Zero Dark Thirty is about the underworld of America. Not everyone would like seeing the United States from this perspective. We would prefer to see this bright, shining world illumined by values such as freedom, equality and justice for all. Little League baseball. Apple pie. Church on Sunday.
The film opens with a torture scene. What you see on the screen is very similar to the evil that survivors of torture have experienced in Argentina, Chile, Iran, Syria, the former Soviet Union, etc. Now torture is being sold to us in the free world as "enhanced interrogation techniques." It is becoming almost impossible to maintain democratic freedoms and human rights when, sadly, some leaders and citizens in the West support the holes of oblivion that America has constructed in the world after 9/11. These "black sites" are outside the rule of law, outside the reach of justice and mercy. It is there that we attempt to justify the practice of torture as a means to protect "our way of life." But doesn't our way of life include a respect for human rights even when the going gets tough?
Torture is not designed to get information; its purpose is to break the human soul, to intimidate, to control. When watching a film about the atrocities of Hitler, for example, or Pinochet, or the Khmer Rouge, it is easy for the average viewer in the West to say, "My God! How could those barbarians do that?" But in Zero Dark Thirty, we watch, knowing that this is happening in the U.S. It is important to know this reality and face it, but any film that deals with torture needs to stick to the facts and avoid speculation and overdramatization. Reading the extensive amount of material on how Osama bin Laden was found, one quickly realizes that not only did torture not help in his capture, but also, by providing false information, it hindered the process. This is the fact the film fails to convey.
Zero Dark Thirty forces us to witness the degradation of human beings – not only the tortured, but also the torturers become twisted; everyone involved, from both sides, is degraded in the process. It is an illusion that a society can rely on torture and remain civilized in the process. Evil does not come to us from another planet. It lives right here inside every one of us. Torture must be abolished so that we can reclaim ourselves as moral human beings.
The film begins with the sounds of the suffering of 9/11 victims. And as it continues, it unfolds a terrible tragedy: that by taking the path of torture in fighting those who committed a terrible crime against us, we are becoming more and more like them. Even as we think we are defeating them, they are winning. Courage and goodness do not live in guns and instruments of torture.
The "heroine" of the film is a young CIA woman who has spent all of her adult life, 12 years, searching for bin Laden. For 12 years, she has done little else. She has no friends, no other interests. She is like America, a nation that has become defined for 12 years by the enemy, bin Laden. It is through her persistence, and with the aid of considerable technology, that he is finally killed.
In the last scene of the film, the CIA heroine boards a plane to depart from Afghanistan. One of the flight crew asks her, "Where do you want to go?" She doesn't answer. She can't answer. Like America without a tangible enemy, like America without a positive vision, she doesn't know where to go. Or why.
Mary Jo Leddy and Marina Nemat serve on the advisory committee of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Toronto).