The premier in New York and Los Angeles this week of the movie Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, has touched off a national debate about the appropriateness of torture. Alarmingly, the conversation has revolved around when to torture, rather than whether to torture.
The film's opening 45 minutes feature U.S. intelligence officers torturing a prisoner at a CIA black site, until he gives up the clue that births an ultimately-successful hunt for bin Laden. For some the message is simple: "No waterboarding, no Bin Laden." Zero Dark Thirty, laments Adam Serwer in Mother Jones, "may do what Karl Rove could not have done with all the money in the world: embed in the popular imagination the efficacy, even the necessity, of torture." Meanwhile, others insist that #ZD30, as the film was quickly hashtagged, "leave[s] audiences to decide for themselves whether torture was necessary to stop al Qaeda."
Why, exactly, are we deciding whether torture was "necessary" to capture bin Laden?
The underlying assumption in this debate, both by those outraged at what they see as the film's glorification of torture, as well as by those who insist the depiction is "largely dispassionate," is that the moral question of whether we should torture can somehow be answered by the empirical question of whether torture works. Not only has this "ends justify the means" rationale yielded myriad atrocities, but, by debating the utility of torture, even its opponents are implicated in the conclusion that if torture does work, it is justified. There is good reason why torture is illegal, in all circumstances, under both international law and the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: torture is simply, and always, wrong. And when we concede that torture may be justified in some times and places, we weaken legal prohibitions against it in all times and places.
That is not to say that those highlighting factual inaccuracies in the film -- including three heavyweight senators -- do not make an important point. In a letter to Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, yesterday, Senators Diane Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain warned that ZD30's "grossly inaccurate and misleading... suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of Osama bin Laden" threatens to return America to "those dark times" in which we violated those unequivocal prohibitions on torture. It is an important fact that torture does not work -- a fact that is well-documented, chiefly by interrogators themselves, who have said time and again that torture does not produce good intelligence.
Still, this should be irrelevant. Our reaction to the torture depicted in Zero Dark Thirty, regardless of whether the film accurately portrays what resulted from the torture, should be one of national shame and a firm commitment never to repeat the horrors depicted there. The focus on whether or not torture was key to killing bin Laden is a symptom of America having lost its moral compass. The 20th century saw great advances in the understanding of universal human rights, largely in reaction to -- and revulsion against -- the horrors of the WWII era, and the United States played an important and commendable leadership role in those developments. But we have gone from being a human rights leader to a human rights laggard.
Not only is our past use of torture a "stain on our national conscience," as Feinstein, Levin, and McCain note, but we have yet to atone for these atrocities. It is not enough to "look forward." Legal prohibitions without accountability for their violations are meaningless. I am proud to say that we at the Center for Constitutional Rights has been dogged and relentless in its efforts to hold torturers accountable for exactly that reason. From the six years we spent trying to get justice for Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen sent by the U.S. to Syria to be tortured, to the first-ever settlement in a case of private military contractors torturing Iraqi civilians at Abu Ghraib, to our efforts in Spain, Canada and Switzerland to have Bush officials prosecuted -- we have used every legal avenue available to demand accountability from those who shackled, maimed, brutalized and tormented their fellow human being, those who ordered them to do so and those who wrote the policies implementing such euphemistically named "enhanced interrogation techniques."
America does not debate when genocide is acceptable. We do not debate whether racism is useful. No civilized country should be having a debate about whether, much less when, it is appropriate to torture.