How Zero Dark Thirty Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love Torture (Greenberg)

Karen J. Greenberg writes at

On January 11th, 11 years to the day after the Bush administration opened its notorious prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s deeply flawed movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, opens nationwide. The filmmakers and distributors are evidently ignorant of the significance of the date — a perfect indication of the carelessness and thoughtlessness of the film, which will unfortunately substitute for actual history in the minds of many Americans.

The sad fact is that Zero Dark Thirty could have been written by the tight circle of national security advisors who counseled President George W. Bush to create the post-9/11 policies that led to Guantanamo, the global network of borrowed “black sites” that added up to an offshore universe of injustice, and the grim torture practices — euphemistically known as “enhanced interrogation techniques” — that went with them.  It’s also a film that those in the Obama administration who have championed non-accountability for such shameful policies could and (evidently did) get behind. It might as well be called Back to the Future, Part IV, for the film, like the country it speaks to, seems stuck forever in that time warp moment of revenge and hubris that swept the country just after 9/11.

As its core, Bigelow’s film makes the bald-faced assertion that torture did help the United States track down the perpetrator of 9/11. Zero Dark Thirty — for anyone who doesn’t know by now — is the story of Maya (Jessica Chastain), a young CIA agent who believes that information from a detainee named Ammar will lead to bin Laden. After weeks, maybe months of torture, he does indeed provide a key bit of information that leads to another piece of information that leads… well, you get the idea. Eventually, the name of bin Laden’s courier is revealed. From the first mention of his name, Maya dedicates herself to finding him, and he finally leads the CIA to the compound where bin Laden is hiding.  Of course, you know how it all ends.

However compelling the heroine’s determination to find bin Laden may be, the fact is that Bigelow has bought in, hook, line, and sinker, to the ethos of the Bush administration and its apologists. It’s as if she had followed an old government memo and decided to offer in fictional form step-by-step instructions for the creation, implementation, and selling of Bush-era torture and detention policies.

Here, then, are the seven steps that bring back the Bush administration and should help Americans learn how to love torture, Bigelow-style.

First, Rouse Fear. From its opening scene, Zero Dark Thirty equates our post-9/11 fears with the need for torture. The movie begins in darkness with the actual heartbreaking cries and screams for help of people trapped inside the towers of the World Trade Center: “I’m going to die, aren’t I?… It’s so hot. I’m burning up…” a female voice cries out. As those voices fade, the black screen yields to a full view of Ammar being roughed up by men in black ski masks and then strung up, arms wide apart.

The sounds of torture replace the desperate pleas of the victims. “Is he ever getting out?” Maya asks. “Never,” her close CIA associate Dan (Jason Clarke) answers.  These are meant to be words of reassurance in response to the horrors of 9/11. Bigelow’s first step, then, is to echo former Vice-President Dick Cheney’s mantra from that now-distant moment in which he claimed the nation needed to go to “the dark side.”  That was part of his impassioned demand that, given the immense threat posed by al-Qaeda, going beyond the law was the only way to seek retribution and security.

Bigelow also follows Cheney’s lead into a world of fear.  The Bush administration understood that, for their global dreams, including a future invasion of Iraq, to become reality, fear was their best ally. From Terre Haute to El Paso, Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, Americans were to be regularly reminded that they were deeply and eternally endangered by terrorists.

Bigelow similarly keeps the fear monitor bleeping whenever she can. Interspersed with the narrative of the bin Laden chase, she provides often blood-filled footage from terrorist attacks around the globe in the decade after 9/11: the 2004 bombings of oil installations in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that killed 22; the 2005 suicide bombings in London that killed 56; the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad that killed 54 people; and the thwarted Times Square bombing of May, 2010. We are in constant jeopardy, she wants us to remember, and uses Maya to remind us of this throughout.

Second, Undermine the Law. Torture is illegal under both American and international law.  It was only pronounced “legal” in a series of secret memorandums produced by the Bush Justice Department and approved at the highest levels of the administration. (Top officials, including Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, evidently even had torture techniques demonstrated for them in the White House before green-lighting them.)  Maintaining that there was no way Americans could be kept safe via purely legal methods, they asked for and were given secret legal authority to make torture the go-to option in their Global War on Terror. Yet Bigelow never even nods toward this striking rethinking of the law. She assumes the legality of the acts she portrays up close and personal, only hedging her bets toward the movie’s end when she indicates in passing that the legal system was a potential impediment to getting bin Laden. “Who the hell am I supposed to ask [for confirmation about the courier], some guy at Gitmo who’s all lawyered up?” asks Obama’s national security advisor in the filmic run-up to the raid.

