Zero Dark Thirty & the Question of Torture

29 January 2013

It is high time Americans recognize that: “If torture is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

As we pass the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which played a decisive role in ending slavery, Americans should reflect upon Lincoln’s memorable words written after signing the declaration on Jan. 1, 1863: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.” As we confront the moral question of torture, with the release of the Hollywood film “Zero Dark Thirty,” it is high time Americans recognize that: “If torture is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

In international law, slavers and torturers are considered hostis humani generis, enemies of all mankind. The outlawing of these evils is jus cogens, Latin for compelling law, a peremptory norm, from which no derogation is possible; jurisdiction is universal, considered erga omnes, an obligation owing to all mankind. This highest form of customary international law admits no moral or legal justification for torture, with no exceptions, no matter the circumstances.

In the Civil War, the U.S. was forced to recognize – in Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment of 1865 abolishing slavery – the war’s ultimate cause: the great evil and moral catastrophe that was slavery. Similar questions confront Americans today, namely whether we will recognize the great evil and moral catastrophe of the U.S. embrace of torture, especially after 9/11. The film presents the “liberal ideology of torture”: torture by the good against evil persons to stop ticking time bombs. Yet as Georgetown professor of law and philosophy David Luban notes, this is an “intellectual fraud,” taking our attention away from torture as “a world of practices,” and the reality that “Abu Ghraib is the fully predictable image of what a torture culture looks like.” In his final inaugural speech of 1865, Lincoln eloquently stated, “American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God. … He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came. … Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’”

The celebration of torture in “Zero Dark Thirty,” which states that it is based on “firsthand accounts of actual events,” is premised on the lie that torture led to bin Laden – something decisively refuted by the still-classified 6,000-page report of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee on the CIA torture program – and was made with the active cooperation of the CIA, the Pentagon and White House. The costs of U.S. support of torture, for this country, the world, and for the victims and survivors of U.S. programs of torture and cooperation with torturers, have been immense. U.S. support for torture in Mubarak’s Egypt arguably played a major role in forming the Egyptian contingent in al-Qaeda, arguably helping lead to 9/11. U.S. programs of torture thereafter led to false confessions linking Iraq, al-Qaeda, and weapons of mass destruction that helped the Bush administration convince the U.S. Congress and American people to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003 at a cost of anywhere from over 100,000 to over 1 million Iraqi lives; not to mention the shedding of blood of U.S. soldiers and trillions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury.

Sister Dianna Ortiz, the Ursuline nun tortured in Guatemala who founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition in Washington, D.C., has said that it is “the responsibility of every individual to participate in the act of abolishing torture.” If we believe Sister Dianna’s words to be true, then the question becomes: what are we thus called upon to do, today, as moral human beings? If the film “Zero Dark Thirty’s” mainstreaming of torture is uncontested; if it wins an Academy Award for best picture, this will represent the final triumph of a liberal culture of torture in the U.S. And if that happens, no Americans will be able to look in the mirror, without recognizing, in the words of Mark Danner, that now, more than ever before, “We are all torturers now.”

photo by World Can't Wait