Does Zero Dark Thirty Really Defend Torture?

Deciphering Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming film about the hunt for bin Laden


Early accounts of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's upcoming film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, are calling the movie a defense of abusive interrogations. Over the weekend The New York Times' Frank Bruni wrote that it "presents the kind of torture that Cheney advocated—but that President Obama ended—as something of an information-extracting necessity, repellent but fruitful." That column set off still more commentary, as Glenn Greenwald, treating Bruni's description as accurate, complained that the picture "propagandizes the public to favorably view clear war crimes by the US government, based on pure falsehoods."

But what if Bruni's description isn't accurate after all? Writing in Wired, Spencer Ackerman argues that Bigelow

Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents

presents a graphic depiction of what declassified CIA documents indicate the torture program really was…."Uncooperative" detainees are held down by large men and doused through a towel with water until they spew it up. (There's no "boarding" in this "waterboarding.") Helpless detainees are shown with rheumy eyes, desperate for the torture to stop, while their captors promise them nourishment and keep their promises by forcing Ensure down their throats through a funnel. Amar al-Baluchi, mocked for defecating on himself, is stripped and forced to wear a dog collar while Dan rides him, to alert the detainee to his helplessness.

These are not "enhanced interrogation techniques," as apologists for the abuse have called it. There is little interrogation presented in Zero Dark Thirty. There is a shouted question, followed by brutality. At one point, "Maya," a stand-in for the dedicated CIA agents who actually succeeded at hunting bin Laden, points out that one abused detainee couldn't possibly have the information the agents are demanding of him. The closest the movie comes to presenting a case for the utility of torture is by presenting the name of a key bin Laden courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, as resulting from an interrogation not shown on screen. But—spoiler alert—the CIA ultimately comes to learn that it misunderstood the context of who that courier was and what he actually looked like. All that happens over five years after the torture program initiated. Meanwhile, the real intelligence work begins when a CIA agent bribes a Kuwaiti with a yellow Lamborghini for the phone number of the courier's mother, and through extensive surveillance, like a police procedural, the manhunt rolls to its climax. If this is the case for the utility of torture, it's a weak case—nested within a strong case for the inhumanity of it.

Since I haven't seen Zero Dark Thirty, I'll refrain from weighing in on whether Bruni or Ackerman has described it more truthfully. I will note that three decades ago Bigelow was working for the radical journal Semiotext(e) and playing a part in Lizzie Borden's guerrilla-feminist science-fiction film Born in Flames (which ends as Zero Dark Thirty begins, with an explosion at the World Trade Center). I know better than to assume that Bigelow still holds any of those political commitments today. But I wouldn't go into one of her movies assuming I'll see an apologia for empire, either.

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  1. I’m just going to come right out say it: I simply don’t give a fucking crap that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed got water poured on his nose, I never have, and I never will either. Why is this bastard still alive by the way?

    1. Of course you don’t, scumbag. Go rattle your saber and stroke your bloodthirst boner elsewhere.

      1. As long as the right people are doing it to the right people, it’s fine. The right people will be in charge forever, right?

      2. It’s called a WARBONER, you fucking idiot.

        1. Is “bloodboner” redundant?

        2. Actually, I think we have a new type of boner, which should please you of all people immensely. TORTUREBONER.

          1. That’s my band’s name, you fucking copyright infringing prick. You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.

            ProGlib, I command you to sue him!

            1. Can you afford to pay ProL his fees? Because I can. ProL, countersue Warty!

              1. ProGlib! I command you to countercountersue Episiarch! On contingency this time!

            2. ProGlib, I command you to sue him!


              1. You know, the only person who makes out in this is ProL. We should think about that.

                1. I have you on the ropes! ProGlib! Finish him off with a final sue while he pauses to reconsider his actions!

            3. Wouldn’t that be trademark infringement?

              1. Fuck you, Zeb. I’ll patent your ass so fast your head will spin.

          2. Well, without a partner nearby to release it, every boner is torture after all.

          3. Isn’t TORTUREBONER just BDSM and/or a Japanese punk band?

    2. Just like how how people don’t care about drones, assassination, indefinite detention, etc, as long as they’re told that the targets are terrorist. The whole point of rights and civil liberties is that the must be respected for everyone. A government that ignores them for scumbags is inevitably going to ignore them when it comes to the innocent as well

    3. See, I give a shit about torture. As a teacher at the AFA once told me: “I don’t support torture. The intel you get from torture is too unreliable. I do support the threat of torture.”

      And, yeah, I don’t mind if they drag his buddy off into the next room, shoot a gun off in the air, and then come back and say, “The next one goes in you.”

      But actual torture is going to produce shit intel, as well as violate every principle we stand for.

      The death penalty, otoh, is okay in my book. As its currently administered, maybe not, but no one will ever convince me that it is immoral to kill the John Wayne Gacys of this world.

      1. But actual torture is going to produce shit intel

        If this is true, then water on the nose can’t be real torture, because it gave us great intel that eventually led right to Osama’s bedroom.

        1. You’re a scumbag. Truly. Enjoy being a shitty human being.

        2. That’s false. It’s even in the movie that the torture didn’t lead to Bin Laden.

      2. And, yeah, I don’t mind if they drag his buddy off into the next room, shoot a gun off in the air, and then come back and say, “The next one goes in you.”

        You realize that is torture, under many definitions being bandied around, yes?

  2. What always bothered me about 24 was not that Jack Bauer tortured people. I could see that he was getting results. What bothered me is that every time he had to face an inquiry about his tactics, he always acted with hostility at the very idea that people would be troubled by his actions.

