Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Update; Zero Dark Thirty

Our weekend was a pretty good one.  With the holidays behind us, the Texas legislative session has begun, and Amy is working some longer hours.  The session will be her busiest time as The Lege Council drafts bills on behalf of various elected officials and their constituents.  The next few months should be both very busy and very interesting for Amy.  Our schedule has shifted around a little bit, but it's a kind of exciting time.  It's cool to hear her talk about various work projects and then see them pop up as news stories within a day or two.  Our schedule at home has a little less free time in it, though.
On Friday I went to a going away happy hour for Amber, a friend from work who is leaving to go to the DA's office.  A bunch of my coworkers went, so it was good to spend a little bit of social time with work friends outside the office.
On Saturday I got up and ran to the grocery store while Amy worked remotely from home.
After I went to the store I walked over to the movie theater by our house and watched Zero Dark Thirty.
I went to see the movie knowing that there was some sort of controversy about it regarding the use of torture by American interrogators in the film.  I tried not to read too much about the movie before going to see it because I wanted to try to watch the movie and assess it on its own terms without being exposed to all of the criticism and praise that the film has engendered since its release.
Let me start by saying that I mostly enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty.  I went to see it knowing both that it's ultimately just a movie and probably not a completely accurate, bias-free movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Also, I knew going into it that the creators of the movie (particularly Kathryn Bigelow) have gotten themselves into some hot water by perhaps trying to claim that the movie is more accurate than it actually is.
Having seen the movie, I would first say that I wasn't particularly shocked or appalled by the depictions of "enhanced interrogation techniques" as they're portrayed in the movie.  There's been a lot of uproar about whether the specific torture techniques used in the movie actually took place in real life in the exact ways that the movie suggests.  There have also been a lot of people questioning whether the techniques depicted were actually used with any effectiveness in extracting information during the hunt for bin Laden.  Critics of torture decry the movie because they say that torture was never effectively used in the hunt for OBL, but the movie indicated otherwise (thus, according to critics, making the movie a biased propaganda tool for pro-torture advocates).
A couple of things on this point.  First of all, I just find it sort of misguided that so many people are up in arms about the depictions of torture in this movie.  Whether the instances of torture used in this film historically took place in the exact ways that the movie portrays them is, to me, fairly irrelevant.  The U.S. government has admitted to the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, including the use of waterboarding, stress positions, confinement boxes, food deprivation, extremely loud music over long periods, and other methods.  The Bush administration had lawyers drafting legal defenses to the use of these sorts of techniques (that their use did not violate the Geneva Convention or other international treaties and compacts prohibiting the use of torture).  To me, the question of whether or not these things were used to great effect in the hunt for bin Laden is almost beside the point. 
Zero Dark Thirty depicts the use of torture and shows it to ultimately have some sort of mixed results (e.g., they get the name of a target, but it turns out that they initially misidentify the person using the alias). I have no firsthand knowledge, but I would believe that this is probably true. Some people probably resist giving out information or lie while under stress, and some people probably are so scared and broken that they just give up the information that's being sought. It's probably too easy to say that torture never works, but it's almost certainly untrue that it always does. At best, it's probably a somewhat inefficient, unreliable method of extracting information.
The bigger question is about whether the U.S. is going to remain committed to maintaining some sort of moral authority in its stance against the use of torture.  I know that some people will dismiss the entire question of moral authority as a sort of naive, overly philosophical, or eggheaded response to an the use of torture in situations which are meant to protect the lives of American citizens.  On the other hand, when America tortures our loss of legal and moral authority within the international community means that upon future occasions when we might try to seek protections for our own troops and citizens regarding torture, we have virtually no footing.  Imagine American intelligence operatives being treated in the same way that Muslim detainees were treated in Zero Dark Thirty and you begin to see the crux of the problem.  Given what we've been up to, it would seem a lot harder these days to go the war crimes tribunal or the U.N. with a complaint.  When other countries torture our people they are bound to feel themselves every bit as justified as we have felt while torturing terrorist detainees. 
More important yet is the fact that these things have been undertaken on behalf of the American people (heck, our tax dollars paid to accomplish them), and as a society we need to come to some common understanding about whether the actual use of torture in the real world is an acceptable practice on the part of our government instead.   Becoming outraged by cinematic depictions of torture seems a little bit like shooting the messenger (regardless of whether the messenger got the details of the message exactly right).

So Kathryn Bigelow has taken a lot of heat for her portrayal of the use of enhanced interrogation in the movie and her implied assertion that torture ultimately produces valuable leads that can ultimately produce good information and valuable results.  Others have claimed that torture was never used to any real effect in the hunt for OBL.  In Bigelow's defense, she claims that her movie was based upon firsthand accounts of classified intelligence and military operations.  If she's telling the truth insofar as she understands it from people who were actually present for and/or involved in these events, she would probably not be able to prove her case and silence her critics without disclosing the names of sources who have told her things in great confidence (and potentially at their own legal peril).  If she's actually relying on firsthand accounts provided by classified CIA operatives, she can't turn around and point to her sources as a way of verifying her story.  If she did so, her violation of trust could ultimately result in the federal prosecution of her sources.
On the other hand, if Bigelow is overplaying her hand and playing up the torture angle for dramatic effect and fictionalizing events while still claiming to make a factually accurate movie- well, if that's what Bigelow is doing than she's just being exploitative and cheap and not very interesting.  Even the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, after all, claimed to tell a true story even though the story was enitrely made up.  Claming truth while depicting fiction is a commonly used technique is seeking a greater emotional investment on the part of the audience.  In the case of a B grade horror movie that's probably okay, but when you're depicting a politically charged historical event, probably not so much.*
In the end, I enjoyed ZDT as a movie, but I don't know much about its historical accuracy.  It's also important to  note that the movie isn't just about torture- it's actually a pretty compelling story about a few relentless individuals who doggedly pursued leads for over a decade in order to finally get bin Laden.  The use of torture is only a part of the tale.  Once ZDT was nominated for an Oscar, I wanted to see it because, accurate or not, I knew that it would go down in history as some sort of quasi historical depiction of the hunt for bin Laden.  Movies create mythology out of history (anyone else seen Patton or Lawrence of Arabia?), and regardless of whether this movie accurately reflects truth (or maybe because no one is sure whether it does) I think it might become a long term part of our cultural history.

After the movie on Saturday I went for a bike ride.  It was relatively warm out, and I got a nice ride in.  Saturday night we had dinner and watched an old episode of Sherlock that we had missed back during the regular season.  I like Sherlock.  The show has its flaws (I'm not sure the plot is always strictly logical and that all of their tricks of reasoning and deduction actually stand up to scrutiny), but it's good entertainment.  I like the actors and the characters.
On Sunday it was colder, but I went for another bike ride.  Amy went in to work for a while.  I had Mono Ensemble practice (we have a show on Saturday at 9:00 at The Carousel Lounge- be there!!).  Amy made delicious chili and corn bread.  We walked Cassidy.  We relaxed.
It was a good weekend.
*  There were also some allegations that Bigelow filmed some torture scenes in a Jordanian prison where actual prisoners have been tortured (or perhaps continue to be tortured).  If that's the case, that's just messed up.  Pretty inexcusable.  But once again, the U.S. people allowed our government to work as allies for years with the Jordanian government while knowing that they were engaging in human rights violations.Why would we expect more out of a movie director than we do out of our elected officials?

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