Is feminism worth defending with torture?

How Kathryn Bigelow's thrilling Osama-hunting saga faces the thorniest moral dilemmas of the "war on terror"

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published December 1, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jessica Chastain in "Zero Dark Thirty"

None of us living today can know how historians of the future will judge the whole “war on terror” phase of American history. Will it remain a contentious point of ideological division, like McCarthyism or the 1960s, or will it become a national embarrassment to be swept under the carpet, like the Salem witch trials or the fulsome speeches in defense of slavery delivered on the floor of Congress? And then there’s the possibility that the terrorist-hunting mania of the years since 9/11 has driven us so completely nuts, and bankrupted us so thoroughly, that a balanced view of this age will only become possible after the whole edifice comes crashing down. To quote the most intelligent, most farsighted and most deeply hypocritical of our slave-owning Founding Fathers, I tremble for my country when I consider those future conversations.

In the first few minutes of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Kathryn Bigelow’s mesmerizing and troubling chronicle of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, a young female CIA agent named Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, arrives at a “black site,” apparently in Pakistan. She enters a cell where a fellow agent played by Jason Clarke is questioning a purported al-Qaida moneyman. Away from the job, Clarke’s character turns out to be a likable guy, but here he’s an expert practitioner of the “enhanced coercive interrogation techniques” so popular in the early stages of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The detainee is hung by the ceiling with chains, repeatedly beaten and sexually humiliated, forced to soil himself and finally smothered with a towel that is then drenched with an entire jug of water. (That particular enhanced technique became especially well known.)

Whether Bigelow and her screenwriter and off-screen partner Mark Boal are actually arguing that torture is effective, or that it yielded useful information that helped lead to the killing of bin Laden, is ambiguous and sure to be the subject of much debate. Personally, I find the symbolic significance of this agonizing and confrontational scene more alluring. Bigelow, the first and only female director to win an Oscar, knows something about being a woman in a macho environment. Her films have rarely focused on female protagonists, and it’s hard to avoid the possible parallels between her and Maya. Beyond that come the bigger questions signified by Maya’s presence in that room. Does a society that produces female CIA agents (and reelects a black president) gain the right to commit atrocities in its own defense? Is torture justified if the torturer is a university-educated woman, and the tortured a bigoted Muslim fundamentalist?

I think those are excellent questions for us to ask ourselves, arguably defining questions of the age, and I think the longer you look at them the thornier they get. I certainly incline toward the predictable left-libertarian response that torture and other illegal and unconstitutional actions (like, say, the government assassination of United States citizens on secret evidence) are immoral and unjustifiable in almost every instance. But you’ll notice that I’ve left myself a little wiggle room, and if we’re honest we recognize that morality is always relative, and only available in shades of gray. Whether you want to view this as coincidence or reflection of the Zeitgeist, there are several important films this season in which questions of morality, political leadership and good intentions loom large in the air, in the immediate wake of a presidential election conducted around just these issues, however murkily articulated. (The dog-abusing robot with the funny underwear vs. the Muslim brother from another planet. Have you forgotten already?)

Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” may be set almost 150 years in the past, but it depicts our most revered president playing dirty politics, and stretching or breaking the law, in service to a higher moral purpose. It’s twisting the relevance of history past all recognition, no doubt, to claim that Lincoln’s ethically challenged campaign to end the era of slavery is somehow cognate to Barack Obama’s use of secret drone attacks to kill foreign civilians. But “Lincoln” does set the table, morally speaking, both for the dense and challenging landscape of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which strikes me on first viewing as an immensely important historical chronicle, and for Israeli director Dror Moreh’s groundbreaking documentary “The Gatekeepers.”

Both “The Gatekeepers” and “Zero Dark Thirty” deserve independent full-length reviews down the line. Bigelow’s film reaches theaters on Dec. 19, while Moreh’s documentary won’t get a national release until March. (It’s playing in New York this week only, in order to establish awards eligibility for 2012.) Moreh convinced all the living prior heads of the Shin Bet (or Shabak, in Hebrew), Israel’s intensely secretive internal security agency, to talk on camera about the successes and failures of their long-running campaign against terrorism, both inside Israel proper and in Gaza and the West Bank. (Of course the Shin Bet’s major focus has been on Palestinian and Arab terrorism, but one of the biggest failures in agency history was its inability to stop a right-wing Israeli Jew from assassinating Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.)

“The Gatekeepers” is full of revelations and surprises, none of them stranger than the appearance of one-time Shin Bet leader Avraham Shalom, a much-feared superspy of the ‘80s who now comes off as a gnomish old guy delivering Yoda-like nuggets of wisdom. Shalom now agrees that his notorious decision to order the secret execution of two Palestinian terror suspects who had been taken alive after a 1984 bus hijacking was a mistake – but only because a journalist had taken photos of the men alive and unharmed, and the episode ended Shalom’s government career. Moreh presses him: Are logistical questions the only ones that matter? What about the morality of killing people who had been disarmed and were no longer a threat? Shalom barely acknowledges this line of questioning: “Forget morality. Ask the terrorists about morality.”

That’s the justification, in a nutshell, for the secret torture prisons of the Bush administration and the PlayStation-style drone attacks of the Obama administration. Can we be expected to honor moral conventions or laws, even the ones we profess to hold sacred, in an asymmetrical conflict where the enemy ignores all such things? That ancient tradition of moral relativism – of arguing, in essence, that the end justifies the means – is what compels Maya to “man up” in a foul-smelling room where a man is being tortured for information that may or may not lead to an aging lunatic who may or may not be worth finding. Some critics may respond to “Zero Dark Thirty” as a jingoistic celebration of the CIA and the military, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near that straightforward. Whether they mean to or not, Bigelow and Boal raise the question of whether the decade-long hunt for bin Laden was worth it, and what sort of victory we gained by killing him. Again, I’m not claiming to know the answers.

Not long after his cynical remark about morality, Avraham Shalom seems to double back. In his old age he has become a harsh critic of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians, and he says he favors negotiations with anyone who will talk, even Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Iranian government. The Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands has been a public relations disaster and, he throws in, unjust and immoral to boot. It has put the young soldiers of the Israeli army, says the man who once ordered two Palestinian young men beaten to death, in a similar position to the Nazi troops who patrolled the conquered nations of Europe. He pauses and blinks, as if surprised at what he has just said. “Similar,” he repeats. “Not identical.”

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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Documentaries Kathryn Bigelow Lincoln Movies Politics Torture Zero Dark Thirty