Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, brooding paean to the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden has been controversial since long before it even hit theaters. Now that it’s been out for a while, some neocons are trying to use it to rehabilitate torture and the CIA and Bush Administration’s legacy of using it.
Two prominent op-eds use the movie as a springboard to defend torture and its use. In the conservative rag, Townhall, Larry Elder argues that the film undermines the ‘liberal narrative’ on torture. In The Washington Post, CIA veteran Jose Rodriguez Jr. argues that Zero Dark Thirty overplays the torture angle, but that extreme measures did elicit important information. The absurd irony of these two op-eds is that they argue from completely opposite directions and end up undermining each other.
A note on the two authors is important to provide relevant context. Elder has been active in media since the 1980s and has been a talking head since the early ’90s. He had considered himself ‘libertarian with a small l’ until mid-2003, when he registered as a Republican following the invasion of Iraq. The mental contortion it requires to square the ideology of minimal government with the reality of imperial occupation is known as neoconservative. He has come close to having his own syndicated program on Fox News. He considered running for Senate as a Republican against Barbara Boxer in California in 2010.
The Washington Post seriously dropped the ball in running Rodriguez’s op-ed without editorial comment. The Washington Post itself had reported little more than 8 months earlier that Rodriguez was personally responsible for the destruction of 92 videotapes of Abu Zubaida’s torture. This broader context is vitally important to understanding the existence of Rodriguez’s op-ed, let alone its content. The two men obviously have their motives. For Elder, his motives are probably a blend of ratings, rehabilitating Bush’s legacy and the pundits who supported him, including himself, and the possibility of running for office someday with conservative bona fides. Rodriguez’s motive is transparently to protect himself.
Both op-eds tackle questions of whether or not torture is torture, and whether it was effective. Elder goes back and forth on the first, referring to waterboarding as ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in his own writing, and citing it as ‘torture’ in quotes without comment. But he never fundamentally challenges the assertion that what happened under the Bush Administration’s interrogation of detainees constitutes “torture.”
Although he boldly claims the movie threatens the liberal narrative on torture, his conclusion, based almost solely on one quote, boils down to a tepid defense of: it may have accomplished something. But even this claim is mixed in with acknowledgements that it was one technique among many, the payoff was long in the making and indirect at best, and we’ll never know if the information provided could have been gotten in other ways.
There are two problems with Elder’s conclusion. His argument is predicated on the assumption that because the film crew got a high degree of access, it must be highly accurate. This is mostly based on conjecture. But really, who goes to the cinema, watches a movie ‘based on a true story!’ and assumes it is actual historical truth? Screenwriter Mark Boal said, “It’s not a documentary” and went on to say his standard was to be “more or less in the ballpark.” I wouldn’t bet any money based on that endorsement. The depictions of torture in the movie are at least as much about building drama and suspense as they are about recounting events. The film is not a document on which to base legal, historical or policy judgments. Saying that Zero Dark Thirty threatens the ‘liberal narrative’ is like saying The Mummy complicates the protests in Cairo.
The second problem is that Elder is the only person who saw the movie that he did. Much of the controversy surrounding Zero Dark Thirty raged before it came out, when a number of officials in Washington blasted it for glorifying torture and depicting it as effective. Since the movie came out, the furor has died down, because, that’s not really what the movie shows. Only minutes into the movie, when the protagonist, Maya, newly dispatched to Pakistan, is told to grab a bucket and fill it with water, the audience is shown in no uncertain terms that we have waded up to our eyeballs into a moral swamp. The film also demonstrates her colleague, Dan, trying to break a detainee, Ammar, by threatening to put him into a small box and leave him there unless he tells him when the next attack is going to be. At his wit’s end, Ammar listlessly rambles, ‘Sunday… Tuesday… Wednesday.’
Though Hollywood-ized, this depiction of a detainee willing to say anything at all accurately portrays what actually happened. Experts have said that torture yields “as much bad information as good.” According to a memo, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times, and Abu Zubaida 83 times, each in the space of a month. Somewhere in that process, they would have told their captors that bin Laden’s courier was a unicorn if they thought that would end the waterboarding.
The film’s exposition winds up with Ammar coughing up important information only once the CIA operatives start being nice to him and playing more subtle mind games with him. Elder’s argument–that the film depicts Ammar being tortured, then later, Ammar gave up information, which was indirectly useful much later, therefore, torture might have been useful–is a willful misrepresentation of the facts of the movie and of reality.
Rodriguez acknowledges that waterboarding was used, but essentially argues that it was far more dignified than depicted in the film. He says the detainees were strapped to a medical gurney, not thrown on the floor, and water was administered from a water bottle, not a bucket. Oh, so it’s like going to the dentist. But with more drowning. Rodriguez says this is not torture. It is a “harsh but legal measure.”
