The controversial Oscar-nominated film “Zero Dark Thirty” opened this weekend. During much of the film, I was on the edge of my seat. Osama bin Laden masterminds the killing of almost 3,000 people, and the CIA engages in a complex operation to find and kill him. It is a compelling tale with a labyrinth of successes and failures and eventually does lead to bin Laden’s assassination.
The image that kept coming to mind is one that takes place on myriad schoolyards across the globe. A smaller kid is bullied by a big kid, and our sense of injustice is inflamed. Then a teacher or even a larger kid stops the bullying and punishes the bully, and we feel gratified. There is something human about feeling satisfied when evil is stopped and there is accountability.
In that way, “Zero Dark Thirty” has a seductive plot. We want the bully to be punished, and some believe that any means necessary should be used to accomplish that goal. Out of that mindset, we watch the CIA employ varied gruesome means of torture to gather intelligence, leaving many to walk out of the movie believing that torture worked --it led to the bully and to his ultimate punishment.
But like many seductions, there are serious problems. First, the film is not based on the facts about the U.S.’s use of torture. “Zero Dark Thirty is a drama;” it is fiction. It inaccurately suggests that the use of torture by U.S. authorities led to the capture of Osama bin Laden.
Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who are members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former ex-officio member of the committee, have publicly refuted the idea that torture provided critical intelligence in the hunt for bin Laden. Senator McCain, in fact, has directly criticized “Zero Dark Thirty,” saying that the filmmakers fell “hook, line and sinker” for a false narrative about how the United States obtained the intelligence to track down bin Laden.
The Senate Intelligence Committee recently adopted with a bipartisan vote a more than 6,000-page report on the CIA’s use of torture. The report is the result of a more than three-year investigation and is based on information contained in several million pages of documents about the detainee interrogation program. The committee now needs to vote to release the report. After watching the fiction, we now need to know that facts about U.S.-sponsored torture in order to ensure that our nation never tortures again.
The second problem is that torture is immoral. Just because you can behave in a certain way, does not mean that you should. Just because you can torture to get information does not mean that this interrogation method is moral. Torture is a moral abomination. It runs contrary to the teachings of all religions and dishonors all faiths. It is an egregious violation of the dignity and worth of each and every person. Torture is degrading to all involved - the victim, perpetrator and policymakers. The Golden Rule makes it clear: Torture should not be perpetrated on others because we would not want others to do so to us.
The third problem is that torture is illegal without exception. In 1994, the United States signed the UN Convention Against Torture, agreeing to abide by the following proscription: “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
As a response to those three problems, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture has produced a 20-minute film, “Ending U.S.-Sponsored Torture Forever,” a significant part of its “Fact Not Fiction” campaign.
Torture is too important an issue to allow a film such as “Zero Dark Thirty” to be the final arbiter. The facts need to play that role. I call on the Senate Intelligence Committee to release its report as soon as possible in order to end U.S.-sponsored torture forever.
Rev. Richard L. Killmer, a Presbyterian minister, is the Executive Director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.