Zero Dark Thirty — Torture Is the American Way?

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Zero Dark Thirty, Hollywood’s version of how we killed Osama bin Laden essentially says that torture works. Torture is disturbing, but tough, and American heroes do it.

Do not be misled. Pay attention: The men and women who hunted, found, and killed Osama bin Laden — and heroes they are — did not need to use torture. Torture is un-American. It is evil. We found bin Laden using painstaking intelligence work, not waterboards.

The shocking opening scenes and the underlying premise of Zero Dark Thirty, the latest fillip of the torture hagiography to afflict and pervert American society insidiously propagates the view that torture is necessary; tough men and women must make tough decisions, right? It becomes clear how deeply America’s moral frames of reference have deteriorated when we realize that it was Kathryn Bigelow, a Hollywood director and power, and not a known shill for the Neoconservatives, whose film presents torture as having been instrumental in finding Osama bin Laden, and that “enhanced interrogation” is Americans doing what Americans must do to protect home and hearth.

Bigelow’s views — like those of so many millions of Americans — seem to have been colored by the big lie about torture perpetrated by the Bush Administration, and now the Republican Party, for eight years and beyond: Americans must work on the “dark side, if you will” to protect ourselves. Torture is legal — because, well, because a political hack in the Justice Department, at the behest of the vice president, says so. So, therefore, it is acceptable. A message not-so-subliminally enhanced by the zeitgeist-shaping avatars of pop culture like the execrable 24, which shows tough-guy Jack Bauer saving us all every week by torturing people, and doing what needs to be done, damn the law and all hand-wringers. Even left-wing Hollywood now weaves it into our national consciousness as part of our imagined reality. Even Hollywood filmmakers.

Polls show that a majority of Americans under 35, who came of age hearing from our leaders that enhanced interrogation was necessary and right, believe it is acceptable for American officers to torture. The Republican Party openly advocates its use. No matter hundreds of years of legal and social effort to oppose torture, no matter the Constitution of the United States (“cruel and unusual punishments… shall not be inflicted,” Amendment VIII.)

No. Understand this, from someone who had some involvement in our “enhanced interrogation” program and who worked on terrorism issues for years (see my book, The Interrogator, which relates my involvement in the interrogation of a senior member of al-Qaeda.) I was there: Torture does not work; it makes it harder to evaluate what detainees say, and more suspect. It is unnecessary, it is counterproductive, it is illegal, and it is immoral. Torture besmirches the meaning of America. We become the evil we oppose when we engage in “enhanced interrogation” — in torture.

Do not be deluded by the subliminal messages of a false and harmful reality as you munch popcorn and squirm at the opening segment of Zero Dark Thirty. Precisely because of its power and the subtlety of its overall theme — intelligence work is painstaking and slow and often confusing, and dedicated civil servants must sometimes make impossible choices — Zero Dark Thirty contributes to an un-American message about torture, guised in the uniform of steely eyed, if sometimes ambiguous, heroism. John Wayne did not really storm the beaches of Normandy, although we all watched him do it. George Bush and Dick Cheney, however, really did avoid serving in uniform, although we all watched them send others to fight and argue that torture is legal and acceptable. And now, their message has made it into an otherwise subtle and perceptive film about the hunt for bin Laden. But one cannot sanction torture.

Hunting, finding, and killing bin Laden is one of the cathartic triumphs in the history of the CIA. Bin Laden needed to die. The tale deserves to be sung by bards and should be a source of pride for all Americans. This is another fact I lived during my CIA career: The CIA, the FBI, the U.S. military, and the U.S. government are relentless against our enemies. No one — no one — can kill Americans and get away with it. We will hunt you down, you will not escape and you will pay. American power and will are fearsome.

A former head of MI-6, Great Britain’s equivalent to the CIA, remarked to me once, “I always encourage myths about MI-6, and I thank the stars for James Bond. People tend to believe that British intelligence is all-powerful, and everywhere. When, of course,” here he smiled genteelly, “we are not so powerful, and we are very small.” The CIA, the U.S. government and especially American society, are powerful, and we should not be small. We do not need the insidious myth that torture works, or is necessary. In an otherwise laudable film, Zero Dark Thirty‘s opening scenes corrode our culture, just as “enhanced interrogation” has.

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Glenn Carle