For all its innocuous-sounding name, waterboarding has more to do with Langley than with Malibu Beach. It’s an elaborate torture shown with harrowing realism in the film Zero Dark Thirty.
The film uses a semi-documentary narrative to depict the protracted CIA hunt of Osama Bin Laden, designated, in the style of those Jimmy Cagney pictures, as Public Enemy Number One.
I shan’t attempt cinematic criticism, other than saying that the picture is as thought-provoking as a complex work of art invariably is, whatever the genre. Instead I’d like to comment on the thoughts Zero Dark Thirty has provoked.
Most of them revolve around the issue of torture, which the director Kathryn Bigelow handles with cold, deadpan neutrality. She doesn’t impose any moral position on the viewer, leaving him to arrive at his own. What seems to concern her more is purely utilitarian questions: Was torture used in the pursuit of bin Laden? Did it play a significant part in the success of the mission? More generally, does torture work?
The director and scriptwriter handled the underlying ethics with subtlety. The explicit moral judgment was left to the critics, who didn’t disappoint. Zero Dark Thirty became the most reviewed film of 2012 and amazingly the arguments pro and con blurred the political lines, with unlikely figures arguing both for and against.
Not that politics never came up. Conservative critics accused Columbia Pictures of having released the film in October, just before the presidential election, thereby reinforcing Obama’s sole claim to fame (apart from being half-black). The studio and more Obama-friendly critics countered by pointing out that Obama, though mentioned a few times, doesn’t even appear in the film.
That’s a silly argument. Hideki Tojo doesn’t appear in The Bridge Over the River Kwai either, yet the film is an unequivocal indictment of Japan’s wartime beastliness and, by inference, of her dictator. Similarly, for all its understatement, this film leaves one in no doubt that Obama was both decisive in sanctioning the assassination and humane in banning any further use of torture. Whether this helped his re-election is a matter of debate, but it couldn’t have hurt.
However, it’s torture that created the greatest critical disagreement, both of a practical and moral nature. In practical terms, is torture a reliable way of getting information? Was the decisive breakthrough in the hunt of Osama obtained by waterboarding?
The first question seems superfluous. Of course torture works – there are only so many electric shocks to the testicles a man can withstand. The only practical argument against torture is that the victim may say any old thing just to stop the pain. However, this is a purely technical problem that surely can be solved in any number of ways. Scopolamine? Hooking the victim to a lie detector? I’d trust the experts to figure out the way.
The second question has already been answered. Three days after the assassination Leon Panetta, CIA Director at the time, admitted that waterboarding had been used to extract crucial information in the hunt of Osama. Panetta’s successor Michael Morell admitted that ‘some [information] came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well.’ Fair enough, it wasn’t just torture.
Morality does of course come into the question of torture, though not necessarily in any obvious way. When weak-kneed liberals scream that torture is indefensible whatever the circumstances, it’s not their minds talking but their emotions or, worse still, ideology.
All they’d have to do is imagine a situation where a nuclear device is hidden somewhere in central London, and it’s set to go off in 48 hours. Our intelligence services have in their hands a terrorist who knows where the device is, but won’t tell. Unless he talks, hundreds of thousands will die horrific deaths.
I’d suggest that under such circumstances, any – but any – intelligence outfit in the world would do anything it takes to make the chap more forthcoming. Electrodes, water, acid, pliers, blow torches – you name it. Whatever works. Moreover, no sane person would object to the use of torture if it can save so many lives from extinction and such a beautiful city from destruction.
Hence no absolutist answer can be given to the question ‘Is the use of torture moral?’ The answer has to be a relativist ‘it depends’. When a country tortures terrorists to protect its citizens from mass murder, torture is moral, if distasteful. If a country tortures someone whose politics it doesn’t like, just to see that look on his face, it’s disgusting. This much lies on the surface.
What doesn’t quite is the morality of institutionalised torture, the kind that’s allowed by issuing an executive decree. President Bush was as wrong to do so as President Obama was in banning torture.
Obama’s act came from ideology, both his own and his electorate’s. It’s a bit like Dave pushing through the homomarriage bill – something done not because it’s a good thing but simply to elicit a Pavlovian response from the less intelligent, or more subversive, segment of the populace. Therefore Obama’s ban of torture is unequivocally wrong – it delivers an absolutist answer to a relativist question.
But Bush was equally wrong in having allowed torture. No civilised country should have such a decree on the books, even if the unfortunate necessity to rely on cruelty has to be tacitly acknowledged. To put it bluntly, this isn’t a president’s business.
The President, who in the USA is also the Commander-In-Chief, may issue a general order, in this instance to get Osama. The mechanics of how this can be done must be left to the field operatives’ discretion. If they then go overboard, they besmirch their own reputation, but not that of their country or its leader.
Of course Americans possess this legalistic zeal that compels them to turn every technical or political issue into law – possibly because more than half of those manning their three branches of government are lawyers by profession. The hunt for Osama shows how easily this can bring the country into disrepute.