Film and A Responsibility to Truth

(re-edited and see previous post: Torture and the Movies)

“Zero Dark Thirty” continues to raise serious questions about the roles and responsibilities of filmmakers when their create a work of art that is based on reality. The issue is more clear than ever and the need for clarity is great. The film topped weekend box office receipts.

Whatever excuses one can make about artistic license and dramatic flow, there is a dangerous political outcome — a propagandistic outcome — when a moneymaking thriller masquerades as the truth.

Counter to the argument of Zero Dark Thirty, there is no evidence that torture led to finding Osama bin Laden

–A large number of intelligence officials say torture does not yield timely information to stop acts of terror.
–Filmmakers and artists, by implying that torture works, may encourage public opinion in favor of torture.
–Torture is immoral and unbecoming of a democracy.

My former boss and colleague at the Washington Post, Steve Coll, further analyzes “Zero Dark Thirty” in an essay in The New York Review of Books. The headline of the piece: “Disturbing and Misleading”.

Here are the concluding paragraphs of Steve’s essay:

Even if torture worked, it could never be justified because it is immoral. Yet state-sanctioned, formally organized forms of torture recur even in developed democracies because some public leaders have been willing to attach their prestige to an argument that in circumstances of national emergency, torture may be necessary because it will extract timely intelligence relevant to public safety when more humane methods of interrogation will not.

There is no empirical evidence to support this argument. Among other things, no responsible social scientist would condone peer-reviewed experiments to compare torture’s results to those from less coercive questioning. Defenders of torture in the United States therefore argue by issuing a flawed syllogism: the CIA tortured al-Qaeda suspects; those suspects provided information that helped to protect the public; therefore, torture was justified and even essential. In his recent statement to agency employees about Zero Dark Thirty, acting CIA director Morrell gave this argument implicit support when he said that the ongoing debate over the CIA’s treatment of al-Qaeda suspects after 2002 “never will be definitively resolved.”

That is a timid tautology; it is also evidence of a much wider political failure. As with discourse about climate change policy, the persistence of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other forms of argument about the value of officially sanctioned torture represents a victory for those who would justify such abuse. Zero Dark Thirty has performed no public service by enlarging the acceptability of that form of debate.

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One response to “Film and A Responsibility to Truth

  1. Vince Cannistraro

    I think Steve and I saw different films. Zero Dark Thirty is basically a CIA promoted and endorsed release and does not show any use of torture as an effective intelligence tool. It does document torture as a historical event in the eleven year search for UBL, but the film, in my judgement, does not show it as effective, only repugnant, and immoral although understandable given the openings of the horrors of 9/11 and people’s panicked last phone calls. And the principal real and film character (with the pseudonym Maya) was not a proponent of extreme measures.

    The comment of Morrell that the arguments about the CIA treatment of al Qaeda suspects will “never be definitively resolved” is probably true. Most extreme interrogation events I am familiar with were worthless and provoked more terrorist events against us but has there ever been a time when it saved a life? I don’t know. I gave Jose Rodriquez his first station chief job in the Agency and I think I set someone without a moral compass to a higher position. He was a big fan of torture, with calamitous results. And he deserves condemnation for his actions and behavior.

    Vince Cannistraro

    From: World Desk Reply-To: World Desk Date: Monday, January 14, 2013 10:04 AM To: Vincecan Subject: [New post] Film and A Responsibility to Truth

    WordPress.com peter eisner posted: “My former boss and colleague at the Washington Post, Steve Coll, further analyzes the film “Zero Dark Thirty” in an essay in The New York Review of Books. He questions the roles and responsibilities of filmmakers when they create a work of art that they c”

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