Žižek, 'Zero Dark Thirty' and Torture

02/05/2013 10:51 am ET | Updated Apr 07, 2013

In a recent article, the Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek voices his disdain for the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," imputing to its director an intention to normalize torture and thereby endorse it. The author's comparisons to the Holocaust are just about as disturbing as his conspiracy-phobia is quaint. The central point of his fulminations is summarized in the following statement:

"Torture saves lives? Maybe, but for sure it loses souls -- and its most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready to forsake his or her soul to save the lives of his or her countrymen."

We think this whole formulation of the torture problem is wrong. It differs substantially from the two most common approaches to the problem.

The first argues that torture never produces any valuable information, so it is gratuitous violence and thus immoral. "Zero Dark Thirty" argues that this position is factually wrong, and Žižek notably does not take issue with the film on this point.

The second approach is more complex. It allows that torture may sometimes save lives. But it insists that torture ought never be used, since it compromises the human dignity of the victims of torture. Even if it is effective at saving lives, it is inherently immoral by virtue of its costs to human dignity.

Žižek takes an altogether different approach; he concedes that torture may actually save lives. But he opposes it on the grounds of its deleterious effect -- not so much to the victims of torture, but to the side performing it. Torture, he claims, deprives the torturers of their humanity, and hence, even when effective, must viewed with the utmost contempt. Heroes, he claims, never torture.

Žižek's rationale is deeply troubling. We think that government policy should focus on life saving and not soul saving. If we can save innocent lives by applying psychic and physical anguish to those who pose an imminent threat, then it would be morally untenable for a society to categorically exclude this as an option, just as it would be morally untenable to prohibit soldiers or police officers from engaging in acts of violence for the purpose of protecting lives. When our public servants sustain injuries -- psychic or physical -- in the course of saving lives, we ought to treat that consequence while continuing to support them in their praiseworthy efforts. Life is just too precious. And everything must be done to preserve it -- and to support those who seek to preserve it.

We find it strange that the Slovene atheist would choose to employ the theologically fraught term "soul." It brings to mind the irony that the Inquisition developed many of the most brutal torture methods for the purpose of saving a soul, even if it meant destroying a body or a life. Our concern must always be to save lives, even when it inflicts great spiritual suffering.

It's undeniable that our public servants who are involved in violence against human subjects incur deep psychological injury. But instead of prohibiting life-saving methods, we as a society must seek to do we all we can to balm the wounds of those who sacrifice themselves on our behalf, and comfort them in their agony. In so doing, we will avoid the risk of desensitizing ourselves to violence, and affirm the supreme and inviolable duty of saving lives. Heroes are often injured by their acts of heroism. Yet instead of condemning them and denigrating their service, we must treat their injuries, whether they be physical or psychological.

To be clear: We are not writing in support of torture; our issue is rather with Žižek's moral reasoning. Does torture work? We do not know and leave the matter for experts to decide. But we maintain that if it can be shown that torture does indeed save lives, it ought not to be unequivocally ruled out as a course of action -- for the purpose of saving life. Above all, we must do our utmost to care for the spiritual welfare of those whom we commission to perform it, just as we must tend to the pain that torments many members of our military and police forces. A moral society can do no less.