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|Topic: Zero Dark Thirty|
Joined: 05 October 1999
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| Topic: Zero Dark Thirty
Posted: 23 February 2013 at 6:27pm
‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ Through a Theological Lens
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN
Published: February 22, 2013
Almost nine years ago, journalists on “60 Minutes II” and at The New Yorker revealed a trove of photographs showing the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. The images of inmates variously stripped, hooded, leashed like a dog, piled into naked heaps and forced to simulate oral sex then spread widely, causing international outcry.
Even on the patriotic home front, the revulsion was widespread. President George W. Bush called the Abu Ghraib episode “abhorrent.” Senators across party lines, having been shown more than a thousand photos, described them as “appalling” and “horrific.”
At the 2013 Oscars on Sunday night, one of the nominees for best picture, indeed one of the most lauded films of the year, contains scenes of prisoner treatment that closely recreate the Abu Ghraib tactics. Yet in “Zero Dark Thirty” the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, forms part of a heroic narrative, as a valiant C.I.A. officer tracks down Osama bin Laden.
There has been much debate about the film, primarily about its historical accuracy, but one might say not the right debate, not the deepest debate. Aside from a few Hollywood dissidents like Edward Asner, it has been left largely to theologians to call the film into question not on the pragmatic ground of its fealty to facts but on the moral ground of its message: that torture succeeds, and because it succeeds we should accept it.
“Our culture has almost lost the ability to have a genuinely moral conversation,” said Prof. David P. Gushee, 50, a Southern Baptist who directs the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. “The utilitarian-type reasoning is the only vocabulary we have. The only way we can decide what to do is whether it works. That’s a terribly impoverished moral conversation. It leaves out the question of whether torture is intrinsically right or wrong.”
For the Rev. George Hunsinger, a Presbyterian minister who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary, “Zero Dark Thirty” evoked the same kind of moral questions he associates with the American decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. But the film has the added complication of being something that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki never were: an instant box office product.
“What does it say about American culture that torture has become a form of entertainment for us?” asked Mr. Hunsinger, 67, who is involved with the National Religious Committee Against Torture. “Torture has been normalized since Sept. 11 in a way that’s unimaginable.”
That normalization can be measured in specific ways. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, “Zero Dark Thirty” has grossed $88 million at the box office and received the top prize from the New York Film Critics Circle. It will compete in five categories on Sunday’s Academy Awards, including best picture and best original screenplay.
The film has also received some criticism, which may dampen its Oscar prospects. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Steve Coll assailed “Zero Dark Thirty” for taking fictional liberties from the factual record, all the while asserting on-screen that it is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Among the real episodes omitted, Mr. Coll pointed out, are the objections to “enhanced interrogation techniques” by certain military and legal officials during the Bush presidency.
Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war, joined with his Senate colleagues Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein in writing an open letter to Sony Pictures, which released the film, declaring “that cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of prisoners is an unreliable and highly ineffective means of gathering intelligence.”
So, by the first argument, the film is flawed because it does not follow the historical record. By the second, the film is flawed because torture does not work. What neither argument takes up, but what some theologians have been wrestling with throughout the “global war against terror,” is what a civilized society should think about torture even if it does work.
In that respect, “Zero Dark Thirty” may have done an unintended favor to the national discourse by positing that torture, at least sometimes, succeeds. How do we feel about that? The numerous awards for the film already suggest that we feel tolerant, even approving. Polling by the Pew Research Center has shown a swing between 2004 and 2011, from a majority of Americans rejecting the use of torture against terrorist suspects to a majority favoring it.
In 2007, as opinion was shifting, Professor Gushee of Mercer University helped write “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture.” While condemning Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States, and while affirming the nation’s right to self-defense, the declaration stated near its end:
“When torture is employed by a state, that act communicates to the world and to one’s own people that human lives are not sacred, that they are not reflections of the Creator, that they are expendable, exploitable, and disposable, and that their intrinsic value can be overridden by utilitarian arguments that trump that value. These are claims that no one who confesses Christ as Lord can accept.”
At least one such person offered a prominent rebuttal. Keith Pavlischek, who was then a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, faulted the declaration for not adequately distinguishing between captured terrorists and prisoners of war, and for not precisely defining torture.
At a theological level, he argued that the document had “explicitly repudiated Christian just war teaching.”
One can only wish that a similarly spirited discussion, one rooted in the concept of morality, might have gotten beyond religious and ethical circles and brought some gravitas to all the attention to the red carpet and Oscar pools.
But moviegoing is, in part, about escapism, and now that escapism apparently includes the matter of torture.
“By transforming all of this into suspenseful entertainment,” said Prof. James Turner Johnson of Rutgers, a scholar of just-war theology, “the film is presenting actions that there was a great deal of debate over into something that must be done, standard operating procedure. It tends to baptize it. And the truth is that we, as a society, are looking away.”
Joined: 19 April 2010
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|Posted: 10 March 2013 at 8:34am|
What does it say about American culture that torture has become a form of entertainment for us?
Torture is horrible and wrong. Seeing it as entertainment is even worse.
What does it say about traditional Islam that torture is part of Sharia law?
Torture is horrible and wrong. Executing it in the name of religion is even worse.
Where are all the peaceful Muslims organizing demonstrations against the Sharia and for a Sharia-free modern Islam.
Edited by Matt Browne - 10 March 2013 at 8:34am
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