CREDIT:  <a href="">Sony Pictures</a>
CREDIT: Sony Pictures

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Zero Dark Thirty"

Mar 11, 2013


A fictional adaptation of the CIA's hunt for Osama bin Laden, the blockbuster film Zero Dark Thirty presents us with a number of important ethical questions. Along with a renewed debate surrounding torture and "enhanced interrogation techniques," the movie has also sparked a discussion over the ethical responsibilities of filmmakers.

As the movie begins, our protagonist, Maya, is entering a CIA "Black Site" (a secret detention center) to witness her first interrogation. When the interrogated detainee fails to give Maya's mentor Dan the information he wants, Dan ties the captive down, covers his face with a cloth, and starts pouring water onto it. This practice, known as "waterboarding," is one of the most heatedly debated aspects of the Bush-era "War on Terror" and is known to be a particularly harrowing interrogation technique. Despite this treatment, the prisoner remains insistent that he has no new information.

When Dan leaves to smoke a cigarette, Maya is left alone in the interrogation cell with the tied-up detainee and a guard. As the prisoner looks up at her, pleading for help, one can almost see a trace of pity in the fresh operative's eyes. Maya's expression hardens quickly, however. "You can help yourself by being truthful." From this defining moment on, we follow Maya in her relentless pursuit of bin Laden—her triumphs, her defeats, and her encounters with bureaucracy. By weaving real news footage into the otherwise scripted film, Bigelow introduces twists to the story, and ties her fictional characters into a number of historical events, such as the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad.

The plot culminates in the 2011 raid on the Abbottabad compound in which Osama bin Laden was assassinated. Notwithstanding the success of her mission, the film's ending is bittersweet for our protagonist. After identifying bin Laden's body, Maya departs for the United States—victorious, but having lost the only purpose she has known for the last decade.

On "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques"

The debate surrounding "enhanced interrogation techniques" touches on three fundamental questions:

  • Should techniques such as waterboarding be classified as torture, which is illegal under U.S. and international law?
  • Are such techniques both necessary and effective, or are there other and more reliable ways to obtain information?
  • And, legal or not, are we betraying our moral values by using such techniques, whatever we decide to call them?

So should waterboarding be classified as torture? Citing experts involved with treatment of detainees who have been subjected to waterboarding, those who oppose the practice point out that these prisoners exhibit clear signs of severe psychological trauma. In response, some proponents argue that it is not really torture, since it leaves no physical scars. Yet lack of physical scars did not stop the United States government from charging a Japanese officer with committing a war crime after waterboarding a U.S. citizen during the Second World War. The officer was found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

There is no doubt that waterboarding puts victims under unbearable duress. Most subjects last only a few seconds before giving in and talking. While that might seem like compelling evidence for the technique's effectiveness, this conclusion presumes that prisoners have accurate and recent information. It also presumes that they are capable of relaying that information accurately while experiencing extreme stress, and that they do not resort to simply guessing at what the interrogator wants to hear. Factors such as these make the legitimacy of confessions extracted by waterboarding questionable. According to a 2009 article in TIME magazine, Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent and one of the most successful U.S. interrogators of al-Qaeda operatives, believes that the use of harsh techniques was unnecessary and often counterproductive. "Detainees, [Soufan] says, provided vital intelligence under non-violent questioning, before they were put through 'walling' and waterboarding."

Putting semantics and (questionable) usefulness aside, many would argue that cruel treatment of prisoners, whether physical or psychological, is morally wrong under all circumstances. What's more, it harms U.S. interests, as Americans are seen as betraying the values they claim to believe in.

Historical Accuracy in Works of Fiction

As framers of public opinion and debate, do directors and screenwriters have an obligation not to misinform their audiences about historical events? Upon reading director Kathryn Bigelow's own reflections on Zero Dark Thirty, one could easily be led to believe that the film constitutes an accurate historical reenactment of the CIA's decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden. In fact, when she appeared on the Colbert Report, she referred to the film as a "first draft of history."