Just as new policies were put in place to legalize torture, so the detention of terror suspects without charges or trials (including people who, we now know, were treated horrifically despite being innocent of anything) became a foundational act of the administration. Specifically, government lawyers were employed to create particularly tortured (if you’ll excuse the word) legal documents exempting detainees from the Geneva Conventions, thus enabling their interrogation under conditions that blatantly violated domestic and international laws.

Zero Dark Thirty accepts without hesitation or question the importance of this unconstitutional detention policy as crucial to the torture program. From the very first days of the war on terror, the U.S. government rounded up individuals globally and began to question them brutally. Whether they actually had information to reveal, whether the government had any concrete evidence against them, they held hundreds — in the end, thousands — of detainees in U.S. custody at secret CIA black sites worldwide, in the prisons of allied states known for their own torture policies, at Bagram Detention Center in Afghanistan, and of course at Guantanamo, which was the crown jewel of the Bush administration’s offshore detention system.

Dan and Maya themselves not only travel to secret black sites to obtain valuable information from detainees, but to the cages and interrogation booths at Bagram where men in those now-familiar orange jumpsuits are shown awaiting a nightmare experience.  Bigelow’s film repeatedly suggests that it was crucially important for national security to keep a pool of potential information sources — those detainees — available just in case they might one day turn out to have information.

Third, Indulge in the Horror: Torture is displayed onscreen in what can only be called pornographic detail for nearly the film’s first hour. In this way, Zero Dark Thirty eerily mimics the obsessive, essentially fetishistic approach of Bush’s top officials to the subject.  Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s former Chief of Staff David Addington, and John Yoo from the Office of Legal Counsel, among others, plunged into the minutiae of “enhanced interrogation” tactics, micro-managing just what levels of abuse should and should not apply, would and would not constitute torture after 9/11.

In black site after black site, on victim after victim, the movie shows acts of torture in exquisite detail, Bigelow’s camera seeming to relish its gruesomeness: waterboarding, stress positions, beatings, sleep deprivation resulting in memory loss and severe disorientation, sexual humiliation, containment in a small box, and more. Whenever she gets the chance, Bigelow seems to take the opportunity to suggest that this mangling of human flesh and immersion in brutality on the part of Americans is at least understandable and probably worthwhile.  The film’s almost subliminal message on the subject of torture should remind us of the way in which a form of sadism-as-patriotic-duty filtered down to the troops on the ground, as evidenced by the now infamous 2004 photos from Abu Ghraib of smiling American soldiers offering thumbs-up responses to their ability to humiliate and hurt captives in dog collars.

Fourth, Dehumanize the Victims. Like the national security establishment that promoted torture policies, Bigelow dehumanizes her victims. Despite repeated beatings, humiliations, and aggressive torture techniques of various sorts, Ammar never becomes even a faintly sympathetic character to anyone in the film. As a result, there is never anyone for the audience to identify with who becomes emotionally distraught over the abuses. Dehumanization was a necessary tool in promoting torture; now, it is a necessary tool in promoting Zero Dark Thirty, which desensitizes its audience in ways that should be frightening to us and make us wonder who exactly we have become in the years since 9/11.

Fifth, Never Doubt That Torture Works.  Given all this, it’s a small step to touting the effectiveness of torture in eliciting the truth. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro’: it’s biology,” Dan says to his victim.  He also repeats over and over, “If you lie to me, I hurt you” — meaning, “If I hurt you, you won’t lie to me.” Maya concurs, telling Ammar, bruised, bloodied, and begging for her help, that he can stop his pain by telling the truth.

How many times does the American public need to be told that torture did not yield the results the government promised? How many times does it need to be said that waterboarding Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11, 183 times obviously didn’t work? How many times does it need to be pointed out that torture can — and did — produce misleading or false information, notably in the torture of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the Libyan who ran an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan and who confessed under torture that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?    

Sixth, Hold No One Accountable. The Obama administration made the determination that holding Bush administration figures, CIA officials, or the actual torturers responsible for what they did in a court of law was far more trouble than it might ever be worth. Instead, the president chose to move on and officially never look back. Bigelow takes advantage of this passivity to suggest to her audience that the only downside of torture is the fear of accountability. As he prepares to leave Pakistan, Dan tells Maya, “You gotta be real careful with the detainees now. Politics are changing and you don’t want to be the last one holding the dog collar when the oversight committee comes…”

The sad truth is that Zero Dark Thirty could not have been produced in its present form if any of the officials who created and implemented U.S. torture policy had been held accountable for what happened, or any genuine sunshine had been thrown upon it. With scant public debate and no public record of accountability, Bigelow feels free to leave out even a scintilla of criticism of that torture program. Her film is thus one more example of the fact that without accountability, the pernicious narrative continues, possibly gaining traction as it does.

