Saturday, December 22, 2012
Best to state it baldly, up front: Zero Dark Thirty is pro-torture.
Its makers have protested that its treatment of torture is artistically ambiguous and therefore morally responsible. Torture, they say, was a regrettable and necessary evil. But torture does not deserve such ambiguity. And this defense is false for two more reasons besides. First, director Bigelow makes an artful cut from raw 9/11 audio to a torture session two years later -- linking the impotent fury of that attack to the psychotic punishment we rendered afterward. There is nothing whatever ambiguous about this first edit.
Second, Bigelow repeatedly stretches to make torture instrumental to her foreground plot. It reveals the first clue for her protagonist to follow to the climax. Her research montage is laced with countless hours of enhanced interrogation. One suspect cooperates because he can't remember what he said while he was being tortured (a gambit we used to achieve through mere drugging and patience). Another suspect says he'll cooperate just to avoid torture. A CIA staffer bemoans the loss of his beloved detainee program. At several junctures in the plot, therefore, torture is either the decisive link or the long-lost tool that could have advanced the story faster. This is a willful falsification of fact that consequently ennobles torture and rationalize its use. Of course Bigelow is right to draw torture into the bin Laden manhunt narrative, but once drawn she draws the wrong drama.
A year after the Abu Ghraib scandal, in which we displayed appropriate disgust for torture, we discovered that its various pranks, poses and punishments were not, in fact, the mere excesses of stressed-out bad apple grunts. Richard Bruce Cheney, together with Addington, Yoo, Rumsfeld and Gonzales were very calmly, very deliberately crafting a regimen of torture as standard operating procedure. The most popular rationale proffered at the time was the Jack Bauer "Ticking Time Bomb Scenario." It appeals to Kohlberg's third stage of moral development: the post-conventional violation of some conventional rule in order to advance a larger, more imminent good. For example, most of us obey traffic lights, even when some asshole cuts us off, because we recognize that our safety is bound up in the very intersections of life where we may fatally collide with others. But with a loved one bleeding to death in the backseat, we will break that law late at night in order to get to the hospital in time. And we would be right to do so.
For the Ticking Time Bomb Scenario to retain its moral authority, several things must first be true as prerequisites. First, you have to have an imminent objective that you are trying to advance or confirm -- the bleeding person in the backseat. You can't just aimlessly and repeatedly break the law and hope something worthwhile will come of it. If you have reason to believe a detainee possesses knowledge of a specific imminent attack, say, or if you have reason to believe a detainee possesses knowledge of Osama bin Laden's whereabouts, you may have grounds to torture. And you will be justified for that breach after the fact only insofar as your action actually advanced a greater good. There must be a reason to break it beforehand that matches the reason after breaking it. Neither of these were true in the Cheney program or the scene that kicks off Zero Dark Thirty. In both situations, torture is simply the way the agents shake the trees to harvest something -- anything -- that might be helpful for ... something. "Give me a name. Give me a date." As it happens, Bigelow's narrative has her heroine present for the revelation of a detail about bin Laden's courier that had already been unearthed through conventional methods years prior. This elision of fact doesn't just dredge up our shameful legacy of torture in all the wrong ways for all the wrong reasons, it also elides the fact that torture-as-SOP was supremely ineffective at harvesting useful information and, worse still, actively counterproductive: the freshest terrorist recruits in that era all cited torture as their main motivation for enlisting in Al Qaeda. How in the world is it artistically ambiguous or morally responsible to edit the story this way?
Second, for the TTBS to be valid as a post-conventional moral exception, you have to have the antecedent conventional law in the first place. In other words, just because I can imagine a scenario in which it would be more righteous for me to violate traffic law, I cannot therefore abolish traffic lights altogether. Yet this is precisely what Cheney et al sought to do and what President Obama righteously reversed. In Zero Dark Thirty, it is just business as usual. Heinous and ugly, but so what, we are left to assume, such is war, right?
The film's protagonist, Maya, is a monomaniacal agent blessed with the full faith and credit of Hindsight. In a late scene where CIA director Leon Panetta asks Maya's team to offer their odds at finding bin Laden in the Abbottabod compound, the team members offer the sober stats we all heard after the fact: about 50% to 60%. But in the scene, Maya flatly asserts 100%, to the embarrassed astonishment of her colleagues. Certainly someone in the chain believed with all their heart and gut that this was the case, but we the audience are given no reason besides Hindsight to accept Maya's certainty. Within the strictures of any good drama, Maya's certainty is ridiculous.
And within the strictures of actual fact it happens to be more ridiculous still. It was President Obama who moved the hunt for bin Laden back to the front burner at the CIA. It was President Obama who asked the same Leon Panetta to assemble the most credible plan to find him. And it was President Obama who disbanded the detainee and torture program that this film repeatedly credits for the successful mission. It was President Obama who made covert action in Pakistan a presidential campaign issue, to the derision of his opponent John McCain. And it was President Obama who authorized the extra chopper in the mission itself, without which the whole enterprise would have collapsed at the very doorstep of success.
The film pauses briefly to hear President-elect Obama reaffirm his stance on torture and to see our heroes gape ambiguously at their commander in chief's statement. But the whole second act of the film is about Maya's frustration with bureaucratic resistance to her blessed powers of hindsight. Thankfully, one White House staffer tells Maya's boss that the agency's credibility isn't exactly top-notch following the disastrous Iraqi WMD scandal. But the facts of the timeline deflate the drama Bigelow has laid out for her heroine. Obama's actions against torture and for Pakistani intervention only made a project like Maya's far more likely to succeed. But Bieglow wishes to tell a story about an avenging angel, a triumphant Cassandra held back by higher-ups who don't happen to share her intuition. To preserve this arc, she must deny and actively repress a whole history of cruelty that we desperately need our artists to help us confront. There is no larger emotional truth to be gleaned from such artistic choices, except the emotional truth we were fed all along during the dark days of Bush: psychotic devotion can only be defeated with psychotic devotion.
Torture's means are physical but its aim is psychological: how else to prosecute a war against an emotion like terror but through the prism of psychosis, of living death, of torture together with novel, extra-legal dimensions like Guantanamo. How else to arrest the anxiety of helpless homeland civilians but through a benevolent, omniscient surveillance state and flying robot army? The capture of bin Laden was a long-overdue achievement that provided a rare tangible objective in a vast decade-long campaign of vague omni-directional aggression. For a film to steal this triumph and dog-cuff it to the worst excesses of the War on Terror is both an artistic and moral failure.
It bears repeating that the War on Terror, by its very terms, its very name, was the grandest psychological war yet waged by mankind. On its own terms, it necessitates torture, surveillance and Guantanamo's numerous invisible franchises. And on these stated terms, we will only "win" when we ... feel better. Shorn of any hard objective in the real world, this most subjective of wars easily migrates from country to country, tactic to tactic, black site to black site. This kind of warfare is ripe for artistic exploration because it engages the same theatre of operation: the psyche. Tragically, Zero Dark Thirty starts with this possibility but hews straightaway to bloody melodrama, taking with it any hope that we the audience could confront and reconcile our terror.