‘Zero Dark Thirty’ raises the moral quandaries of fighting terrorism

The movie Zero Dark Thirty is a taut, disciplined, compelling piece of filmmaking. It also distressed me morally as much as any film I’ve watched.

In the film’s account of the path that took Navy Seal Team 6 to bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, torture of prisoners by waterboarding and other means is depicted as an essential step on the trail.

This has set a number of commentators gyrating in outrage. Also irked are some anti-terrorism interrogators who say they never used torture, because it’s not only immoral but also futile. This contingent insists that the intelligence that led to bin-Laden had nothing to do with torture.

But then I read a Washington Post essay by a former CIA official who was part of the era of “dark sites” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This guy, Jose Rodriguez, insists that a) those techniques did indeed yield leads that led, years later, to bin Laden and b) the movie completely distorts how the techniques were used.

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No hanging people from chains, he claims, no ad hoc waterboarding with burlap and a bucket. Rodriguez insists waterboarding was rare, done only on prior approval from Washington, and nearly clinical in its setting. And it was not torture, he insists, because a memo from Washington said it wasn’t.

Put aside the moral blindness of that last rationale. Put aside the fact that videotapes of those interrogations have been destroyed, so we’ll never really know..

Focus on the CIA official’s insistence that the interrogations helped. Zero Dark Thirty – subtly, without hysteria or sharp elbows – puts you an audience member in the morally dubious position of rooting for torture to bear fruit.

I’ve never agreed with that stance, in fact disagreed with so publicly I was vilified by Rush Limbaugh. Yet in that dark theater, I found myself mired in ends-justifies-the-means moral squishiness.

By contrast, I never had a qualm about American soldiers executing bin Laden, instead of capturing him for trial. He had declared war, and this was a wartime raid.

I see a clear, huge moral difference – which too many Americans in my view numbly ignore – between killing people who are actively trying to harm you, and mistreating prisoners whom you have disarmed and put under your absolute control.

Still, in Zero Dark Thirty‘s apparently meticulous recreation of the raid, one of the first people the Seals kill is an unarmed woman who happens to turn the wrong corner at the wrong time.

Later, we see the Seals carefully screening women and children from harm, but this victim is just gunned down.

At the time, I cheered the raid.  In its last 30 minutes, Zero Dark Thirty let me relive the sense of grim satisfaction I felt when I heard that news, then left me wondering whether I was a moral dunce for feeling it.

What was your reaction to Zero Dark Thirty?  Let me know in the comments below.

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