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.
Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate, has a few questions about the Free Gaza flotilla that he wishes the journalists on the scene would find time to ask.
Most of the speculation so far has been to do with methods and intentions, allowing for many avowals about peaceful tactics and so forth, but this is soft-centered coverage. I would like to know a little more about the political ambitions and implications of the enterprise.
For starters, “It seems safe and fair to say that the flotilla and its leadership work in reasonably close harmony with Hamas, which constitutes the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood” and would likely be the main beneficiary of any success the flotilla meets. The movement’s military wing is based in Damascus, “where the regime of Bashar Assad is currently at war with increasingly large sections of the long-oppressed Syrian population.” Where do they stand on the uprising against the Baath regime? Do they have a position on the policies of Iran, the main backer of Hamas? How about its ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah? Any of those freedom activists have a comment on the murder of Rafik Hariri?
Only a few weeks ago, the Hamas regime in Gaza became the only governing authority in the world — by my count — to express outrage and sympathy at the death of Osama Bin Laden. As the wavelets lap in the Greek harbors, and the sunshine beats down, doesn’t any journalist want to know whether the “activists” have discussed this element in their partners’ world outlook? Does Alice Walker seriously have no comment?
And what about …
the official programmatic adoption, by Hamas, of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This disgusting fabrication is a key foundational document of 20th-century racism and totalitarianism, indelibly linked to the Hitler regime in theory and practice. It seems extraordinary to me that any “activist” claiming allegiance to human rights could cooperate at any level with the propagation of such evil material. But I have never seen any of them invited to comment on this matter, either.
The little boats cannot make much difference to the welfare of Gaza either way, since the materials being shipped are in such negligible quantity. The chief significance of the enterprise is therefore symbolic. And the symbolism, when examined even cursorily, doesn’t seem too adorable. The intended beneficiary of the stunt is a ruling group with close ties to two of the most retrograde dictatorships in the Middle East, each of which has recently been up to its elbows in the blood of its own civilians. The same group also manages to maintain warm relations with, or at the very least to make cordial remarks about, both Hezbollah and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, a document that was once accurately described as a “warrant for genocide” forms part of the declared political platform of the aforesaid group. There is something about this that fails to pass a smell test. I wonder whether any reporter on the scene will now take me up on this.