Torture and the film Zero Dark Thirty

I have not seen (and will not see) this film that deals with the killing of Osama bin Laden but have been following the controversy over it. Glenn Greenwald has a powerful essay about the film that touches on a whole range of important issues.

As it turns out, the film as a political statement is worse than even its harshest early critics warned.

In US political culture, there is no event in the last decade that has inspired as much collective pride and pervasive consensus as the killing of Osama bin Laden.

This event has obtained sacred status in American political lore. Nobody can speak ill of it, or even question it, without immediately prompting an avalanche of anger and resentment. The news of his death triggered an outburst of patriotic street chanting and nationalistic glee that continued unabated two years later into the Democratic National Convention. As Wired’s Pentagon reporter Spencer Ackerman put it in his defense of the film, the killing of bin Laden makes him (and most others) “very, very proud to be American.” Very, very proud.

For that reason, to depict X as valuable in enabling the killing of bin Laden is – by definition – to glorify X. That formula will lead huge numbers of American viewers to regard X as justified and important. In this film: X = torture. That’s why it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step – the first, indispensable step – in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America’s most hated public enemy.

The fact that nice liberals who already opposed torture (like Spencer Ackerman) felt squeamish and uncomfortable watching the torture scenes is irrelevant. That does not negate this point at all. People who support torture don’t support it because they don’t realize it’s brutal. They know it’s brutal – that’s precisely why they think it works – and they believe it’s justifiable because of its brutality: because it is helpful in extracting important information, catching terrorists, and keeping them safe. This film repeatedly reinforces that belief by depicting torture exactly as its supporters like to see it: as an ugly though necessary tactic used by brave and patriotic CIA agents in stopping hateful, violent terrorists.

Whatever else is true about it, Zero Dark Thirty is an aggressively political film with a very dubious political message that it embraces and instills in every way it can. David Edelstein, the New York Magazine critic, had it exactly right when he wrote that it “borders on the politically and morally reprehensible”, though I think it crosses that border. It’s thus not only legitimate, but necessary, to engage it as what it is: a political argument that advances – whether by design or effect – the interests of powerful political factions.

It is a long essay even by Greenwald’s standards but I highly recommend it.


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