Seventh, Employ the Media. While the Bush administration had the Fox television series 24 as a weekly reminder that torture keeps us safe, the current administration, bent on its no-accountability policy, has Bigelow’s film on its side. It’s the perfect piece of propaganda, with all the appeal that naked brutality, fear, and revenge can bring.

Hollywood and most of its critics have embraced the film. It has already been named among the best films of the year, and is considered a shoe-in for Oscar nominations. Hollywood, that one-time bastion of liberalism, has provided the final piece in the perfect blueprint for the whitewashing of torture policy.  If that isn’t a happily-ever-after ending, what is?

Karen J. Greenberg, a TomDispatch regular, is the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. She is the author of The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo’s First 100 Days and the co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib.

Copyright 2013 Karen J. Greenberg


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29 Responses

  1. Ironically, this treatment was similar to what downed American Air Force and Navy pilots endured in North Vietnam at the “Hanoi Hilton”. Sen. McCain has opposed CIA use of torture.

    Remember how upset President Reagan got over the abduction and torture of CIA chief of station William Buckley in Beirut? That is what eventually led to the deals with Iran for weapons-for-hostages.

    My recollection is that Afghanistan was a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Accords so that Taliban members were covered by the protections, so only foreign fighters in Afghanistan had no Geneva Accords protections and were subject to torture.

    The CIA themselves conceded in the “Family Jewels” report in 1973 under CIA Director James Schlesinger that laws may have been violated in the detention and torture of KGB defector Yuri Nosenko, who was eventually concluded to be a bona fide defector and was paid compensation for his detention by the CIA.

  2. In point three,
    a significan flasehood is perpetuated.

    Lyndie England didn’t just decide on her own to humiliate prisoners.
    Major General Geoffrey Miller was transferred from Gitmo to Iraq in 2003 specifically to oversee systematic torture.
    Lyndie was just following orders.

    • The Lyndie England idiocy (the dog collar, etc.), along with that of her cohorts, was not part of the systematic enhanced interrogation and torture regime of either the military or the CIA. That incident was a case of idiots who thought they were having a lark. They were not attempting to gain information. They were just being abusive for the sake of their own sick entertainment Subsequently they were courtmartialled, found guilty, and imprisoned.

      • Bill,

        You would have us believe that a 22-year old single mom from West Virginia was able to recapitulate and independently develop the “no-touch” program of psychological torture that the CIA spent over a billion dollars to develop in the 1950s-1960s? The pictures from Abu Ghraib show very specific techniques that were pioneered by the CIA (but which have admittedly been disseminated throughout our intelligence apparatus and exported to our allies). If you don’t believe the CIA involvement (through private contractors Titan and CACI, as attested by whistleblowers), Maj. Gen. Taguba directly implicated Military Intelligence in his report:

        “6. a. (U)
        From 25 July 2003 to 6 February 2004, twenty-seven (27) 205 MI BDE personnel allegedly:

        Requested, encouraged, condoned, or solicited MP personnel to abuse detainees or;

        Participated in detainee abuse or;

        Violated established interrogation procedures and applicable laws and regulations as preparation for interrogation operations at Abu Ghraib.”

        • PG, there sure is a nice supply of people who are pretty good about subtle and not so subtle information dys-semination, as it were. Casting doubt, floating factoids, reproducing sections of the Narrative per the coding provided by the Establishment. Just enough truth mixed in to make the truthiness more credible. People who when called out on obvious factual problems with their stories just move on to the next post, knowing how so few of us try to track and integrate this stuff very much, and waiting the next opportunity to dys-inform or “correct” any dissenters.

          There’s a lot of other techniques that various parts of US, The Nation, have gotten good at, including be-fog-of-warring, Mysterialization, claims of superior knowledge and desperate skills, rendition, de-stabilization, data mining, compartmentalization, deniability, disappearing people and large amounts of money, all that kind of stuff. Too bad so few of US, The Nation, put their efforts into working on the survival of the species and the stability of the planet.

          I’m sure it’s all done in good faith, and in good taste, and for our own good. Right?

        • First of all, Lyndie England was one of eleven soldiers convicted at Abu Ghraib, so discussing the scandal in terms of what she, individually, came up with is unhelpful. The record from the case shows pretty clearly that she was going along with her scumbag superior/slash boyfriend, Charles Graner, who was a corrections officer in his civilian life – which has all sorts of wonderful implications.

