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Opinion: Wolves that fought wolves

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Zero Dark Thirty has been a troublesome little movie. The film by screenwriter Mike Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow promises to deliver the lasting version of the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden and the mission which brought about his demise, and since its inception it has sparked controversy. Some have questioned whether secrets of national security were divulged in an effort to aid the filmmakers in their research. Even the movie’s release date was pushed back after Election Day so it would not appear as a partisan effort in support of President Barack Obama.

Now that the movie has come out, several members of Congress including John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin have criticized the movie for depicting methods of torture used by the CIA, specifically waterboarding, as having contributed significantly to finding and killing bin Laden. The senators maintain that such a depiction is historically inaccurate, and have written an open letter which requests that the filmmakers “consider correcting the impression that the CIA’s use of coercive interrogation led to the operation.”

Does Zero Dark Thirty tell the truth about the CIA’s torture program and its results? The answer seems more complicated than “yes” or “no.” In his book Manhunt, Peter Bergen, a leading expert on bin Laden and al-Qaeda, writes that some detainees who were subjected to torture “subsequently gave interrogators information that led the CIA to focus on the Kuwaiti” – the Kuwaiti being the al-Qaeda courier who unwittingly led the CIA to bin Laden’s compound. However, Bergen also writes that other detainees who were tortured provided disinformation about the courier and that “we will never know what conventional interrogation techniques alone might have elicited.” Bergen himself has stated that Zero Dark Thirty is not an entirely accurate depiction.

Of course, the main thrust of the argument presented by the senators and Bergen is not simply that torture was inconsequential in the hunt for bin Laden, but that even if it were consequential, it is still an immoral practice for Americans to engage in. Indeed, we should be vigilant that Zero Dark Thirty’s version of events not be used as a justification for torture; not because its version is inaccurate, but because torture cannot be justified.

However, none of this changes the fact that torture was used by agents of the U.S. in the course of hunting Osama bin Laden.

I have not yet seen Zero Dark Thirty, but I know the story it tells. It’s a dark story, and the only bright moment is how it ends. It is the story of a nation that did terrible things to terrible people. It is the story of a nation that donned, however briefly, the dark and immoral cloak of the evil it sought to eradicate. The story of how America fought Osama bin Laden is the story of wolves that fought wolves. So for Zero Dark Thirty to depict in graphic detail the torture of suspected terrorists serves the very necessary function of reminding us just how much like our enemies we became, and perhaps to scare us with our own reflection.

It’s been well documented that bin Laden sometimes wrote poetry about himself and his holy war against the west. He saw himself as a legend, as a mythological leader taking up arms in defense of Islam. Perhaps we in America are too prone to do much the same thing; to see ourselves as legend, heroically advancing liberty and defending the weak. Perhaps our problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it’s not poetry. It’s the cold hard truth of the War on Terror, and neither side of that war looks very good.





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