    This leads me to my viewpoint on torture. Even if it got you positive results, you should still be willing to face the consequences (no matter how unpleasant) for your actions.

    1. Second thing that bothered me about 24: Kim Bauer’s stupidity in seasons 1 and 2.

      1. I agree, and Kim is one of the worst characters ever created.

        1. Yeah, but look at her.

        2. She has been redeeming herself on Happy Endings however.

    2. …he always acted with hostility at the very idea that people would be troubled by his actions.

      He’s Jack fucking Bauer, you a-hole. You probably don’t think he should have cut Tony Siragusa’s head off at the beginning of Season 2, either.

    3. That’s about what I think about it. If you really believe that you can get information that will save many lives or something equally good from torturing someone, then do it and accept the consequences if you are such a selfless defender of free people.

      1. Yeah. It’s a contradictory character trait. On the one hand, he’s torturing people for the selfless notion of “the greater good.” But, when he’s forced to answer for his actions, he gets angry at the system for even questioning his actions, which seems a little selfish.

      2. I agree with that. The problem with saying torture is okay in some circumstances is that everyone thinks their circumstance is the most important thing in the world. So you very quickly go from waterboarding KSM to torturing some cab driver in Kanduhar.

  3. The article goes from apologia for torture to apologia for empire. Is there no torture in non-aligned states/kingdoms/satrapies? Or is torture only an accoutrement of empire? Doe torture bring about empires? And if we actually ahd anything resembling an actual, you know, empire, why aren’t we siphoning every last ounce of oil out of Iraq? And why do we have a freaking budget deficit with all the tribute we should be collecting?

    1. ^^THIS^^

      I thought the same thing. The word “empire” like NEOCON should be retired from the political lexicon. Both words have been raped beyond all recognition.

      1. I have to agree. Although I think we should have a much less active foreign policy and a much smaller military, “empire” is really not the right word for what the US does now in the world. Maybe “globalized cronyism” would work.

        1. International world power. What we do is no different that what every other major power in history has done. We just whine more about it and try to do it more humanly often to the detriment of our interests.

          1. So if we’re like every other world power in history, then how are we not an empire?

            1. The word empire has some negative connotations. Can’t apply negative connotations to the military. John may hate cops, but he’ll suck any soldier dick he can get his lips around.

            2. Because not every world power was an empire. Most of them were during the age of imperialism. But so what? They were still world powers before they started colonizing.

              Until we start taking over shit and declaring it colonies or permanent vessels, we are not an empire.

              1. Well, John, we have basically done that in the past. How do you think we acquired Hawaii?

                1. How do you think we acquired Hawaii?

                  Or California? On second thought, Mexico can have it back.

                2. Well, John, we have basically done that in the past. How do you think we acquired Hawaii?

                  Sure. And you could say we were in some sense an “empire” in 1908. In 2012? Not so much.

              2. Are you claiming we don’t have permanent vassals?

                1. Are you claiming we don’t have permanent vassals?

                  Puerto Ricardo? No, that’s not it. Fuck.

            3. We are not an empire, more like meddling assholes who get all whiny about having that pointed out.

    2. And why do we have a freaking budget deficit with all the tribute we should be collecting?

      This empire pays for its conquests with money borrowed from future taxpayers instead of the spoils of the conquered.

      Remember, our government is here to help. And help it does. Real hard. Good and hard. Over and over. Deep and hard. Helping is good. Helping is real good. Oh yeah.

      1. That is completely fucking retarded. This empire is an empire by not taking anything from anyone and turning countries over to local rule. Yeah, that makes sense.

        Once again, can you stop raping the poor word? Hasn’t it had enough?

  4. …the kind of torture that Cheney advocated?but that President Obama ended…

    Extraordinary rendition has ended? No? Obama didn’t end torture – he outsourced it.

    1. Of course Obama ended torture, right after he closed Gitmo.

      1. It was a rider on the Patriot Act Repeal bill.

    2. And that policy change was put into effect years before Obama took office. His bootlickers are human toe jam. The fucking worst that mankind has to offer.

      1. Twice the excuses of the other team’s bootlickers plus all of the depravity.

    3. Beat me to, Baked One.

      It is a rather charitable assumption that when the people who used to “torture” say they aren’t any more, well, that must mean they aren’t, amirite?

  5. The problem with this movie is that Bin Laden died in December 2001 from kidney disease.

    1. Wouldn’t it be a kick if it turned out that it wasn’t bin Laden that they shot, and that’s why they dumped the body at sea?

      The more I think about it . . . .

      Seriously, they had bad intel (hardly the first time), mount a raid into a civilian neighborhood of a (nominal) ally, kill a bunch of people, and then find out, oopsie, wrong guy.

      What are they going to do? Admit it? No. Cover it up, and you can’t cover it up until you get rid of the evidence.

      1. There’s no way just airplane fuel can melt steel.

        1. I know, I know, I’m just saying its more plausible than most conspiracy theories, because it starts with the assumption that the conspirators are bumbling idiots, rather than evil masterminds.

      2. R C,

        This is probably the most believable explanation as to why we had to dunmp the body over-board so fast.

        I don’t believe it’s the truth, however, because there is absolutely no evidence that this administration has ever had the planning or forethought to do anything so remotely competent.

      3. There were supposedly several women in the house. Where are they?

  6. Torture is morally justifiable in situations such as the ticking time bomb scenario. Discuss.

    1. As long as it’s not an innocent party, I generally lean that way, yeah. It’s the only exception I can think of though. I don’t see it as being much different from killing someone to save lives. I wouldn’t kill someone who didn’t do anything, but if someone part of a plan to kill people had to die to avert it? I’d kill them. I’d torture them too if I thought it did anything.

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