As I sat in the darkened theatre, tears poured down my face in a ceaseless flow. A man is hanging from the ceiling by his wrists, a bag has been placed over his head, and the conservative Muslim has his genitals exposed before a female intelligence agent. He has been deprived of sleep for over 96 hours, only receives enough food and water to survive, and is routinely beaten and water-boarded. At one point, he is led around on a dog leash and then crammed into a drawer-sized box. Zero Dark Thirty, I quickly realize, is not for the faint of heart. And I’m barely 10 minutes into the movie.
It is the scene that has made the otherwise gripping film about the 10-year manhunt and eventual takedown of al-Qaeda figurehead and 9/11 mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, one of the most controversial movies of the decade. The film begins with a statement that the movie is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Now, some may say I take things too literally, but when a film studio makes that kind of declaration, it has a responsibility to do just that – portray the events as accurately as possible.
While the tactics used in the opening 10 to 15 minutes of the film capture one’s attention, the scene leads viewers to believe that torture led the CIA directly to Bin Laden. That was not the case, and glorifying this kind of sadistic treatment is reprehensible. Former CIA director and current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has repeatedly stated, along with many other government officials, that “enhanced interrogation methods,” such as water-boarding, stress positions, and ice baths, are counterproductive, often lead to unreliable information, and are unethical and immoral.
So why does the film emphasize this grisly part of the American history? The screenwriter and director are sensationalizing these Machiavellian methods and offering them up for our entertainment. As Jane Mayer, author of The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, said, the movie “distorts a difficult history and seems to turn torture into morally neutral entertainment.”
One of the issues I have with the torture presented and sensationalized is that it is in blatant violation of international law and the Geneva Convention. Leaders of numerous foreign countries have been prosecuted because of their crimes against humanity, including torture. The United States, however, seems to get a pass for it’s (albeit rare) severe discrepancies in regards to torture. Scandals like Abu Ghraib, in which prisoners were subjected to rape, sodomy, electric shock, and being forced to eat pork (which is against the Islamic faith) offer a clear example of this. The military personnel involved were given slaps on the wrists legally and most were simply given a dishonorable discharge. The photos of this incident are absolutely horrific and left my stomach churning. I shudder to think about the photos President Obama and the CIA refused to release. This is not a moral grey area. Torture is wrong, and it doesn’t work.
I understand that war is always brutal and I understand that the United States is in a war against terror and, by proxy, terrorists. That does not mean that torture, a despicable war crime, should be pardoned, much less glamorized. We are a country that stresses values like humanity, ethics, the rule of law, and basic human dignity. These principles apply both at home and abroad. Any violations of these ideals should not be tolerated. Movies that are “based on first hand events,” like Zero Dark Thirty, have a responsibility to focus on the actual “interviews” and intelligence gathering that led us to Bin Laden, not on a torturous interrogation that is riveting but disgraceful.
~Jordyn Elliot, guest reporter