Zero Dark Thirty, the film about the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, got a fresh infusion of buzz over the weekend when outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed again that enhanced-interrogation techniques aided the effort to find bin Laden.
“Some of it came from . . . interrogation tactics that were used,” he said. “But the fact is we put together most of that intelligence without having to resort to that. I think we could have gotten bin Laden without that.”
In other words, the movie exaggerates the role played by enhanced-interrogation techniques — torture to some — but they did have a role in the hunt for bin Laden. But why stop there? Like most films about real events, Zero Dark Thirty exaggerates all sorts of things. For starters, the hunt for bin Laden wasn’t conducted single-handedly by a very attractive red-haired woman, recruited from high school by the CIA.
The movie also exaggerates how the detainees were treated. To watch the film, torture was used every time a detainee — pretty much any detainee — gave a false or partial answer to a question. The interrogators could beat, humiliate, and waterboard prisoners on an impulse. In reality, they didn’t beat detainees at all.
As former George W. Bush aide Marc Thiessen notes, of the more than 100,000 prisoners in the War on Terror, only about 100 were ever held by the CIA, and of those, only about a third were subjected to any enhanced-interrogation methods. A total of three detainees were waterboarded — and then only under medical supervision and with written authorization from superiors.
Though the film exaggerates some things to the dismay of critics on the right (and in the intelligence community), it ignores other issues. For instance, critics on the left fairly complain that the stark cost in Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani innocent lives is never referenced. More relevant, nobody in the movie ever raises moral objections to the torture of detainees (in part, because the objectionable treatment doesn’t need a monologue for the audience to recognize it).
All these complaints are fair game as far as movie criticism goes. Director Kathryn Bigelow had every right to make whatever movie she wanted. And critics have every right to respond however they want. That said, most of the complaints from the left and the right can be boiled down to the fact that Bigelow didn’t make the movie her critics wanted.
In the process, many critics fail to appreciate some of the film’s nuance. For instance, many on both the left and right tend to see the protagonist as a heroic character. But her single-minded focus on justice — or revenge, depending on your perspective — should more properly be seen as a cautionary tale. After bin Laden’s death, Maya, the hero, suddenly has nothing to live for and no place to go.
But I’m not looking to write a movie review. The film is newsworthy because of how lawmakers have responded to it. A bipartisan group of legislators, led by Senator John McCain, (R., Ariz.), is furious that the film “credits these detainees with providing critical lead information.” Put bluntly, they believe that Panetta is lying when he says waterboarding provided anything useful. The senators have been badgering the CIA to explain how Bigelow could be so wrong. After all, as McCain often says, “Torture doesn’t work.”
This is something of a mantra from opponents of waterboarding. One activist lawyer, Jesselyn Radack, wrote on Daily Kos that the film is “revolting — for its blatant propaganda, glorification of torture and false narrative that torture led to the demise of bin Laden.” She wanted the following disclaimer: “Torture does not work and was of no value in finding Osama bin Laden.”
Whether waterboarding is torture is probably the most emotionally fraught semantic argument of our lifetimes. Opponents sincerely believe it is torture. Even so, stipulating that it is torture does not suddenly mean that you must also concede it doesn’t work. Many in the intelligence community, starting with Panetta, who ran the CIA when we found bin Laden, will tell you that the interrogation program yielded crucial information.
Shouting “torture doesn’t work” amounts to taking the easy way around the harder argument: that torture might work, but we shouldn’t do it anyway, even when American lives are in danger. It’s a politically unpopular argument, particularly when waterboarding is the most extreme form of torture used.
But that’s Panetta’s position. He has said that waterboarding is torture and it’s wrong. But he has also said that it yielded valuable information we might or might not have gotten some other way. Like it or not, at least Panetta’s honest.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.