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Column: ‘Zero Dark’ Is Objectionable in Many Ways

As a lawyer for prisoners in Guantanamo, Bagram and other U.S. sites, I find both the film Zero Dark Thirty as well as the controversy it has ignited misguided.

This is not only because the film leaves viewers with the false impression that torture led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

And it is not only because the film and the national conversation it has sparked about whether torture “worked” mostly forget that both torture and extra-judicial executions are anathema to civilized society, irrespective of their possible efficacy or expediency.

The film and the ensuing debate are also objectionable because they treat torture at secret CIA prisons as though it were a thing of the past, masking the reality of an enduring illegal practice.

The first third of Zero Dark Thirty is unadulterated torture porn, a display of medieval cruelty at various CIA and affiliated prisons. Strappado, drowning, sexual abuse, beatings, stress positions, loud music, stuffing people into boxes, sleep deprivation, but also — and this is not acknowledged enough as torture — threats to send prisoners to countries where they would face further abuse (in the film, Israel).

My clients at Guantanamo and Bagram survived such savagery at the hands of their American captors. I can attest that its traces on their bodies and minds are real and lasting. But the film cares not an ounce for those consequences, lingering instead on the torturers’ feelings about their crimes.

While President Obama limited interrogation techniques to those listed in the Army Field Manual, that document was modified in 2006 to permit stress positions, sleep deprivation and isolation — methods amounting to torture that are depicted in Zero Dark Thirty. And only long-term CIA detention facilities were prohibited in 2009, leaving “short-term” secret prisons in operation. The notion that the CIA no longer tortures prisoners, then, can only result from real or feigned ignorance.

Equally intact is the U.S. government’s continuing reliance on proxy detention, where foreign regimes do the dirty work of imprisoning, interrogating and often abusing prisoners, at the behest (and sometimes with the participation) of U.S. agents.

The final act of Zero Dark Thirty depicts the Abbottabad raid that got bin Laden, and it is the closest this cinephile ever wants to come to a snuff movie. The film, though, does get this part right: The raid was a “kill operation,” an ordered execution, despite the administration’s tepid protestations that U.S. commandos were prepared to capture the unarmed bin Laden if only he had known to surrender in precisely the right way.

However, far from highlighting the sad truth that there has been no real accountability for these past and ongoing crimes, Zero Dark Thirty lionizes those who ordered and implemented torture and other offenses. It also validates the obscene debate over whether torture “works.” In this respect, the filmmakers are complicit in reinforcing the impunity shielding the culprits.

Some would call that propaganda, and many of the film’s admirers as well as its critics have fallen for it.

Ramzi Kassem is a professor at the City University of New York School of Law. Kassem represents prisoners of various nationalities now or formerly held at American facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, at so-called black sites and at other detention sites worldwide. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.