Last weekend I took in Zero Dark Thirty. The torture scenes were graphic, though I think the Mr. Blonde ear removal sequence from Reservoir Dogs still takes the cake, and the film quite gripping. The big controversy pitting the movies producers and director aligned with some ‘unnamed’ sources versus Senators McCain and Boxer and ‘official’ CIA sources about whether ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ a.k.a. torture led to the location of Osama bin Laden. The movie takes the position that torture opened the door to finding the courier who led the CIA team to the compound in Abbottabad. It also portrays that a lot of dead ends and wild goose chases came from bogus information derived from the torture sessions.
But are we asking the right question? Instead of asking if torture worked, should we be asking if torture is moral? Effectiveness versus morality. And it’s the latter that needs to be asked. Instead we are told throughout the movie and by countless Bush administration officials that our ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ were not illegal as defined by White House and Justice lawyers. And that’s the rub. The argument has always been about legality (remember the absurd statement that waterboarding isn’t torture because America doesn’t torture?) which leads to a boatload of CYA. The president and his team will want legal cover and the guys on the ground will want to make sure they are not hung out to dry. But did any of the decision makers ask if it was moral?
But if we decide torture is immoral, how do we feel about drone attacks? Are we less critical of President Obama because he is a Democrat compared to a Republican President Bush, certainly the media seems to give him a pass. Are we hypocritical based on political party? Or are we desensitized by drone attacks because they open remotely and the hits happen in some far away land? Is it because the media reports them as ‘suspected terrorists’? Even when a wedding party is wiped out or a dozen Pakistani soldiers are killed because some drone operator thousands of miles away made a mistake or had a bad day? Many arguments against drone attacks are not on moral grounds, but, once again, question the effectiveness of the program as detractors claim the program is so hated in the region that we are creating more terrorists with every attack.
President Obama was very clear in his public messages regarding torture, shutting down our black rendition sites, and seeking to close Guantanamo detention facility. Soon after led by the Cheney Cabal, the neocons went out of their way claiming that President Obama had made us less safe because of the new interrogation rules of engagement. Did the political angle come into play? Did the President pivot to a new strategy that would seem less despicable and more effective?
These are not small questions and they shouldn’t be trivialized. But because it’s the war on terror, we often feel justified in the strikes or as Cheney said “embrace the dark side”? The War on Terror will not be won because it is not a battle in the traditional sense. But are we losing ourselves in its prosecution? Have we let out primal visceral selves take over? Or is eye for an eye and crossing the dark side legal, legitimate, and necessary?
I think we have entered a dark time.