Zero Dark Thirty and the Darkness of Torture

You can help yourself by being truthful.

-Maya in Zero Dark Thirty

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I almost hesitate to write about Zero Dark Thirty…because I’m afraid of the reactions I might get. Some people have strong opinions that it endorses torture, while others passionately argue that the movie reports the historical fact that torture was used, and, if anything, suggests that torture is not an efficient way of obtaining information. Most of my friends and other people I respect are horrified by the movie’s implied message that torture led to accurate information that helped the United States find Osama bin Laden. I sympathize with John McCain’s statement in response to the movie, “Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information.” McCain, of course, speaks with great authority on the topic and we should know more about the efficacy of torture soon, as the “Senate Intelligence Committee recently approved a report on an extensive three-year investigation into the use of torture in interrogations.”

“Zero dark thirty” is a military term that refers to 12:30 am. For me, the title symbolizes the darkness of our world. In the opening minutes, Zero Dark Thirty zeroes in on the dark truth that torture has an all consuming effect on the perpetrator and the victim. It dehumanizes both. Dan, the interrogator, tortures a terrorist financier named Ammar. To convince Ammar that he is utterly “helpless,” Dan confines him to a cell, hangs him by his wrists from the ceiling with chains, forces him to listen to heavy metal music, deprives him of sleep, water boards him, forces him into a small container called “the box,” and shames Ammar for going #2 in his pants. Dan is clearly good at what he does. He’s the epitome of machismo and displays no sign of weakness while beating Ammar. Interestingly, this interrogation scene doesn’t provide any information; the more Dan tortures Ammar with physical, psychological, and emotional pain, the more Ammar seems determined to not provide any information. Ammar does provide information later when the main character, Maya, tricks Ammar with cleverness, charm, and kindness. But just as important, the torture scene ends by revealing the effect torture has on the perpetrator, Dan. He tells Maya, “I’ve seen too many guys naked. It’s gotta be over a … hundred at this point. I need to go do something normal for a while. You should come with me. You are looking a little strung out yourself.” Whoever Dan is, he is fundamentally not the “macho” tough guy we see torturing Ammar. He becomes physically and emotionally exhausted by inflicting torture upon others. It has dehumanized him and he knows it. The darkness of torture haunts him and he wants to save Maya from that haunting darkness, too. One only wonders if Dan would be haunted for the rest of his life.

Maya pays no heed to Dan’s invitation. In fact, she quickly takes Dan’s place as the tough character in the movie. She’s determined to hunt down bin Laden and refuses to back down from anyone, not even from Leon Panetta, the Director of the CIA. She has no personal life and only one friendship. Her mission is all consuming. Maya met with the Navy Seals just before they went on their mission to raid bin Laden’s compound. As they confidently stride to their helicopter, Maya tells them to “kill him for me.” That “for me” tells us that her personal worth is determined by this mission. No need for a SPOILER ALERT here – the Navy Seals raid bin Laden’s house and, amidst the terrified cries of children living in the compound, kill all the men in the house. They brought bin Laden’s body back to the base. Maya examined the body and confirmed it was indeed the villain she had single mindedly pursued for ten years.

Ten years of Maya’s life came to this moment. She accomplished her mission and you’d think she would be ecstatic. Yet, in the final scene Maya sits in a plane. The pilot greets her and says, “You must be important. You got the plane to yourself. Where do you want to go?” But May has no answers. Of course, the question is about so much more than geography. It’s a spiritual question. The pilot fades from view. Maya is far from ecstatic. She’s alone and she cries. Those tears cannot be interpreted as cathartic tears of joy after killing bin Laden. Those are tears of darkness. Those tears are the result of toxic violence that has isolated her from her fellow human beings. Her violent quest has made her empty and darkened her soul.

So, in the end, Zero Dark Thirty asks us the same question, “Where do you want to go?” The movie has reinvigorated the debate about the morality of torture. But the movie is about much more than torture. It’s about violence. As the anthropologist René Girard claims in his book Violence and the Sacred, “evil and the violent measures to combat evil are essentially the same.” In other words, violence makes us the same as the evil we oppose. I left the movie theater thinking that the debate over the morality of torture misses the mark. President Obama argues against torture, saying, “We must adhere to our values.” It is the height of hypocrisy for the President of the United States to claim moral authority in the world because under his administration we no longer torture, while at the same time US drones kill innocent men, women, and children.

If we want a real debate in this country, we should be debating the morality of all violence, not just torture. The violence of the last 12 years has created an all consuming darkness within America’s soul. It’s a violent darkness that infects our families, religion, politics, shopping malls, and even our schools. In one sense, Zero Dark Thirty is about the search for truth. It points to the truth about the violent problems of our world, but it doesn’t provide the solution. And so we must ask, where do we want to go?

If we want a more peaceful world the path is not more violence. Like Dan and Maya, that path will only lead to more darkness and tears. The path to a more peaceful world takes us in the opposite direction; the direction of non-violent love and forgiveness.

