In retrospect, a better title for the terrific film “Zero Dark Thirty” would have been “Rorschach.” As with the famous ink blots developed by Swiss psychoanalyst Hermann Rorschach, some people look at the film and conclude that torture works, others conclude that it doesn’t, still others think the movie advocates torture, while some — and now we have gotten to me — don’t know what to think. I am implacably opposed to torture . . . unless it can save lives.
This foggy position of confusion and ambiguity has been largely missing from the debate over the film. Everyone seems so sure of everything. The rush for certainty started, I think, with the basso profundo statements from the filmmakers that the movie is — as the credits state — “Based on Firsthand Accounts of Actual Events.” I have no idea what this means since the director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, concede that they used composite characters and have necessarily compressed the 10-year hunt for Osama bin Laden into a 2½-hour movie. Some things get left out, like truth.
Almost instantly, three members of the Senate intelligence committee, Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and John McCain, protested the film’s depiction of torture as instrumental in locating and ultimately killing bin Laden. They insisted instead that it was dogged intelligence work, the piecemeal accumulation of information that, say whatever else you will about it, is not inherently dramatic. No one will ever make an action movie about an accountant.
The three senators have access to highly classified information and, while their demand that the CIA fess up and detail its cooperation with the filmmakers is out of bounds, their experience and knowledge have to be taken into account. As a group, they are a somber lot. Still, others have taken the same position. Journalists with no access to classified information but with access to people who possess that information insist that (1) torture doesn’t work and (2) it did not lead to the killing of bin Laden. Okay, point taken.
But for me, the debate has gone beyond the veracity of the film — all movies are lies to some extent, and the greater lie is to claim they are not — to all these declarative statements about the morality of torture. They come out, veritably smoking, from various journalists, who cite reports of detainees who died under torture with their lips sealed. Our own fear of intense pain is beside the point: What would work on you or me might not on a diehard jihadist, for whom torture is a mere occupational hazard.
Perhaps the most unequivocal statement comes from Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books. Coll is a former managing editor of The Post and the author of “Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001” for which, appropriately, he won the Pulitzer Prize. He is, in other words, a highly serious and thoughtful person who says the following: “Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral.”
Really? Is it immoral to waterboard someone who knows of an imminent Sept. 11-type attack? Wouldn’t it instead be immoral not to do everything in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives? Torture in that case might be hideous, repugnant and in some rarefied way still immoral, but I could certainly justify it. This is far different than waterboarding an al-Qaeda member who knows something about bin Laden’s whereabouts. After all, if it took a decade to get him, a bit more time would not have mattered. Morality and the clock are, inescapably, connected.
The trouble with this debate is that it has taken on an MSNBC-Fox News quality — the need to establish uncomplicated positions. The phrase “it depends” has been chased from our political life — a sign of feared wishy-washiness, which is, crucially, bad for TV ratings. But it would be all right with me if the government were silent on torture so that no detainee could be confident of civilized treatment or if, in a crisis, an understandable looking away was permitted. Life ain’t neat.
The Rorschachian qualities of “Zero Dark Thirty” have proved beneficial. We are getting a robust debate over torture that we should have had years ago, and we are finding out a bit more about it — whether it works and whether it can ever be justified. In this way, what the film says is really less important than what is being said about it. In the category of “thought-provoking,” it deserves an Oscar.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.