"I felt we had a responsibility to be faithful to the material," she stated in an interview with The New Yorker's Dexter Filkins, published two days prior to the film's U.S. release. However, several government officials have emphatically disputed the film's version of events and what the film implies.

Soon after Zero Dark Thirty's release, CIA's acting director Michael Morell issued a statement regarding the film's accuracy: "[The] film creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding Bin Ladin. That impression is false." Senator John McCain (R-AZ), along with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote an open letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton outlining factual inaccuracies contained within the film, and requesting that he "[correct] the impression that the CIA's use of coercive interrogation techniques led to the operation against Usama bin Laden."

Needless to say, it would be unreasonable to expect a two-and-a-half hour feature film to cover the 10-year span from September 11, 2001 until Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011 without some lapses. However, Zero Dark Thirty's list of omissions is not limited to minor historical details—some would say its single-sided portrayal of the debate on torture borders on absurdity. While the film's protagonist, Maya, seems at first reluctant to partake in the harsh interrogation techniques established by her predecessors, it does not take her long to change her mind. In fact, the only voice of opposition to the CIA's interrogation regime comes in the form of a televised broadcast of President Barack Obama denouncing torture. In Zero Dark Thirty, this broadcast marks the start of an era where all the clues seem to dry up, and frustrated agents cannot seem to get any closer to locating bin Laden.

There is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty has brought the debate over torture and "enhanced interrogation techniques" back to prominence, and this may be a good thing. As for Bigelow herself, here is how she answers her critics:

"Experts disagree sharply on the facts and particulars of the intelligence hunt, and doubtlessly that debate will continue. As for what I personally believe, which has been the subject of inquiries, accusations and speculation, I think Osama bin Laden was found due to ingenious detective work. Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn't mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn't ignore. War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences."

However, the question remains: Is this really the impression that the viewer gets from the film, or does Zero Dark Thirty seemingly endorse torture?

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. Did Zero Dark Thirty change your perceptions about "enhanced interrogation techniques"? If so, how did they change? 2. Regardless of the semantic question of whether waterboarding is a form of torture, the fact remains that its use presents us with serious ethical dilemmas. Is it ever morally acceptable to subject a prisoner to pain, duress, or humiliation? If so, what circumstances call for such drastic means? 3. Moreover, if coercive modes of interrogation are ever permissible, where should we draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable interrogation methods, and what criteria should we use to establish that line? Who should have final say? 4. Do filmmakers have a moral responsibility not to misinform their audiences about important issues, or do their artistic licenses trump such concerns? 5. The film's conflict is resolved by the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Should the U.S. government have done more to capture him alive? If avoidable, was this killing—and indeed, the creation of a "Kill List" of terrorists—ethical?

Selected Carnegie Council Resources

Three Negative Asian Perceptions of America Kishore Mahbubani, National University of Singapore Author and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani discusses how torture, antipathy to the Islamic world, and America's ignorance of its own power are hurting the perception of the U.S. in Asia. (YouTube clip from Public Affairs Program, November 2012) Global Ethics Corner: Is a "Kill List" Ethical? Is it ethical for President Obama to be selecting targets? (Global Ethics Corner, June 2012) Global Ethics Corner: Should SEAL Six Team Have Killed Osama bin Laden? William C. Vocke Jr., Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow, Taiwan Fulbright Foundation Could SEAL Team 6 have captured bin Laden alive? Should training for elite military forces prioritize thoughtfulness at the risk of indecision? (Global Ethics Corner, May, 2011)

Global Ethics Corner: For Torture, Who Should We Prosecute? William C. Vocke Jr., Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow, Taiwan Fulbright Foundation Torture is wrong. So who is culpable? The point people? The memo writers? The overseers? No one? Everyone? (Global Ethics Corner, April 2009)

