The most powerful scene in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty did not involve torture — we now know the movie's depiction only hinted at the barbarism inflicted on prisoners at real-life CIA black sites. Nor was the lengthy sequence detailing the raid of Osama bin Laden's compound the movie's most important moment.
No, the most telling part of the movie — perhaps not in terms of drama, but certainly in terms of politics — comes during an interchange between protagonist Maya and her CIA boss in a Langley corridor. The boss tells Maya he will not dedicate more funds to her manhunt for the al Qaeda leader. In response, Maya threatens to tell Congress that her superior derailed the search for bin Laden.
"Do you wanna be that guy?" Maya spits.
In that one moment, the movie accurately captures the spirit of the post-9/11 moment, when an ideological fervor gripped the Beltway and the country. Maya's funding would not be cut, because a political good had found consensus beyond questioning — Osama Bin Laden would be caught, and the American spirit would allow for any abrogation. Not even the basic meaning of words would be safe, as torture would not be called torture. And no torture would go too far.
This week, the Senate Intelligence Committee confirmed this with the release of its 500-page executive summary of its $40 million report on the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program: broken bones stood on, forced rectal feeding, near drowning. On it went, because no one wanted to be "that guy" who said "enough." Anyone who did was crushed.
In the polemic and fictional world of Zero Dark Thirty — and in the minds of real-life politicians — this barbarism effectively served a dangerous political requirement to find the monster in the cave: Torturing bad guys would lead us to bin Laden. Of course, as the report found, torture did not actually lead us to that prize — but let's imagine that by some unhappy accident, it did. Would we then rest easy with the fact that American agents systematically, and with ample funding and support, became torturers? Would it have been worthwhile to waterboard, and freeze, and beat, and so much more? All for an infamous corpse in Abbottabad, tossed out the chambers of the sea.
The answer is no. We play a dangerous game in decrying torture because it is ineffective and not because it is torture. We also, in focusing on the failure of CIA torture in getting results, give an easy pass to the recent historical context that birthed the interrogation program. The widespread use of torture was a vile consequence; the problem was a paranoid national security ideology that would, did, and does justify any violation of rights and liberties under the pretext of fighting terror. To hold itself accountable in any honest way, which it will not, the US must admit that it was wrong because it perpetrated crimes. But beyond that, the country must face the fact that after 9/11, it would have done anything — torture, and much more.
President Barack Obama ignored this true American sickness, not yet cured, when he said this week that the torture programs were the result of a panicked country acting "rashly." "In the aftermath of 9/11, in the midst of a national trauma and uncertainty about whether these attacks were going to repeat themselves… what's clear is that the CIA set up something very fast without a lot of forethought," he said.
This is not at all the case. "Rashly" I have spent too much money on a coat. "Rashly" I have not, and no one has ever, constructed an international and covert system of state-sanctioned torture with a $300 million budget. That takes machination and ideology, and, contra Obama's suggestion, "forethought."
Torture was no mistake. It was the logical conclusion to an anything-goes premise. Obama's feigned attempt at accountability treats CIA torture like a blip and lets the same no-holds-barred national security apparatus kill civilians with drones and spy on everyone. This dark chapter of history did not close with the black sites. The corridors of Langley, the halls of Capitol Hill, and the West Wing of the White House remain lousy with the sorts of people who would permit and commit the tortures again, 10 times over.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
Image via Flickr