture that the CIA did use is more disturbing. If the film had shown the reality of torture as a banal mass procedure—where horror is subsumed behind a standardised routine of recording, filing, and auditing by doctors, soldiers, secretaries and so on—the result would have been both accurate and more chilling. By conflating the juvenile and amateurish humiliations of Abu Ghraib with actual CIA methods the film’s depiction of torture becomes diluted. From actual records we know the CIA’s use of torture provoked widespread condemnation, not just from civil liberties and human rights advocates but within the government itself. Steve Coll notes that at many of the ‘black sites’ there were also FBI agents present, many of whom denounced the CIA’s methods as ‘counterproductive and morally wrong’. The film conveniently leaves this out.

Despite Bigelow’s claims of neutrality there is not a single moment in the film where torture is questioned. In fact one interrogator even complains that no more information will be able to be extracted now all the Guantanamo prisoners have lawyers—the implication being that legal process will not bring the ‘justice’ needed. There is no attempt to show the lasting effects of torture on either the detainees (many of whom still cannot recount their experiences without breaking down) or the torturers. The closest we get is the declaration by one interrogator that he is returning to the United States because he ‘has seen too many naked bodies’ and because the culture is shifting at home he doesn’t want to be caught in the wrong place—hardly an indication of moral consequence.

More importantly the film repeatedly depicts torture as a means to getting important information—information that will ultimately lead to Bin Laden. Almost every vital piece of information Maya gets is a result in some way of torture. In the words of one interrogator ‘everyone breaks in the end … it’s biology’. Outside of the film claims for the efficacy of torture have been widely debunked. From Robert Fisk to John McCain to senior members on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Armed Services Committee, there is no reliable evidence that torture led to the finding of Bin Laden—or to anything else useful for that matter. Yet because the film repeatedly insists that torture leads to crucial intelligence the fundamental message from Zero Dark Thirty is—as Frank Bruni put it—‘no waterboarding no Bin Laden’.

Which leads to perhaps the most pernicious aspect of Zero Dark Thirty; the claim from Bigelow that her film reveals the ‘complexity of the debate’ concerning torture. It is not so much that the film distorts the efficacy of torture, or that it dilutes its effects, or that the film adopts only one perspective —that of the CIA—the real concern lies in the presumption that we ought to be debating ‘torture’ as a legitimate technique for modern democracies to use. Zizek has argued that once torture becomes just another in a list of possible techniques our sense of horror at what it actually constitutes is diminished. He claims that ‘in a way, those who refuse to advocate torture outright but still accept it as a legitimate topic of debate are more dangerous than those who explicitly endorse it’. By allowing torture to be a subject of debate the barbarity of the act is diminished. Torture—a medieval form of violence is now open for democracies to debate using modern Enlightenment techniques of reason. Such contradictions frame the essence of Zero Dark Thirty—a film that purports to create debate and yet poses little in the way of questions or controversial opinions. It is indeed a film for our times—a risk-free endorsement of Enlightened barbarism—entirely compatible for a regime where drones kill at a distance without responsibility.



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