Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty and the vacuous utility of torture

Politically, and in some ways even culturally, the latest round of Academy Awards were correctly attributed.

Argo was a rare Hollywood film painting not only the United States in a respectable light, but also told an uplifting narrative of the Central Intelligence Agency actually touching something that didn’t immediately turn to dust. The cameras of course had well and truly finished rolling before the long tension between the United States and Iran intensified after the 1979 debacle.

Zero Dark Thirty was the better movie however. It wasn’t better by choice of scenery or dialog, it was better because of how the story’s subject was approached and the cultural questions it raised about the last 10 years.

The film is not a documentary, it certainly is meant for entertainment with a lot of creative license. But given the subject matter, it could quite easily have collapsed under its own weight.

The Academy chose their winner correctly because many people in the United States, and indeed, the world, are probably not quite ready to coolly look at the film’s cringingly disturbing torture scenes and decide where to place them on the cultural bookshelf.

Torture is a nasty topic for dinner conversation and many people, quite within the bounds of sanity, prefer not to discuss it in polite company. Creating a film relying heavily on the role that torture played in finding Osama bin Laden was a risky career step for director Kathryn Bigelow, but the discussions it has stirred between people makes the film an important one and she is rightly commended for her work.

Critics of the film have sided largely on one of two conclusions regarding the use of torture for intelligence: using it was either morally wrong and tactically pointless or tactically important and morally ambiguous.

Ms Bigelow’s film doesn’t necessarily depict or emphasise either end of this spectrum; hers is a collection of facts and story filmed in a stylistic pattern. Watching the film certainly will reinforce one’s preconceived ideas about torture, but these are subjective conclusions, not the objective assumption of the narrative itself.

The movie describes a semi-fictional character being tortured by semi-fictional U.S. government employees for information about an impending terror attack. The detainee eventually divulges snippets about the name of one of bin Laden’s couriers following his torture, but giving the name up not directly because of the torture. The well-known story unfolds from there.

This shows three things. First, that information gained from tortured subjects has the potential to expose real and useful information. Second, the United States was willing to use torture and expected it to work. And third, that defending or not defending torture is not the point of the film rather, the question of the utility of torture is the issue really worth raising.

What is interesting about the movie is that torture apparently led the detainee to talk about bin Laden’s courier. The patterns were pieced together over many more years by a diligent CIA employee who used multiple lines of converging evidence streams to get a clearer picture of the al Qaeda leader’s whereabouts. But the original snippet from the tortured detainee is shown to have pushed the ball.

However, the torture was not directly responsible for this initial success, or at least it is not clear it is. What squeezed the information from the detainee’s head was a clever psychological game about the result of his fellow al Qaeda member’s attack. Torture was definitely used in previous scenes, and the man was clearly bedraggled and exhausted which may have oiled the gears in his mind, but the question was asked and answered using shrewd hands-off psychology.

Whether or not torture was as normal in the American intelligence community as it is depicted in the film belies the clear take-home point of torture’s medieval nature. Torture is archaic and possesses an expired usefulness. Torture has moved beyond the point of utility and irredeemably into the realm of sadism and humiliation.

Pressing the fictional man in the torture chamber to deliver information about bin Laden only serendipitously revealed the useful information. It was only realised later by the CIA analyst to be important information when other lines of evidence converged and a pattern emerged. The tortured man’s words were considered part of the rest of his gibberish at the time.

Perhaps the most important scene comes later in the film when a CIA employee digs out a manila folder said to contain details of bin Laden’s courier. The file apparently was sitting in a cabinet in someone’s office for years before it was read, suggesting the CIA’s real problem is a lack of a good filing system and the ability to actually read the information they may already possess.

Had they done this in the first place, the detainee’s ordeal may not have been necessary after all. Of course, this is fine in hindsight, but it is not clear what revelations the many hundreds of other detainees around the world might have uncovered either. Presumably these people were also tortured, but perhaps none of them knew anything of value.

Nevertheless, torture was obviously integral to the devastation of al Qaeda. Would the American’s have found bin Laden without the use of torture? Maybe. If they had eventually connected the dots, applied humane information-gathering techniques on their detainees, and some enterprising analyst had actually read the existing paperwork they might have stood a chance and retained moral superiority in the process.

But the movie depicts the successful role torture played in finding bin Laden, and this is why the film is so important. Using torture might sometimes elicit valuable information, and we must weigh this result against the ethics of our society.

Morally, many people recoil from the idea of using torture but they do this exactly because torture can be so effective. It may not work in every case, but it has been a useful tool in the past. Torture can have the desired effect of getting answers the questioner needs.

Mark Bowden, author The Finish, in a review of the movie’s torture scenes said, “We forego the advantages of torture to claim higher moral ground. In order for that be to a virtuous choice, as opposed to a purely practical one, it means we must give up something of value—in this case intelligence that might forestall tragedy.”

Bowden’s point is that saying torture fails goes beyond saying it is wrong. If it didn’t work, then those using it would be only inhuman and cruel. Instead, we hate torture because it works, and it is a nasty thing to do with few justifications.

We know torture works, and we know that the United States decided to use it. But as any psychology undergraduate knows, there are plenty of ways to extract information without torture, it just takes a little more cunning.

Embarrassingly, both al Qaeda and its Western enemies dipped back into the gloomy days before the enlightenment in order to fight this war. The Islamist doctrine bin Laden espoused had to have the desert sand swept off the pages before he started reciting. Bin Laden’s game was always steeped in bronze-age myths and ideology. Perhaps his conduct and eventual actions could have been interdicted before he became the Jihadist pole star.

And frustratingly, in this 21st century, the culturally and technologically much more advanced nation of America completely vindicated the ranting and raving of a zealot. Bin Laden wanted the world to see how corrupt and depraved the United States could really be. He was convinced that if the world would just open its eyes to see the West for what it really was, then his victory would be assured.

In the end, America’s endemic use of torture and precipitating abdication of the moral high-ground handed bin Laden a significant ideological triumph. It was only bin Laden’s ineptitude and the overwhelming power and resources of the United States that meant he could not press this victory.

Just as frustratingly, it is very clear the last decade did not need to emerge so broodingly and callously stained. Our advanced knowledge of human psychology and of how the brain’s chemicals interact should have been employed in place of torture. Zero Dark Thirty solidly outlined the vacuous utility of torture and, if there is any justice in the world, should help banish the tactic to the history books once and for all.

The use of torture in such a capricious and vengeful way was entirely unnecessary and Ms Bigelow's movie expertly shows why. The hunt for bin Laden might very well have been a joy to tell our children, rather than a tale for history we would prefer not to recite.

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