Saturday, January 19, 2013

Outrages on Personal Dignity

Kathryn Bigelow, the director of Zero Dark Thirty, wrote the following: “I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore.”

Bigelow is no fan of torture and, in fact, as her Los Angeles Times essay makes clear, she is fundamentally opposed to it.  But did her film inadvertently help promote it?  Popular movies do have their effects on the public imagination.  Witness the way in which Gone with the Wind promoted a heart-warming view of plantation slavery and Juno made teen pregnancy seem cool.

Steve Croll, in a terrific piece on Zero Dark Thirty in the New York Review of Books points out that Americans have grown more comfortable with torture in recent years.  Stanford scholar Amy Zegart attributes this change in attitudes, in part, “to the influence of ‘spy-themed entertainment.’”

Zegart is referring to shows like the TV series 24 in which torture is portrayed as vitally important in saving America from catastrophic terrorist attacks.  But torture is not crucial to our well-being, and shame on the 24 writers for making it seem so.

Croll goes on to argue that Zero Dark Thirty is problematic because it may influence the public debate about torture by virtue of its “distorted contribution.”

I think Croll is correct.  Though I have to admire Zero Dark Thirty as a work of dramatic art, I believe it will all too likely help fix the idea in American public opinion that torture was useful and justified in the hunt for Bin Laden, when its usefulness is clearly debatable and its justification even more so.

Even if torture was helpful in finding bin Laden (and remember, a number of knowledgeable insiders say it was not) we should not, in my opinion, resort to it.  Better that the scruffy, bearded 9-11 mastermind had lived to a ripe old age watching video porn in his dank Abbottabad hideout than that our country should besmirch itself with waterboarding and the beating of helpless captives.

Let’s just say that we have faced more dangerous forces in our past than anything presented by today’s Al Qaeda-type religious fanatics.  Abraham Lincoln dealt with the greatest threat our nation has ever encountered and yet he did not feel it necessary to torture Confederates in order to preserve the union and end slavery.  Nor did Eisenhower tell his underlings to torture captured German soldiers in order to defeat Hitler.  If these threats to our nation were met without sanctioned torture, why should it be so damn essential to us in our fight against nutcase losers like Osama bin Laden?

Some people (former Vice President Dick Cheney, for example) claim that torture is as American as Honey Boo Boo and just as lovable.  Of course, the kinds of beatings, waterboardings, confinement to coffin-like boxes, being stripped naked and hung from the ceiling by one’s wrists for hours at a time portrayed in Ms. Bigelow’s film are not, Mr. Cheney insists, torture.  They are, to use CIA parlance, merely “enhanced interrogation techniques.” 

I wonder if Mr. Cheney ever pictures himself or his loved ones being interrogated in such an enhanced manner.  My guess is no, the only ones he imagines will ever be subject to such techniques are people who he thinks deserve it: terrorist suspects, Iranians, Palestinians and Democrats.

There are, we should note, prominent officials in the U. S. government who are vehemently opposed to torture and they have made their objections known to Cheney and company.  Most notable of these are Senators John McCain (himself a victim of torture) and Dianne Feinstein.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit combatants (or anyone else) from inflicting “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.”  So I have a question for Mr. Cheney and others of the Bush administration who seem so enthusiastic about using their “enhanced interrogation techniques.”  When you all advocate waterboarding captives, the placing of them in narrow boxes for extended periods, etc., do you tell yourselves that you are not doing anything that could be considered “humiliating and degrading?” I am sorry to be the one to tell you this, but you need to face facts: to normal Americans your very existence is both humiliating and degrading.

OK, I’m not really sorry to be the one to tell you that.

Even if torture does work, decent people should oppose it and so should Dick Cheney.  And, though I congratulate Ms. Bigelow for having made a compelling film, I object to her film’s implication about the usefulness of torture and am concerned that it will strengthen the hand of those who want it to become a permanent part of “the American way.”