2 replies
  1. Bob Boldt
    Bob Boldt says:

    I really appreciated reading Adam Ericksen’s “Zero Dark thirty and the Darkness of Torture.” We all see movies and everyday reality through the lenses of our own creating. I think however that Mr. Ericksen’s lenses were focused quite differently than were mine.

    “Dan is, he is fundamentally not the “macho” tough guy we see torturing Ammar. He becomes physically and emotionally exhausted by inflicting torture upon others. It has dehumanized him and he knows it. The darkness of torture haunts him and he wants to save Maya from that haunting darkness, too. One only wonders if Dan would be haunted for the rest of his life.”

    I saw the torture scenes quite differently. They are rendered more palatable by the presence of an attractive even charismatic torturer. We see Dan, played by Jason Clarke. committing such violence as beating, sexual humiliation, claustrophobic confinement and waterboarding in a calm almost compassionate manner as he mercifully repeats his mantra, “If you lie to me I will hurt you.” What is the poor torturer to do if his victim will not help him save innocent lives by giving up his evil sources? I saw Dan’s desire to “not have to look at naked men any longer” as far more an aesthetic decision than a moral one. I think it actually (strangely) had a lot to do with the removal of the ice cream eating monkeys from the compound (?!) Dan has no moral qualms about torture. He regards torture as being patriotic and entirely justified. He just would like to spend some time behind a clean-shaven face sitting in an air-conditioned office stateside.

    Mr. Ericksen’s description of Maya’s tears at the end of the film I think represents an over projection of his personal bias as well.

    “Those tears cannot be interpreted as cathartic tears of joy after killing bin Laden. Those are tears of darkness. Those tears are the result of toxic violence that has isolated her from her fellow human beings. Her violent quest has made her empty and darkened her soul.”

    The character of Maya seemed to me distinctly one-dimensional. There is no moral conflict in her—no regrets or second thoughts—no fighting against some alleged darkness in her soul. I think she enjoys or at least feels most comfortable being isolated. If she has a soul, it is single directed and focused on her mission. In the end she has suddenly and emotionally come up against a loss of mission. Where goest thou now? produces a kind of cathartic release, nothing more. Within 24 hours she will have a new mission, a new goal.

    Director Bigelow never intended any such moral or spiritual ambiguity about her female character—would that she had, it would have made a far more powerful and engaging story. The very qualities that repel Mr. Ericksen and I are qualities the director would have the young women in the audience emulate. She said as much.

    Maya is initially repelled by the whole torture scene, its heat, smell and the scruffy miscreant who must be considered guilty and worthy of even this level of degradation. It is interesting to note that, as a CIA agent, Her repulsion at this initial torture scene has only a sensual or an aesthetic, not a moral, dimension. When the detainee begs her to help him she simply responds by telling him, “You can help yourself by being truthful.” She seems to have no compassion whatsoever for the detainee. Even more insight into her hard-as-nails character is revealed as we see her dispassionate face reviewing numberless torture videos attempting to assemble intel, logs of names, key words and phrases she can cross reference in what one character observes is her obsessive pursuit of Moby Dick/ bin-Laden.

    This very modern female is portrayed only in a positive light. Here is, after all, a truly liberated woman able to knock heads with the big boys even responding to CIA head Panetta/Gandolfini’s question, “Who’s she?” with, “I’m the motherfucker that found the (bin-Laden) location.” I’m sure countless women, after viewing the film, will probably consider Maya as among the best the women’s liberation movement has produced and a positive, personal role model. I find Maya deeply disturbing as a role model.

    We are being softened up to accept these CIA and SEAL miscreants as well as well as their Commander in Chief as people who frame their own moral rules that are above the ethical norms the rest of us try to live by. The latest Esquire article on the man who shot bin-Laden is a good example of this kind of media Orwellian manipulation.

    I think Mr. Ericksen saw a depth and moral ambiguity the film did not possess and never was intended to possess, if interviews with the Director are to be believed. I saw it as a rather transparent piece of pro-Amerikan propaganda that justified torture, glorified illegality and led more justification and ammunition to our so-called War on Terror.

    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      Hi Bob. Thank you for your excellent and thoughtful comment. You may very well be right and I fully admit that we tend to project ourselves upon art, including movies. I may have wanted to see what I saw, sure. And there were many scenes that seemed to justify torture. The movie would be inaccurate and dishonest if it didn’t show torture, and I’m sure that in some instances torture has provided reliable information. That is not an argument for or against the practice, it’s just telling the history of it. Still, I can’t help but think that final scene showing Maya’s loneliness was the culmination of the movie. Her life was idolatrously consumed with her mission, which isolated her from everyone throughout the movie. If she is a model for women, she is pretty lonely and depressing model. *Maybe* it’s a stretch to say the last words of the movie “Where do you want to go?” is a spiritual and a moral question, but I don’t think so. Do we want to continue living like Maya? Do we want to go down the road of violence and torture that will only lead to isolation? I don’t know if that’s what Bigelow intended, but that question is the culmination of the movie.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful comment.



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