We are disturbed about torture—yet again. What incest was for Oedipus and his Greek audience, torture is for us: the polluting stink that incites outrage and demands expiation. Even before its release in December, Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow’s film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden after 9/11, was engulfed in a controversy over several scenes that seem to show that torture is effective. Three members of the Senate released a highly unusual statement, insisting that in its representation of torture, the film should have clearly condemned and rejected the practice. In a note to his staff, Michael Morell, the acting director of the CIA, worried that the film suggested in too simplistic a way that torture was instrumental in locating our quarry. (He left open the question of whether torture ever works.) On the News Desk blog of The New Yorker, Jane Mayer—whose investigative reporting for that magazine on the CIA’s policy of extraordinary renditions, “black site” prisons and the brutal interrogation of terrorism suspects did so much to spark the current debate on torture—took especially angry exception, writing that if Bigelow “were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.” Mayer contends that Zero Dark Thirty not only falsifies history; it also disturbs a long-settled consensus that torture never produces useful intelligence and, for the sake of a Hollywood buck, risks a return to the ethically unthinkable. “Can torture really be turned into morally neutral entertainment?” Mayer asked. It was a rhetorical question.
Torture is not just wrong or even criminal. It is taboo, a practice that marks the boundary between a community and what it treats as unconscionably reprobate or uncommonly terrifying. A taboo, wrote Sigmund Freud, glossing the Polynesian origins of the term, involves “holy dread” and “a sense of something unapproachable.” A taboo also reveals as much about those who enforce it as those who violate it, for a taboo reflects the overall value system that depends on its enforcement. But has torture, especially when practiced in defense of the nation, always seemed so scandalous?
As much as right-thinking journalists and politicians might like to presume otherwise, the question is far from rhetorical. Mayer argues that the problem with Bigelow’s depiction of torture in Zero Dark Thirty “is not that it tells this difficult history but, rather, that it distorts it.” Yet in her own justly celebrated journalism unveiling the Bush administration’s torture memos and honoring those who refused on principle to endorse such vile tactics, Mayer misrepresented a complicated history. Her work depends on the assumption that the taboo against torture has been a stable norm for a very long time. No one had ever done what John Yoo did when he worked for the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush White House, Mayer wrote. But was that because the US government had never tortured before and needed legal cover to do so for the first time? Or was it because it had done so repeatedly, from the Philippines to Vietnam, but had never needed to bend the rules to do so? Though it should provide Yoo no comfort, the truth is that war crimes were far worse in the American past, and his very acts suggested how novel and powerful the taboo on torture had become. “This country has in the past faced other mortal enemies, equally if not more threatening, without endangering its moral authority,” Mayer declared in the introduction to The Dark Side (2008), a compilation of her classic pieces on the use of torture during the “war on terror.” Who exactly is distorting history?
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The truth is that it took a very long time, morally speaking, for people here and abroad to mobilize against torture. Tobias Kelly’s This Side of Silence (2011) calmly explains some of the factors underlying the shift in attitude that occurred a few decades ago. A crucial date is 1973, when the nongovernmental activists of Amnesty International, expanding their remit of challenging political imprisonment to include a campaign against torture, gave the norm a new global standing that continues to have wide resonance today. Using standard techniques of moral regulation—this time for the good—Amnesty succeeded in making the state’s infliction of extreme physical pain anathema, though it was once a customary part of most cultures, an all-too-typical practice in the difficult search for truth or, in modern times, a surprisingly acceptable tool of governance, even in “enlightened” regimes.