I recently sat in the dark of a movie theater and watched a human being being tortured. This happened at the beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s new film “Zero Dark Thirty.” The film’s torture scenes begin the narrative arc toward the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, and so “Zero Dark Thirty” has reopened the debate over the necessity and efficacy of America’s use of torture as an intelligence gathering tool in the years since 9/11. The reaction to the film among my colleagues in the human rights community has been mixed, with many coming out of the movie convinced that it drew a straight line between torture and the ultimate capture of Bin Laden and others believing the opposite.
As an activist against torture, I wanted to judge for myself what message the movie promotes. I don’t normally watch violent films, and I found the torture scenes disturbing, reminding me on a gut level why Jewish tradition considers torture to be a desecration of the image of God. What I saw wasn’t exactly an endorsement of torture — the suspect cracks during a scene of kindness, not cruelty — but rather a failure to condemn it. The crucial piece of intelligence — the name of the courier that ultimately leads to Bin Laden — is revealed after a series of interrogations, some under duress, some under torture. The implication is that torture served to corroborate other, non-coercive methods of eliciting information.
Back in reality, the reaction to the film from experts has been clear-cut. Senator — and former prison of war — John McCain, along with Senators Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have reiterated that detainees in CIA custody did not provide the leads that ultimately led to Bin Laden. Torture is a gripping subject for the entertainment industry but movies have perhaps blown out of proportion its significance as a counter terrorism tool.
Oftentimes in war, participants are forced to make decisions that are morally ambiguous. But torture is unambiguous. It is immoral, and it is prohibited by American and international law. And it is ineffective, producing false leads from detainees desperate to make the pain stop. Indeed, “Zero Dark Thirty” brutally demonstrates this ineffectiveness. A detainee, about to be locked into a drawer-sized box, desperately calls out all the names of the days of the week to answer a question to which he does not know the answer.
At the end of the first chapter of Pirkei Avot, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel teaches that the world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace. The image that comes to mind is a stool, with each pillar lending its support to hold up the world. But the verse from Zechariah he cites (8:16) is sequential: Truth precedes justice, and WHICH then leads to peace. Justice is not built on interferences or leaks; it comes from a clear reckoning with our actions. And accountability for those actions is a necessary precondition for peace. Without that sequence of events, the world falters.
And we have faltered. Nearly four years after President Barack Obama signed an executive order restoring America’s commitment to lawful interrogations, American support for the use of torture has actually risen, aided both by media portrayals of torture as effective and by the continued need to feel that anything possible — even the immoral — should be permitted in the name of our safety and national security.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has not fulfilled its commitment to truth and accountability. The architects of the torture program have not been prosecuted and administration officials continue to defend against its details being released in court (for example, arguing that Guantanamo detainees cannot discuss their torture on the grounds that it is classified.) President Obama’s decision to “look forward, not back” has undermined the first pillar, truth, that would lead to the next steps of justice and peace.
In the months ahead, as a nation we have one of our last chances at learning the truth. On December 13, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted to approve its 6,000-page report on the CIA detention program, which includes details of every single CIA interrogation. Senator Feinstein has said that the report shows that torture did not lead to Bin Laden — but she can’t say much else, because the report is still classified. It needs to be released, with as little redacted as possible — 6,000 pages of blacked out lines will not provide clarity — to counter the pro-torture voices in our midst and bolster alternative intelligence-gathering methods.
If the American people are never provided with the truth, all we will “know” about American use of torture will be from the movies. It is time for us to learn and accept the truth about torture, so that we can move forward on the path towards peace.
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is Director of North American Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and a board member of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.