          Secondly, you move the goalposts pretty dramatically when go from “she was just following orders” to “they learned their techniques somewhere.” The night-squad freak show involving England and Graner, which got all of the attention, seems to have been a distinct, although related, scandal from the authorized, professional “enhanced interrogation” practices that the actual interrogators from the CIA and military engaged in. Noting that one of these things happened doesn’t eliminate the existence of the other.

        • Some detainees recently won a large settlement from the abu Gharib abuse yes ? That at least is some cold comfort for those of us who would still like to see accountabilty for the madness that became our national policy to torture prisoners to no good ends .

      • Joe From Lowell,

        It seems pretty clear from the testimony, particularly Sabrina Harman’s, that Graner’s unit was tasked with softening up prisoners for both military intelligence and the CIA. Lord knows that Graner may have picked up some of the techniques stateside in his stint as a corrections officer, that stuff is bad enough, but the particular emphasis on sexual humiliation, as well as the hooded-man-on-box-with-electrodes are hallmarks of the CIA-designed torture regime, and seem unlikely to be coincidental. Also, the corpse on ice that Graner is giving the thumbs up next to was testified to have died during an interrogation.

  3. I disagree.

    I see the movie far differently. I see the movie as an illumination of our policies and tactics the last decade, not a hagiography of them.

    The movie is showing us how screwed up our policy was by showing it to us. Its rubbing our nose in it. Its shining a light on this world. It shows what was done in my name, and in the name of every American.

    • You may be right. If what you’re saying is that ZDT is essentially a coming-out movie, where the US has decided that its going to put aside its pretenses at being a bit more evolved/advanced (dare I say exceptional, even in terms of aspirations?), and just say, only with pride, that we’re as low/base as any nation state animal ever has been.

      • This whole article is a misreading of the whole film. I am not even a fan of this movie. I am just tired of people misrepresenting the facts.

        That prisoner you speak of who is tortured ONLY gives up the name that sets the rest of the film in motion in a moment when he is treated as an equal. They try to torture him on many different occasions and he remains tight lipped. It is when they sit him down and feed him – manipulating him, sure – that he finally divulges the name of the courier. Is it possible that this very scene was shown so as NOT to give the impression that torture equals answers? I think that should be considered. I am not arguing that torture was not part of the process, but you misrepresent how this movie presents the very delicate issue of torture to the audience.

        Your assertions that the victims are dehumanized is even stranger to me. We as the audience are made to sympathize with the men being tortured. You then complain that the horror of torture is exploited, not realizing that it is this very horror that makes the victims of torture sympathetic to the audience. Who in their right mind sees those scenes and thinks, “Yeah! Get ’em!”

        How – in your opinion – should this movie have presented torture? Torture is shown to have happened. We are thankfully treated as intelligent people who can make our own minds up about it. Do you really need a main character who is a stand-in for all of our consciences? Someone who is against what was obviously accepted as necessary collateral? Wouldn’t that white wash actual history, capturing it through the lense of a Disney film?

        I find your comments very uninformed.

  4. Bush said “we don’t torture” at a time when we were. Obama said the same thing after ordering it stopped, and this occurs in the film at a time when the film suggests it is still occurring. Far from glorifying him, the film makes Obama look like a lying hypocrite.

  5. George Kennan was prescient about the influence our national security apparatus would have on our purported values. He wrote, “We must have the courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After all, the greatest danger than can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet Communism is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.” From concern about the Soviet state to terrorism represents a continuum. Before any cure for our crisis in democratic governance can be had, Americans must face the fact that in too many respects, salient even in the context of our current budgetary battles, the military industrial complex is uncontrollable. While our black box government claims to be for the people, it is no longer of the people, or by the people.

  6. I don’t get how people see this film as pro-torture. The first scene, they torture the guy for information on an upcoming attack, but it doesn’t work, and the attack happened. TORTURE FAILED. Then later they trick him into thinking he helped stop the attack, so that he has nothing else to hide, and they get the information they needed. WITHOUT TORTURE.
    For a film that tries to take no moral or ethical position on the events, the only way Bigelow could have made her position more clear is to hit you over the head with a sign that says: “HEY, PAY ATTENTION, THIS SCENE SHOWS THAT TORTURE FAILED.”
    If people missed this message, it’s not the movies fault, it’s the fault of the people watching the movie.

    • It doesn’t take much to confuse Americans looking for excuses. They can’t follw storylines this complicated in the evening news, so they could easily perceive the torture victim being told that his torture did stop an attack as some twisted sort of vindication for the practice.

    • I totally agree! Many who are screaming about this film have clearly not actually viewed it.

