Oscar's snub belies Zero Dark Thirty's importance
Politically – and in some ways even culturally – the latest round of Academy Awards were correctly attributed. Which is not usually an easy thing to say.
Best Picture winner Argo was a rare Hollywood film painting not only the United States in a respectable light, but also told an uplifting narrative of the Central Intelligence Agency actually touching something that didn’t immediately turn to dust.
The cameras, of course, had well and truly finished rolling before the escalating tension between the United States and Iran intensified after the 1979 Iranian hostage debacle.
Zero Dark Thirty was the better movie, even though it only won the Best Sound Editing award. It wasn’t better by choice of scenery or dialog, but it was because of how the story’s subject was approached and the cultural questions it raised about the war of the last decade and finding al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
The Academy chose their winner correctly because many people in the US and, indeed, the world, are probably not quite ready to coolly look at the film’s cringingly disturbing torture scenes and decide where to place them on the cultural bookshelf.
Torture is a nasty topic for dinner conversation and many people, quite within the bounds of sanity, prefer not to discuss it in polite company.
Critics of the film have landed largely down one of two sides regarding the use of torture for intelligence: it is either morally wrong and tactically pointless, or tactically important and morally ambiguous. But there is a third side.
The movie describes a semi-fictional character undergoing torture by semi-fictional US government employees for information about an impending terror attack.
After his torture, the detainee divulges snippets about the name of one of bin Laden’s couriers, but giving it up was not directly a result of the torture. The well-known story unfolds from there.
Using torture for intelligence
This shows three things. First, that information gained from tortured subjects sometimes can expose real and useful information. Second, the US was willing to use torture and expected it to work. And third, that defending or not defending torture is not the point of the film; rather, the question of the utility of torture is the issue really worth raising.
Even though torture apparently led the detainee to talk about bin Laden’s courier, the patterns were pieced together over many more years by diligent CIA employees connecting multiple lines of converging evidence streams to get a clearer picture of his whereabouts.
However, torture was not directly responsible for this initial success, or at least it is not clear it was. What squeezed the information from the detainee’s head was a clever psychological game about the result of his fellow Jihadist’s approaching strike.
Torture was definitely used, and the man was clearly bedraggled and exhausted, perhaps oiling the gears in his mind, but the question was asked and answered using shrewd, hands-off psychology.
Whether or not torture was as prevalent in the American intelligence community as it is depicted in the film belies the clear take-home point of torture’s medieval nature.
Torture is archaic and possesses an expired usefulness. Torture has moved into the realm of sadism and humiliation.
Pressing the fictional man in the torture chamber to deliver information about bin Laden only serendipitously revealed the useful information. It was only realised later by CIA analysts to be important when other lines of evidence converged and a pattern emerged. The tortured man’s words were considered part of the rest of his gibberish at the time.
More intriguingly, a scene later in the film showed a CIA employee digging out a manila folder containing details of bin Laden’s courier.
The file apparently lay in an office cabinet for years before it was read, suggesting the CIA’s real problem is a lack of good filing systems and the ability to actually read the information they already have.
Had the agency done this in the first place, the detainee’s ordeal may not have been necessary.
Would the Americans have found bin Laden without the use of torture? Maybe. But it was obviously integral to his death.
While it might sometimes elicit valuable information, the results must be weighed against the ethics of our society.
Moral high ground lost
Morally, many people recoil from the idea of using torture but they do this exactly because it can be so effective. It may not always work, but it has been a useful tool in the past.
Mark Bowden, author of The Finish, in a review of the movie’s torture scenes, says “we forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value – in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy”.
His point is that saying torture fails goes beyond saying it is wrong. If it didn’t work, then those using it would simply be cruel. Instead, we hate it precisely because it works, and it is a nasty thing to do with little justification.
We know torture is effective, and we know the US decided to use it. But as any psychology undergraduate knows, and the film depicts, there are plenty of ways to extract information without torture. It just takes a little more cunning.
Embarrassingly, both al Qaeda and its Western enemies returned to the gloomy days of pre-enlightenment to fight their war.
The Islamist doctrine bin Laden espoused needed the desert sand swept off its pages before he began reciting. His game was always steeped in bronze-age myths and ideology. Perhaps his conduct and eventual actions could have been interdicted before he became the Jihadist pole star.
And frustratingly, in the 21st century, the culturally and technologically much more advanced nation of America completely vindicated the ranting and raving of a zealot.
Bin Laden wanted the world to see how corrupt and depraved the US could really be. He was convinced that if the world would just open its eyes and see the West for what it really was his victory would be assured.
In the end, America’s widespread use of torture and abdication of the moral high ground handed bin Laden a significant ideological triumph. It was only bin Laden’s tactical ineptitude and the overwhelming power and resources of the US that meant he could not press this victory.
Just as frustratingly, it is very clear the last decade did not need to emerge so broodingly and callously stained. Our advanced knowledge of human psychology should have replaced the use of torture.
Zero Dark Thirty solidly outlined the vacuous use of torture and, if there is any justice in the world, should help banish the tactic to the history books once and for all.
The use of torture in such a capricious and vengeful way was entirely unnecessary and director Kathryn Bigelow's movie expertly shows why. Had things been different the hunt for bin Laden might well have been a joy to tell our children, rather than a tale of history we prefer not to recite.
Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict