Saturday, January 26, 2013

Why ideologues don't like "Zero Dark Thirty"

I mentioned yesterday that I had seen the movie Zero Dark Thirty. I highly recommend that you watch it too.

As I'm sure you already know, the ideologues on both the left and right are pretty pissed about this movie. There's a reason for that...ideologues don't like complexity. And this movie is drenched in it.

The word we sometimes use to describe ideologues is "purists." In their world there are clean lines between right and wrong with no space for moral ambiguity. That gives them the privilege to look down their noses in judgement of anyone who crosses their neat little lines.

That's not how life actually works. Reinhold Niebuhr is right to point out that in order to truly engage, we must live in the world as it is - not as we want it to be.

I don't tend to agree with the commentary that Zero Dark Thirty affirms that torture led to finding Osama bin Laden. But the movie doesn't draw a defining line that it didn't either. It tells a story that is much more complex than that.

As Andrew Sullivan says, the one bright line the movie does draw is that ugly, inhumane, immoral torture was the practice of the United States of America immediately following 9/11.
The first thing I'd say on the political issue is that the film shows without any hesitation that the United States brutally tortured countless suspects - innocent and guilty - in ways that shock the conscience. To my mind, that is, in fact, a huge plus for those of us who have been trying to break through the collective denial and the disgusting euphemism of "enhanced interrogation." No one can look at those scenes and believe for a second that torture is not being committed. You could put the American in a Nazi uniform and the movie would be indistinguishable from any mainstream World War II movie. Yes, that's what we became in our treatment of prisoners.

In that way, it exposes the Biggest Lie of the Bush-Cheney administration: that Abu Ghraib was an exception, and not the rule. What was done to suspects in Abu Ghraib was actually less grotesque, less horrifying, and less shocking than what Bush and Cheney ordered the CIA to do to human beings directly.
That reality is what the first part of the movie is about. And then Michael Moore - of all people - tells us what happens next.
There comes a point about two-thirds of the way through ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ where it is clear something, or someone, on high has changed. The mood at the CIA has shifted, become subdued. It appears that the torture-approving guy who’s been president for the past eight years seems to be, well, gone. And, just as a fish rots from the head down, the stench also seems to be gone. Word then comes down that – get this! – we can’t torture any more! The CIA agents seem a bit disgruntled and dumbfounded. I mean, torture has worked soooo well these past eight years! Why can’t we torture any more???

The answer is provided on a TV screen in the background where you see a black man (who apparently is the new president) and he’s saying, in plain English, that America’s torturing days are over, done, finished...

I think you know what happens next. In the final third of ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ the agents switch from torture to detective work – and guess what happens? We find bin Laden! Eight years of torture – no bin Laden. Two years of detective work – boom! Bin Laden!

And that really should be the main takeaway from ‘Zero Dark Thirty’: That good detective work can bring fruitful results – and that torture is wrong.
But the truth is that while Sullivan and Moore echo my reactions to the film, what I appreciated about it was that neither the story nor the characters lent themselves to clear-cut moralizing. I have no way of knowing how accurately it reflects the actual people or events. But I can say that in addition to the ambiguity about the efficacy of torture, some characters who seemed to be "evil" at first, surprised me with their humanity - and vice versa. Isn't that how it most often is in real life too?

That's probably all I should say about the specifics of the movie for those of you who haven't seen it yet. But the real power of ambiguity comes in how it ends. While not giving anything away in particular, lets just say that it is the opposite of the distasteful displays of "USA! USA! USA!" that greeted us here at home with the announcement of the death of bin Laden. The grown-up part of me appreciated that.

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