The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Zero Dark Thirty or: How I Learned to be Ambivalent Toward Torture


For Memorial Day yesterday, we watched ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Here are a few thoughts: 

1. It is an amazing piece of 21st Century propaganda. I can scarcely believe that the USSR or any other despotic state would ever have made a movie justifying, and perhaps even glorifying, torture, much less even publicly admitting that did it. But that is just what Zero Dark Thirty does. And even I, never one to acquiesce to utilitarianism, almost came away thinking, “Wow. That’s disgustingly awful, not to mention illegal, but I guess that’s how they got bin Laden.” 

2. The fact that our government will torture people, but moralisticly set limits on it (as if theirs is “good” torture and anything beyond this arbitrary line is “bad” torture), is tragically comical. We won’t break bones and fingers, use sharp objects to inflict pain, put bamboo underneath a man’s fingernails and glass in his urethra. No, that’s all bad. We’ll just deprive him of sleep, food, and water, hang him from ropes, walk him like a dog, confine him a small box, and pour water down his throat, and do it all for the rest of his life. This is like a pirate ship with a strict code of “honor,” that justifies its piracy because they only pillage, whereas the “evil” pirates pillage, rape, and murder. 

3. Another movie that also graphically portrayed a Western State torturing Muslims was ‘The Battle of Algiers.’ Except this was an anti-war movie that was banned for five years in France because it made the French Government look bad. Contrast that with ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Here we have torture graphically portrayed, but rather than revolting the viewer and forcing him to rethink his nation’s foreign policy objectives, it is portrayed as a necessary evil serving the interests of the foreverwar. Every time the portrayals of torture bring you to the point of being sickened, another terrorist attack will be re-enacted on screen to show you just how “worth it” torture is. How we can go from a society that is sickened by torture to one that cheers (or at the very least is ambivalent toward it) in little more than a generation is amazing.

4. As a has friend pointed out to me, one of the major themes running throughout the film is that we are made to feel empathy for the CIA agents who are doing the torturing. This is true. Both Maya and Dan, the CIA Agents in the film who participated in torture, are visibly fatigued by years of that work. Dan eventually leaves for another assignment, due to the gruesomeness of the work (and, oh yeah, fear of being held accountable for his crimes). Maya, though, consumed with zeal after the death of her friend at the hands of a suicide bomber, presses on. However, in the final scene, we are supposed to come away with the thought that years of her barbarous work have taken their toll on her. It seems what director Kathryn Bigelow wants us to believe is that the ends justify the means and that if there is a cost for having tortured people, it is only the torturers who pay it. Never are we in any way made to put ourselves in the place of the men who are being tortured. They, of course, are subhuman. Empathy toward the tortured and empathy toward those abducted from their homes and interned in camps for the rest of their lives is not something this film makes us feel. And lest anyone mistake me for an Al Qaeda sympathizer, most of these men are murderers or men who have aided and abetted murderers, at least allegedly (of course, few have actually ever stood trial). The reason we should feel empathy for these men is not that we should sympathize with radical Islamic Jihadists, but that if the American State can break its own laws and torture truly evil men and hold them without trial, how long is it before the IRS, for instance, can do that to any one of us? And you think audits are bad. 

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5 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty or: How I Learned to be Ambivalent Toward Torture

  1. I don’t know. I thought the big question the movie asked was, “Is it worth it?” Is the dehumanizing that dehumanizes worth it for the momentary (supposed) pleasure of catching and killing a guilty man? (And a dozen years too late.)

    Obviously the film was told from the perspective of the main characters (for which you strangely seem to fault it), but for a nation so numbed to the idea of torture–where the dehumanizing nature of torture doesn’t cause an American to bat an eye–perhaps showing the toll it takes on the torturers is a roundabout way of getting people to actually think about it, rather than accept it as a necessary evil or remain ambivalent about the whole thing.

    That’s what I came away with, anyway.

  2. Andrew Isker on said:

    I’d like to believe that was what Bigelow was doing, but then why all of the re-enacted terror attacks? Why the voices of people dying in 9/11? If I’m going to make something to subliminally make people rethink their position on torture, doesn’t interspersing the primary justification for it throughout the movie defeat that purpose?

    • I can’t speak to the details about re-enacted terror attacks and voices of 9/11 victims because, frankly, those aren’t the details that stayed with me. (I watched the movie a few months ago.) What I do remember is the overall impression that I got from the film being one against torture, or, at the very least, questioning its place, goodness, necessity, what have you.

      Mostly I’m haunted by Jessica Chastain’s face in the final scene, which, in itself, is deserving of the Oscar. That face is what brought me to the conclusions in my previous comment.

      • Andrew Isker on said:

        Yeah, I can see how you can come to that conclusion. It made me recall the scene where she told the upper-level CIA officer that she had worked there for twelve years and had only ever worked on hunting bin Laden. The look then took on the meaning of emptiness after having achieving your life’s goal and the weariness she felt. Our interpretations of the final scene aside, the fact that the movie did not frame torture as unequivocally wrong, as ‘The Battle of Algiers’ did, is pretty telling.

  3. I haven’t seen the film, but I appreciate your take on it, Andrew. I spent the last four years in the intelligence community and mostly agree with your assessment. Thanks for the post!

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