Complicity by non-aesthetic sources was required for the success of this film. There was the political complicity of President Obama, along with CIA director Panetta, in 2009, when they assured agents there would be no prosecutions for crimes committed in the previous administration; and the parallel exertions of officials like David Margolis at the justice department's Office of Professional Responsibility, whose 2010 report downgraded the assessment against the torture lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee from violation of professional obligation to "poor judgment." What does this have to do with the making of Zero Dark Thirty? "The sad truth," writes Karen Greenberg in a disturbing analysis, "is that Zero Dark Thirty could not have been produced in its present form if any of the officials who created and implemented U.S. torture policy had been held accountable for what happened, or any genuine sunshine had been thrown upon it." In that case it would have been like making a film about a gangland murder as viewed by the police -- a crime that in real life the police went after -- but showing it in the film as if all the police on the scene had watched and done nothing. Such a film would stand exposed, and the falseness would draw general comment.On the day of Obama's Second Inauguration, it's worth remembering this huge piece of unfinished business.
Yet regarding the American torture of prisoners, our leading officials said it was wrong, but then did nothing to back their saying so, nothing to prove that we believed it was wrong. The movie if anything endorses an attitude akin to the new president's: acceptance (with distaste) of a new policy of official ban supported by no accountability. For that is the status quo, and Zero Dark Thirty has this curious contradiction at its heart. Whatever can be absorbed into the story of the successful killing now qualifies as a necessary step toward the killing. The mood of self-protective abridgment and untruth was best captured by Barack Obama when he said -- as he often did before and during the 2012 election campaign -- that "we delivered justice to Bin Laden." Delivered justice. The neutralizing abstraction of the phrase, so dear to the president, hovers like a bad angel over the entire length of Zero Dark Thirty.
In these days in which the Pentagon theorists must show their concern for manipulating American public opinion to support wars as a minimal bar of seriousness, it seems "quaint" (to use a notorious phrase of John Yoo's) to recall that it is illegal for the US government to conduct propaganda on the American public. Even a propaganda film can have aesthetic value in addition to its propaganda message. But if Congress weren't currently so enthralled with the underlying militaristic assumption of American foreign policy, a serious investigation of whether the CIA and other Administration officials collaborating with the makers of Zero Dark Thirty may have violated classification and anti-propaganda laws.
It does sound "quaint", doesn't it?
Bromwich's article is also interesting in that it looks frankly at the question of the value judgment of torture in the film, and treats it as part of an aesthetic critic of the film rather than as something extraneous to the aesthetics. And whatever its Oscar qualities may be, the film's treatment of torture isn't a matter purely of artistic technique:
It omits all evidence that after September 11 there were courageous Americans with a conscience who worked against terrorism even as they protested against torture. The filmmakers have said that their approach is "journalistic," and by that they seem to mean that the film imitates what journalism has become. Unfortunately this is true. In fact, the film resembles much of the journalism of the war on terror: cool, wised-up, sure that there are many points of view out there, but "embedded" with American troops because what choice do we have? The film betrays a weak control of its historical materials, but it loves Americans for what we suffered twelve years ago. That will be enough for many. But the deadpan narrative of extrajudicial killings is not going to be experienced in the same way everywhere. It will play differently in Pakistan. [my emphasis]Given the NRA's insistence on promoting a simplistic culture-war view of violent movies and videos, it's worth noting that there is a vast difference between the (at best) highly tenuous notion that watching a violent movie is somehow a direct causal factor in pushing people to violent acts and the larger issue of shaping views of an emotionally-charged historical event like the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Zero Dark Thirty isn't going to give anyone an irresistible compulsion to torture someone. But it may very well have a propaganda effect on encouraging people to accept torture as an acceptable policy of governmental terror.
Jimmy Carter wrote in his book Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis (2005):
Aside from the humanitarian aspects, it is well known that, under excruciating torture, a prisoner will admit almost any suggested crime. Such confessions are, of course,not admissible in trials in civilized countries. The primary goal of torture is not to obtain convictions for crimes, but to engender and maintain fear. Some of our leaders have found that it is easy to forgo human rights for those who are considered to be subhuman, or "enemy combatants." [my emphasis]Torture is a policy of state terror, no matter how it is justified.
And it's worth recalling that the justification of torture that those who see Zero Dark Thirty as justifying it is that it produces useful information over the long run. But the justification we heard for years from the apologists of the Cheney-Bush torture policy was the "ticking time bomb" scenario, in which a super-bomb is going to blow up in an our and the intrepid forces of law and order must torture a person who knows where it is to save millions of lives.
Either justification actually works as well, because torture isn't about getting accurate confessions or about extracting accurate information to track down criminals or terrorists. As Jason Vest wrote in Pray and Tell (The American Prospect 01/19/2005)
... from a review of thousands of documents -- e-mails, still-unreported communiqués, and other pieces of paper -- certain themes have become increasingly apparent. Among the most consistent: FBI agents issued repeated objections to the use of torture against foreign terrorism suspects. And from this theme emerges a conclusion that future presidential administrations, and all American citizens, would do well to remember: For the purpose of prying actionable information from suspects, torture is essentially useless.It's a policy of state terror, meant "to engender and maintain fear."
Tags: accountability for torture, torture