The critical acclaim for the new Kathryn Bigelow movie Zero Dark Thirty has renewed the debate on the efficacy of torture.
The movie dramatizes the decade-long effort to find and eventually kill Osama bin Laden. In a riveting opening section, the film obliquely credits the discovery of the key piece of information in the search for bin Laden to the torture of an al-Qaida prisoner held by the CIA. This is at odds with the facts as they have been recounted by journalists reporting on the manhunt, by Obama administration intelligence officials and by legislative leaders.
Bigelow and her writing partner, Mark Boal, are promoting Zero Dark Thirty in part by stressing its basis in fact. It’s curious that they could have gotten this central, contentious point wrong. And because they originally set out to make a movie about the frustrating failure to find bin Laden, it’s hard to believe their aim was to celebrate torture. But that’s in effect what they’ve done.
This isn’t the first time a hotly debated and widely discredited interpretation of historical events wound up on the big screen. Hollywood makes movies; it doesn’t write history. But why fabricate the origin of the key piece of evidence in the entire history of the hunt and credit its discovery to torture? I think there is something deep and disturbing in our national psychology that helped to push this particular claim forward.
It was Dick Cheney’s idea that the United States could solve complicated problems just by being brave enough, or tough enough, or both. Despite the fact that the world doesn’t seem to work that way, Cheney’s argument had a force and a tenor that fits with our national narrative of exceptionalism. It’s satisfying. We are willing to believe there is something heroic, justifiable about torture.
There is not.
The problems with torture fall into three main categories: opposition on grounds of morality, on efficacy and on effects.
The moral objection ought to be obvious. We’ve had laws against torture for decades. We’ve had these laws for the simplest of reasons — we decided it was wrong. In almost no contemporary culture is it presumed to be not wrong. It was so widely assumed that the United States opposed torture that President George W. Bush, whose White House ordered torture, insisted in the light of every fact to the contrary that the United States does not torture.
There was a Catch-22-ish twist to this: The United States forbids torture, yet the president orders it, so it is no longer torture.
The efficacy objection is equally simple: If you torture someone, he will tell you anything to make you stop. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the man who imagined and directed the 9/11 attacks, was captured by the CIA in 2003. For the next three years he was subjected to the harshest treatment we could stomach. No other al-Qaida operative in our custody was subjected to so much.
The result? KSM, as he is known within the intelligence community, revealed nothing about the most valuable thing he knew — bin Laden’s whereabouts. He did not, for example, divulge the name of the Kuwaiti courier who served bin Laden.
This is not coincidentally the piece of information that sets Zero Dark Thirty in motion. Mohammed had trained the courier and knew of his connection to bin Laden. Instead, he sent agents on hundreds of futile chases, hindering the hunt for bin Laden rather than aiding it.
The simple fact is you can’t reliably separate the gold from the dross that torture yields. “He had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass,” one FBI counter-terrorism agent said in frustration
The third objection to torture is that it has unintended consequences, both on the wider world and on those who inflict it. By this point, there is little doubt that revelations of torture performed by Americans dramatically affected the position of the United States in the world. It degraded us, among our friends and enemies. It topped any recruiting material al-Qaida could possibly devise.
Even given that huge damage, arguably the more severe and longest lasting unintended consequences have been those we have inflicted upon ourselves. That we are still debating torture’s virtues is itself strong evidence of the ill effect of torture on those who would wield it, in this case an entire society. There has been not just a coarsening of our ideals but a rebuke of them. In failing to assess and acknowledge the damage we’ve done, we have cheapened the idea of America.
We rationalize this so completely that we can double down and insist that we had a right to employ “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and that it was somehow heroic to have done so. Whether the filmmakers meant it to or not, Zero Dark Thirty joins other retellings of the tale in which this myth is being remade as history.
We have so contorted ourselves that earlier this month a military judge ruled that the man whose real-life torture is described in the movie, Mohammed’s nephew Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, will not be allowed to describe his torture at trial. The methods used to extract information from captives is a state secret, the judge said, as are the victim’s recollections of it.
Apparently, those methods can be celebrated in a movie but not acknowledged in a court of law.
Terry McDermott is the author, with Josh Meyer, of The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.