Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Violence and Torture in Zero Dark Thirty

According to many critics and news pundits, Zero Dark Thirty shows the efficacy of enhanced interrogation, an Orwellian euphemism of which former Vice-President Cheney must be fond, one that substitutes for the plain, old, ugly word, torture. In fact, from the first reviews to current ones, many critiques have begun and closed with comments upon the early scenes depicting torture. I’ve heard and read that some people had to look away, some covered their eyes, and some quelled nausea with deep breathing or tiny sips of soda. I too must admit that the indignities and abuses heaped upon the prisoner were hard to watch, but no more difficult than fictional and non-fictional re-enactments of predators inflicting horrific damage upon victims, innocent or guilty. Have you seen the first episode of The Following? I didn't watch the second.

I must also declare that I was prepared for what would unfold on the screen. I had followed the newsreaders when they echoed each other about Abu Ghraib. I saw that poor girl, Lindy, cigarette dangling from her lip, holding a leash that will forever connect her in the minds of the masses with sadomasochism. I saw Rendition (2007) and read about real-life rendition and CIA black ops. I also know that the U.S. has an ignoble past and present. We assassinated Patrice Lamumba, a duly elected leader of the Republic of the Congo, after deep-pockets persuaded Eisenhower that Lamumba was a threat to Western interests in Africa, and Lamumba's death is not the only blood on our national hands. Much of what we now reap, we have sown in political intrigue and betrayal.

I grant that what Kathryn Bigelow dramatized is a sorrowful portrait of recent history, but it should not be shocking or even the most memorable portrayal of violence in the film. Bombs blast bodies, bullets pierce flesh and bone, and bureaucrats order deaths from the safety of their desks while Navy Seals and Maya, the protagonist, carry the stains of the blood spilled. Whether good guys have good reasons for their actions or bad guys deserve to be hunted and executed does not diminish the enormity of those decisions and actions. Men and women, for good and evil purposes, stand as judges, juries, and executioners.

We must surely dread the machinations of our enemies, and we are surely indebted to our defenders. We need people who will undertake the unpleasant acts that foster a civilized society. We need men and women who will scrape animal carcasses from the roadways. We need those who will wash human blood and sweep broken glass from those same roads when one of us dies there violently. We need morticians to gloss over the brutal truth about decay. We need fire fighters and policemen who will stagger over rubble to find pieces of us, and we need soldiers who will set aside their humanity to kill in our names.

But we need to be deliberate and slow to send these people off to work. We must not require their sacrifices without having tried all other means, and Bigelow portrays those other means as well. She does not omit the mind-numbing hours spent watching hours and hours of taped interviews. She includes the tedium of reading and re-reading notes and files collected by unseen, unfamiliar hands. She reveals the intuitive leaps and gut-calls that put people on a path, sometimes to their own destruction. These techniques are as necessary to the assassination of bin Laden as is enhanced interrogation; indeed, those other techniques spread over more than a decade, are more important to the solution than torture itself. Enhanced interrogation is but one small piece of a challenging puzzle, and it is a method set aside once that picture of Lindy appears.

We must take care not to be misled by shocking portraits of our worst selves, thereby missing the other, more effective methods in our arsenals. We must demand a greater respect for human dignity without also placing blinders on our faces. We can and should be better.