The film Zero Dark Thirty, which just received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, expands nationwide this weekend, giving most Americans their first opportunity to see the controversial film. The film is a lightening rod for critics for a multitude of reasons, most provocatively for its portrayal of the use of torture by the American government in the quest to find and kill Osama Bin Laden.
Critics and politicians, including a bipartisan group of Senators, members of the media, and even the CIA itself have taken issue with what they feel is the filmmakers' incorrect suggestion that torture played an important role in finding the elusive terrorist -- though it's worth noting that the writer, director, and some of the actors dispute this characterization.
What I find notable and surprising is that most of the controversy centers around the question as to whether torture is, or is not, an effective tactic. From a spiritual perspective, this entirely misses the real issue. It simply doesn't matter if torture is "effective" or not; to torture another human being is an intrinsically ill-conceived choice, striking at the most fundamental aspect of our nature, life-purpose, and spiritual well-being, both for the individuals directly involved and for the society that condones such behavior.
The moment we focus debate largely on the effectiveness of torture, we've made a critical error. When we discuss slavery, no one of good conscience dwells upon whether that abominable institution was an effective economic system for plantation owners. It could be argued that slavery was a boon to the American economy; free labor not only helped many Americans get rich, it also kept the price of American cotton low, ensuring that Americans had less-expensive goods and that our country maintained a worldwide market dominance. In Hitler's Germany, the Third Reich's policies helped restore the German economy, increased efficiency across the board (infamously, fascism is a great way to ensure that the "trains run on time") and radically dropped the crime rate for the majority of German citizens (providing of course that you weren't Jewish, Catholic, gay, or a gypsy).
In the face of evil, debating "effectiveness" is not only irrelevant but morally, intellectually, and spiritually bankrupt. The real issues upon which to focus regarding the use of torture are: What kind of society do we want to live in, and what are the moral and spiritual effects on us as human beings because of these choices?
Torturing other humans beings for the sake of our "security" not only corrupts the souls of those who sanction it, it also unleashes negative karmic consequences for our society that not only fail in making us safer but actively destabilize our foundation.
In part, this stems from our unwillingness to admit the deepest truths of our existence: There is no such thing as total security. No amount of activity or rearranging our physical world can insulate us from our mortality. Much of the willingness to do anything for the sake of our security stems from our refusal to accept this fundamental truth. We see this not only in many of our government's frantic terrorism policies but also in our obsessive need to prolong life -- no matter the cost or even discomfort -- through ridiculous medical interventions, through our rampant consumerism, our obsession with constant entertainment, and our never-ending need for distraction through electronic gadgets. These are all symptoms of the same underlying psychic and spiritual illness.
Real wisdom is the wisdom of insecurity. The more we obsess about our security, the more we relentlessly dwell on darkness and the "worst case scenarios," the more out of balance we become. Eventually, we become that which we focus upon. The philosopher Alan Watts called this "the law of reverse effort." When we try to stay on the surface of the water, we sink; when we try to sink, we float. Or as Jesus said, "Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it."
We can't ever be truly secure. The quest for endless physical security means not only a loss of physical and political freedom but spiritual freedom. Real psychological and spiritual understanding comes when we accept the nature of the world and our lives, not every outward tragedy can be prevented, death cannot be held at bay forever, "bad" things can and will happen and no amount of killing, torture, or surrendering our freedoms can stop it.
This isn't to say that reasonable security precautions shouldn't be taken -- just as some amount of medical care, entertainment, and digital devices all play useful roles in our lives. Vigilance, policing, investigation, trials that observe due process, technological improvements, spying, and even drone attacks or wars can all be useful, even desirable choices in certain circumstances. But only if we apply these tactics will discretion, wisdom, and acceptance that there is no such thing as total security -- and never forget to use them only in the employ of the highest awareness, ideals, and actions.
The real way to combat terrorism isn't to torture every last person we can find into confessing their nefarious intentions, but to resist reacting fearfully to those evil acts. We seem to have forgotten what terrorism is: No terrorist, including Osama Bin Laden, poses an existential threat to the United States. That is, no terrorist has the power to destroy the United States or our way of life. Terrorists know this. Their strategy is to engage in relatively small and symbolic acts of madness in order to get us to overreact and destroy ourselves.
The mechanism through which this is accomplished is fear. If terrorists can make us afraid of everything, everyone, every situation, every possibility, then their hope is that we'll do anything to stop that fear -- including debasing ourselves by torturing others.
The real solution to terrorism then isn't to torture as many people as possible, but to learn to confront, accept, and release our fears. When we torture others for the sake of our own safety, we give in to fear. By trying so desperately to save ourselves, we lose ourselves.
I realize this isn't easy. As many have pointed out, neither democracy nor freedom are easy. That's the beauty, challenge, and opportunity.
America (mostly) succeeds because we (mostly) have good karma; we try to do the right things and self-correct when we find ourselves on the wrong path. In the case of our two most shameful mistakes so far -- slavery and the slaughter of the Native Americans -- we (eventually) not only admitted our errors, we worked diligently to correct them. Similarly, we must never again torture another human being for the sake of our own "security."
The deepest spiritual truth is that America is the greatest country in the world because of our unshakeable commitment to the highest ideals and our passionate insistence on their righteous implementation. It is only through our ongoing and never-ending recommitment to these high ideals and actions that American and her citizens remain genuinely secure, prosperous, happy, and free.