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.
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