Kathryn Bigelow is the woman in the hot seat. The American director of the notorious new movie Zero Dark Thirty is being hammered on all sides by politicians, outraged journalists and human-rights activists for its torture scenes. They say the film is morally bankrupt because it “normalizes” torture, instead of condemning it.
The arguments against the movie go like this: Torture never works. And even if it did, “it could never be justified because it is immoral,” journalist Steve Coll wrote in The New York Review of Books. Like the Holocaust, said popular philosopher Slavoj Žižek, torture is quite simply a crime against humanity. Globe and Mail reviewer Liam Lacey had his doubts, too. “While the film may not glorify or endorse torture, it exercises a poetic licence that, unwittingly or not, can serve as propaganda for torture apologists.” U.S. senators warned that the film’s flaws have “the potential to shape American public opinion in a disturbing and misleading manner.”
So when I went to see the film, I was expecting the worst kind of gut-wrenching brutality. But what I saw, please forgive me, wasn’t all that bad. It doesn’t touch the extreme violence of your average Quentin Tarantino movie or much of the pornographic violence that spews from Hollywood. The lengthy interrogation scenes show slaps, punches, sleep deprivation, food deprivation, waterboarding, sexual humiliation (nakedness) and being locked up inside a small box. All of this is pretty close to the facts, according to those who know. It’s what was known as “enhanced interrogation,” although a better name would be “torture lite.”
Ms. Bigelow says depicting torture is not the same as endorsing it. In the film, some people give up information under torture, and others don’t. Her own view of the story is that the torture, or enhanced interrogation or whatever you want to call it, was not the key to finding Osama bin Laden. But it was “a part of the story we couldn’t ignore.”
But it did yield some valuable information – including a clue to the location of bin Laden’s safe house in Pakistan. Former CIA head Michael Hayden has called this information critical. After some of the CIA’s interrogation techniques became politically unacceptable, he scaled back the program. But that, too, had consequences. At a Washington forum convened to discuss the movie this week, Mr. Hayden said people can stop worrying about the treatment of future detainees because it’s not worth capturing them any more. “We have made it so legally difficult and so politically dangerous to capture that it seems … the best option is to take the terrorist off the battlefield.”
The brilliance of this movie is that it isn’t black and white – just many shades of grey. So, too, is the moral complexity of fighting terrorism. Are there acceptable ways to interrogate bad guys? Is torture ever ethical? And what’s torture, anyway? Is it 10 seconds of waterboarding (the limit mandated by the CIA before it was banned)? Is it taking a guy’s pants off? And is it possible for honest people to disagree about the answers?
I suspect the general public is not as horrified by these questions as the movie’s critics are. Most people with the slightest sense of history know the world isn’t always a pleasant place. Not all fights are waged by the rule of law or in the light of day, and not all civil liberties are respected. Good people sometimes do bad things in the shadows. Perhaps the ends do justify the means sometimes. We can only hope and pray that wise people are making those decisions, and that most of them work out in ways that will let them sleep at night. Thank God we don’t have to.
Meantime, the idea that the next government will be more attentive to human rights than the last one is generally a delusion. Barack Obama slammed the door on enhanced interrogation and vowed to shut down Guantanamo (although he hasn’t). But now he’s waging drone wars in half a dozen countries, delivering death from the sky to hundreds of people, not all of whom are bad guys. Is there a moral case for drones, or are they a crime against humanity? You could argue about that, too.
Editor's note: Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher. In an earlier version of this article, there was a missing space between his surname and the word "also." This online version has been corrected.