Zero Dark Thirty Calls for Broader Questioning

Only a few minutes into Zero Dark Thirty, a man is tortured. His beaten body hangs from ropes, the green of his eyes the only reminder that this mess of bruises and dirt is a human face. As CIA agent Maya watches with pity and horror, another agent and a team of black-masked men wrestle the prisoner to the ground and cover his screaming face with a rag. The agent, bent over the man’s struggling body, yells to Maya, “Get the bucket!” For a moment she is confused, hesitant. Then she gets the bucket.

Caught in this moment are all the moral questions around torture that swirled through public discourse in the early years of the war on terror and that resurfaced recently with the success of Kathryn Bigelow’s film. Should we torture? How much? What if our enemies torture? What if we don’t tell anyone it happened? Can we count on torture to give us reliable information? Are we, as ordinary American citizens, responsible if it happens? Is waterboarding okay? What about sleep deprivation? How many innocent lives must an interrogation session save to justify the use of torture? Ten lives? A thousand lives? One?

These are the wrong questions to ask. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, like all real-life wars, aren’t about elevated philosophical concepts of human rights, ethical responsibility, national honor, or the value of a human life. They are about in-group and out-group, about the tribal passion that unites a nation grieving for its innocent dead and inspires a young Muslim man to blow himself to bits. They are about places where women are veiled and men are restless, where the old days of colonialism have not been forgotten, where people exist who would rather see a young girl disfigured by acid than educated. They are about the collision of ancient traditions and new ways, religious identity and secular culture, local custom and global change. They are about complex interaction, human lives in the aggregate—nation, battalion, sect, government, city, and family. They are about the green-eyed man who hangs from ropes in a CIA black site and the woman who fills the bucket with water.

The conventional questions we ask about torture address none of this, and, consequently, their answers mean little. Does torture yield good information? Sometimes, sometimes not. Have such interrogation techniques saved the lives of innocent civilians in the past? Yes. Have they damaged our international reputation? Yes. Is inflicting pain upon another human being morally wrong? 

Yes. Is it sometimes justified anyway? Yes. Such answers tell us nothing about how we should conduct the war on terror, if we should continue conducting it at all. We need to start asking questions about the impact of “enhanced interrogation” on the underlying cultural, religious, economic, and psychological factors that make the Middle East and North Africa so ripe for conflict. It’s likely that torture will turn out to be a net detriment—waterboarding our prisoners of war, surprisingly enough, does not tend to engender sympathy among the populations whose countries we occupy. Or perhaps we will find that torture’s pragmatic benefits do indeed justify its blatant moral wrongness. But until we begin to ask the right questions, we will never know.