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