During the Spanish Inquisition, waterboarding was referred to as ‘tortura del agua,’ torture of the water. Five hundred years ago, as they wrenched confessions from witches and heretics, the Church had no reason to play the kind of Orwellian word games played by the Bush Administration, and neocons like Rodriguez, still trying to defend it. Christopher Hitchens, who supported Bush’s Iraq war, volunteered to be waterboarded. In his Vanity Fair article entitled, “Believe Me, It’s Torture,” he wrote in a tone as though still gasping for breath,
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned…
He concluded about his experience that “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”
It is also quite telling that Senator John McCain, normally a hawk who should have been one of the Bush Administration’s strongest supporters on defense policy in the Senate, has been staunchly and vocally opposed to the torture program since it was revealed nearly a decade ago. McCain, who was tortured as a POW in Vietnam, put politics aside to voice his great revulsion at the practice. Those who have experienced waterboarding are consistently adamant that it is torture. Everyone should condemn Rodriguez’s attempt at redefining words to suit ends as a thin mask over a moral perversion best left permanently in the ethical abyss of the days after 9/11.
Rodriguez argues that the movie doesn’t go far enough in showing just how effective ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were. He concludes that “our techniques worked.” He provides no evidence for this whatsoever. This is not for a lack of declassified information. He writes at length about people who were undercover at the time. We, his readers, are supposed to take at absolute face value, the assertion of a man who destroyed evidence of his part in the story, that the double-plus un-torture he administered was effective. This is a chilling reminder of how deep the memory hole was during the Bush years.
The irony of the two approaches at rehabilitating torture is that Elder and Rodriguez cancel each other out. Elder essentially acknowledges that waterboarding is torture while Rodriguez says waterboarding is not torture. Elder says the movie is right because it might have been effective while Rodriguez says the movie is wrong because it was effective. Both are trying to reach the same conclusion, from different angles, and each unwittingly applies the eraser to the other’s pencil.
There is really no argument to be made that the techniques used were not torture. There is no argument to be made that torture is ‘good’ in any sense or context of that word. On September 11th, 2001, global sympathy poured into the United States. This could have spurred a renaissance of diplomacy, rule of law, common cause in the name of civilization and peaceful exportation of democracy. We could have crushed al Qaeda in the badlands of Afghanistan with a tailwind of world support. Instead, under the Bush Administration’s zealous leadership America hurtled quixotically into a moral abyss. We are only beginning to recover our moral standing in the world. We will probably be dealing with the reverberations of torture, extraordinary rendition and Iraq for decades. As other nations rapidly approach our economic and political power, we cannot hope to rely on brute force as a drawbridge against the tide of history. Declaring our power is based on might will only weaken us diplomatically. Declaring we are above the law will only encourage the law of the jungle just as the jungle is becoming exponentially more complex.
That the terrorists deserved to be punished is beyond the point. No one loses sleep over the fact that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a 9/11 mastermind and financier got beat the hell up. What is worrying is that our government caused America’s moral standing in the world to plummet precipitously and created a massive recruiting tool for our enemies. The top-level decision to torture and its widespread, sustained and systematic implementation, opened a Pandora’s box that could haunt our soldiers in future conflicts. If we decide that our rules of war say we can torture detainees, what would stop our enemies from arguing the same? The use of torture serves no practical purpose. It is not clear that it was ever effective, and any arguments that it was are indirect and murky at best. We had a right to hunt and punish al Qaeda. But we did not have a right to throw the law out the window and mimic the Inquistion and Stalinist gulags in pursuit of our enemies. We cannot throw out civilization in defense of civilization and expect to still be seen as civilized. Torture is wrong, has always been wrong, and will always be wrong. It is a line that must never be crossed.
In the end, though, all of this discussion about whether torture provided good intelligence or whether the movie is an accurate depiction of its execution is largely moot. When President Obama released the OLC memos in 2009, a shocking fact came to light that was, conveniently for all, swept under the rug. It was revealed that
The Bush administration applied relentless pressure on interrogators to use harsh methods on detainees in part to find evidence of cooperation between al Qaida and the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime according to a former senior U.S. intelligence official and a former Army psychiatrist.
Such information would’ve provided a foundation for one of former President George W. Bush’s main arguments for invading Iraq in 2003. In fact, no evidence has ever been found of operational ties between Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network and Saddam’s regime.
The torture regime went hand-in-hand with Bush’s historic lie that Iraq and al Qaeda were linked. This is the ultimate, unremitting horror of the Bush Administration. And it must always be an anchor on any attempt to rehabilitate his legacy. As Orwell wrote, who controls the past controls the future. When these subtle attempts at rewriting history pop up, we must always bear witness to America’s moral failings in 9/11’s aftermath. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in ten or twenty years, helping our children with their history homework, flipping through a Texas School Board-sanctioned textbook with the story about how Bush valiantly saved America from Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda using harsh but legal measures in spite of his unpatriotic critics.