This week, Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow selectively screened “Zero Dark Thirty,” a film portraying the manhunt for Osama bin Laden and including graphic depictions of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. As critics contemplate the implications of these horrific scenes, conflicting reactions towards “Zero Dark Thirty” provoke debate on whether “enhanced interrogation techniques” entail critical methods for extracting imperative information, or merely demonize and jeopardize the United States. The discussion also examines whether the film itself heralds torture as effective and necessary, or serves as an expose of illegal and inhumane exploits.
Discourse around “Zero Dark Thirty” also underlies controversy in Congress concerning the Senate Intelligence Committee (SIC) report investigating CIA interrogation. SIC lead Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) recently announced that, though still withholding its 6,000-page report:
The committee is…scheduled to vote to approve the report. … Any decision on declassification and release of any portion of the report will be decided by committee members at a later time.
While our government obscures its illicit and severe conduct, “Zero Dark Thirty”, with its vivid and disturbing visuals, may incite We the people to loudly oppose the implementation of torture. As Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel, Ninth Circuit Judge Jay Bybee authorized waterboarding, closed confinement, sleep deprivation, air restriction, and other heinous forms of abuse in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention. The UN defines “torture” as:
…any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.
Under the ‘torture memos’, a series of documents including twisted legal analysis and private memorandums, the CIA euphemized torture as “enhanced interrogation tactics” and committed contemptible acts with zero due process, transparency, or accountability. This creates a pernicious standard justifying near-lethal treatment for individuals who pose no threat or possess no pertinent information, while the perpetrators of such acts enjoy impunity. Furthermore, the CIA destroyed video evidence of torture in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This absurd degree of insulation and evasion undermines separation of powers by negating judicial review, and diminishes the people’s rights by thwarting public oversight.
Vicious scenes of “interrogation” in “Zero Dark Thirty” confront viewers with a truth that our government eludes: the CIA used torture, despite its inefficacy, to coerce insignificant information from low-level or innocent suspects. In doing so, this organization obstructed justice, compromised the pursuit of true threats, and humiliated the United States in the eyes of the world. Although the Obama administration expressly repudiates the use of torture, lack of liability and openness further enable torture and other reprehensible practices.
In his second term, President Obama must take active measures to preserve justice, civil liberties, and human rights. Acting under his proper power, President Obama must order the declassification of documents, photographs, and video evidence concerning CIA secret sites and torture programs. Additionally, President Obama must order the release of SIC’s report on CIA torture. Without authoritative action to address the illegality of government conduct, particularly when it so devastatingly impacts the human condition, a nominal rejection signifies scarcely more than a look of disapproval. The rest of the world glares upon the United States for its failed response to the cruel and criminal acts of its government agents.
Ultimately, “Zero Dark Thirty” may simply represent a film director’s vision of a highly intriguing narrative. However, whether inadvertently or not, it raises realities of what has happened and exploration into what must be done to end torture and other inhumane acts by our government.