Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Torture porn: Zero Dark Thirty

Readers will already be aware that the new movie Zero Dark Thirty, about the killing of Osama Bin Laden, has stirred up a firestorm of criticism and controversy. This link will take you to a reasonably balanced view of the matter (rather too balanced for my taste), as well as some exceedingly gruesome descriptions of what goes on in the film:

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/12/zero-dark-thirty/

As a charter member of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT), I am almost literally sickened by what I have read and heard. I admired the Oscar-winning director's Hurt Locker, up to a point (I remember being glad it won out over Avatar)--but I wondered where her sympathies really lay. Now I really wonder.

I don't expect to see the movie, not so much from squeamishness as from the certainty that I will be even more heartsick than I am already. I trust the reactions of some of the others who have reported on it. It is bitterly discouraging to fight so hard for years to make headway on this issue, and to feel that perhaps some progress has been made, only to learn that a movie already being hailed as the best movie of the year has in one stroke undone it all. That's the way I see it. Dick Cheney is suddenly back in somebody's good graces, but the revelations about Abu Ghraib, and the "dark sites," "extraordinary rendition," and "enhanced interrogation techniques" set up by the US government after 9/11 were, and remain, the greatest stain on the American character ever.

In Jarhead, Anthony Swofford's acclaimed book about the Gulf War, Swofford writes that supposedly anti-war movies like Platoon were watched over and over by Marines who were both incited and excited by the violence. As I have written before, I am not against violence in films and have quite liked some films full of violence. It all depends on the moral stance and viewpoint (if any) of the filmmakers. I have read quite a lot about Zero Dark Thirty by some very intelligent people who have seen it, and I agree with David Edelstein of New York who thought it verged on being "borderline fascistic." John McCain is not a hero of mine but his strong statement on this subject recently was very impressive. We all have a sadistic streak buried away somewhere under the surface, and when we think that others approve of cruelty and believe in its efficacy, it has a powerful effect on us.  I hate to think of all the young unformed minds that will see this film and conclude that torture is justifiable.

The New York Times has an article on the front page on Dec. 13. It shilly-shallies around with various opinions on whether or not torture was key to finding Bin Laden (it wasn't, and even the movie seems to acknowledge that, though most people turned on by torture won't care). At the very end of the article, however, the key points are made (by the reporter Scott Shane), as follows:

"The portrayal of torture in television shows like 24 — which makes no pretense of reflecting real events — may already have contributed to a notable shift in American public opinion toward the idea that brutal interrogations are necessary and effective, said Amy B. Zegart, who studies intelligence at Stanford University.
       
"She commissioned a study in August that showed a switch since 2005 in views on the torture of terrorists who might know about new plots. There was a sharp a decline, for instance, in disapproval of waterboarding and of chaining naked prisoners in uncomfortable positions in the cold. The more spy shows people have watched, she said, the more enthusiastic they are about torture. 'I think the evidence is that television is shifting views,' said Ms. Zegart. 'Entertainment has an alarming impact.'"