Public Ethics Radio: Jessica Wolfendale on Torture Lite Jessica Wolfendale, University of Melbourne; Christian Barry, Australian National University; Matt Peterson, World Politics Review We now know that the U.S. officially sanctions and regularly employs interrogation tactics that push legal and moral boundaries. Jessica Wolfendale sits down with Christian Barry to determine where those boundaries lie. (Public Ethics Radio, September 2008)

Torture, Rights and Values: Why the Prohibition on Torture is Absolute David Rodin, Oxford University and Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellow, and David Lubin, Georgetown University Law Center Rodin's premise is that if we have a commitment against torture, then it leads to an absolute prohibition on torture. Luban worries that our commitment is not strong enough. (Annual Carnegie-Uehiro Lecture, April 2008)

Torture and Democracy Darius Rejali, Reed College In his exhaustive study, Rejali traces the history of torture through the ages. "It's not so much that torture never works," he says. "The point is, works better than what?" According to Rejali, there are better alternatives. (Public Affairs Program, March 2008)

Ethical Considerations: Law, Foreign Policy, and The War on Terror Alberto Mora, former general counsel of the United States Navy Former Navy General Counsel Alberto Mora fought to stop policies that authorized cruelty toward terror suspects. "Cruelty harms our nation's legal, foreign policy, and national security interests," says Mora. "I can't put it any plainer than that." (Annual Morgenthau Lecture, November 2006)

The Question of Torture Mark Bowden, the Atlantic Monthly; Mark Danner, The New Yorker; Darius Rejali, Reed College; Elaine Scarry, Harvard University; Aryeh Neier, Open Society Institute This distinguished panel explores the practical, moral, legal, historical, and psychological aspects of torture and debates "the ticking bomb" scenario. (Human Rights Initiative Program, June 2005)

Ending Torture and Secret Detention in America's Name Admiral John Hutson, University of New Hampshire; Michael Posner, Human Rights First The abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere, have undermined our standing around the world, say Posner and Hutson. (Public Affairs Program, May 2005)

Accountability: How to Treat Unlawful Combatants Joel H. Rosenthal, Carnegie Council "If the United States is to recapture the mantle of moral leadership, it must mount a genuine effort to re-think its approach to the war on terrorism with a serious reconsideration of its treatment of prisoners." (Article, January 2005)

On Becoming Our Own Worst Enemy Rabbi Arnold E. Resnicoff, U.S. Air Force "Ethics is a complex issue, and more so in war when our nation rightly sanctions deadly force in ways unacceptable in peace. But, . . we must control our outrage before rage takes control of us. We must defend the values and beliefs that make us what we are, and who we must remain." (Article, June 2004)

On the Moral Implications of Torture and Exemplary Assassination (1970) Paul W. Blackstock, University of South Carolina (died 1979) Americans have tried to forget or rationalize the U.S. atrocities of My Lai, which took place during the Vietnam War. "In practice the use of torture and related forms of persuasion have very real and damaging effects on the private individuals who employ such means, as well as feedback effects on the society from which they come." (WORLDVIEW magazine archive)

Works Cited

"Bin Laden, the Movie", The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins, December 17, 2012

"Exclusive - Kathryn Bigelow Extended Interview", The Colbert Report, January 22, 2013

"Inside the CIA’s 'Kill List"',PBS, Frontline, September 6, 2011

"Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing", Wikipedia, Last modified on May 9, 2015

"Kathryn Bigelow addresses 'Zero Dark Thirty' torture criticism", Los Angeles Times, Kathryn Bigelow, January 15, 2013

"Message from the Acting Director: 'Zero Dark Thirty', Central Intelligence Agency, Michael Morell, December 21, 2012

"Senator Feinstein, Levin & McCain respond to the film 'Zero Dark Thirty' re: Torture, CIA & the Osama bin Laden Capture", United States Senate, December 19, 2012

"A Top Interrogator Who's Against Torture", Bobby Ghosh, Time, April 24, 2009

"Waterboarding Historically Controversial", The Washington Post, Walter Pincus, October 5, 2006

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