  7. Hey Karen, I haven’t seen the film so I can’t adjudicate the comment by Paul Weimer, but some people do see it that way. Whatever the intent or effect of the film on its viewers, it has at least gotten us talking about this historic horror once again. While it is probably too late for any official accountability, at least the sadistic psychopaths around GW Bush will be held accountable by history. Your contribution will help to make this happen.

  8. Ms. Greenberg should calm down and remember that this is a movie, not a historical documentary. Artistic license has been used in many films that purport to portray actual events. I wonder if Ms. Greenberg was similarly exercised over Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which presented the assassination of John F. Kennedy as having been plotted and executed by the military, the CIA, and practically the entire national security establishment. It was obviously a false portrayal (anyone who knows Washington at all knows that such a “secret” could not have been kept secret long), but Stone presented it as fact.

    There will be viewers in the audience who think “Zero Dark Thirty” is entirely true. I suspect that whether they approve or disapprove of the take-away will depend on preconceived opinions regarding enhanced interrogation and torture they bring with them, just as Ms. Greenberg appears to have done. The same thing occurred with viewers of “JFK.” Those who entered the theatre with a preconceived conspiratorial frame of mind no doubt had their opinion validated. Those who viewed it without the conspiratorial drama hindering their vision no doubt saw it for what it was, a historically flawed film they may or may not have considered entertaining.

    My advice to Ms. Greenberg is kick back this evening, have a glass of chardonnay, and watch a good flick on Turner Classic Movies.

    • There are no facts anymore, only market segments. If Fox and the sponsors have cowed real newsmen, then liberals turn to Jon Stewart’s comedy show to get nuggets of truth. If gun nuts refuse to accept that other gun nuts occasionally go on rampages, they immediately flock to websites alleging that they’re all victims of a government hoax. So why shouldn’t we, the citizens who supposedly govern the most heavily armed power on Earth, pick and choose our historical evidence from movies? It’s the path of least resistance, isn’t it?

      • “So why shouldn’t we, the citizens who supposedly govern the most heavily armed power on Earth, pick and choose our historical evidence from movies? It’s the path of least resistance, isn’t it?”

        I hope your comment is meant to be facetious, with a hint of self-deprecating humor, SUPER390. Although you and I disagree from time to time, I have always thought you offered thoughtful ideas on topics under discussion, and I cannot imagine you swallowing as historical evidence something just because it appeared in a movie. Your point, however, is well-taken. Many people do accept as “truth” something just because it appears on the big screen. That doesn’t mean that we should condone such flabby intellectual (in)activity and passive acceptance of a script as “truth.”

  9. The weird thing is a guy on tv said that the reason Zero won’t win an Oscar is because it goes easy on terrorism and it was made by people who are more liberal than the mainstream of the Academy, and I was like “Boy, I think this guy has got to be way off the mark!” Also weird that Kathryn Bigelow is the director — she directed Strange Days, one of my all-time favorite movies. But I’ve got no interest in seeing this one. I’m glad Bin Laden’s dead, but I don’t want to watch a movie about it, especially one that glamorizes torture.

    • “I’m glad Bin Laden’s dead, but I don’t want to watch a movie about it, especially one that glamorizes torture.”

      Well, then why comment on it! Your comment is irrelevant because you take a stand against a movie you haven’t even seen! The whole debate is about whether torture is or isn’t glorified. You say it is based on hearsay and what you want to think.

  10. He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

    “Beyond Good and Evil”, Aphorism 146 (1886).

  11. With apologies to the notion of manufactured consent, if we sit back and consider the last 10+ years its easy to see how the current zeitgeist has grown organically, apart from any focused propaganda.

    This all appears to be a more informal propagation based on how people find a way to believe what they want to believe. It might be seen as a reality that appeals to their/our most base instincts, which are never more than just beneath the surface.

    As much as take away our coffee and see how fast our cultivated sense of rationality and civilization drains away.

  12. Torture appeals to the public for exactly the same reason it appeals to Hollywood screenwriters, no matter how liberal they are. It is a magic bullet, that simplifies the complex plotlines of foreign affairs and war, Alexander’s sword through the Gordian knot. Americans loved nukes and the Strategic Defense Initiative for the same reason, until learning that they really weren’t magic.

  13. Not a real surprise considering that the main stream media is totally corporate owned and hasn’t chosen to highlight any wrong doing concerning the oligarchy.

    What used to be the fourth column is now the lap dog of the well to do.

    • “What used to be the fourth column is now the lap dog of the well to do.”

      I believe you are referring to the press, which is the “Fourth Estate,” not the fourth column.

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