In 'Zero Dark Thirty,' Hollywood spurs Beltway debate anew

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2013 - 7:07 PM

'Zero Dark Thirty' reopens the necessary national discussion on torture.

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Nominated for Best motion picture of the year, "Zero Dark Thirty."

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More than a continent separates Hollywood and the Beltway.

In Los Angeles, where Academy Award nominations were announced Thursday and the Golden Globe Awards take place Sunday, the focus is on red carpets.

In Washington, the focus is on "black sites" and other dank detention centers, scenes of cinematic re-creations of CIA torture in "Zero Dark Thirty," the most controversial Oscar and Golden Globe nominee.

The film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which had its local premiere last night, is a well-told, taut thriller. As cinema, it earned its nominations.

But as history, its accuracy is debatable, according to the CIA and three key senators, sensitive to the national image damage that "Zero Dark Thirty" could inflict worldwide.

The movie "creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were key to finding [Osama] Bin Laden. That impression is false," wrote Michael J. Morell, acting director of the CIA, in a letter to agency employees. "The truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Laden was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well."

The senators gave the movie a thumbs-down, too: "'Zero Dark Thirty' is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film's fictional narrative," wrote Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

The senators' letter uses as proof its own research: the Senate Intelligence Committee's recently adopted study of the CIA's detention and interrogation program.

The senators' case would be significantly strengthened if the report were declassified.

"It should be made public with as few redactions as possible," said Curt Goering, executive director of the Minnesota-based Center for Victims of Torture

Goering, who's seen "Zero Dark Thirty," worries about world reaction.

"It can and will be used against us," Goering said. "As a country, we have a high ground to speak out on human-rights issues. During that [post-9/11] period, we lost that credibility. ... That doesn't come back easily."

The torture debate, however, is coming back. And not just because of the film or the Senate's study, but also because of the nomination of John O. Brennan to head the CIA. Four years ago, Brennan declined consideration for the job because of his ties to Bush-era interrogation policies.

And regarding media, it's not just the movies that may be misrepresenting torture. A new study from ReThink Media, a nonprofit media and communications firm, reports that from 2010 to 2012, the wire services AP and Reuters used the term "torture" 59.5 percent of the time when describing coercive techniques, but used euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation" 40.5 percent of the time. A survey of 28 print outlets showed a more even split: 51.3 percent "torture," 48.7 percent euphemisms. And cable news networks were even more linguistically squishy: only 27.8 percent "torture," compared with 72.2 percent euphemisms.

Euphemism use isn't just journalism semantics -- it affects public opinion.

"It's not just that there is a legal definition, but how people define or use language makes a big difference in how the public views whether it is lawful or not, or whether it should be allowed," said Lynn Fahselt, director of ReThink Media.

The CVT's "Torture 'Without Scars'" report details what detainees really undergo when subjected to forced stress positions, sleep deprivation and mock executions, including waterboarding, which are all portrayed in "Zero Dark Thirty."

"Argo," another Oscar and Golden Globe nominee about the CIA and the Mideast, also shows mock executions. But in that film's setting, they're conducted by theocratic thugs holding U.S. hostages in Iran. No doubt most moviegoers, including those in government and the media, would consider this torture. So it's likely that international viewers of "Zero Dark Thirty" will consider our treatment of detainees torture, too.

The images injure America's diplomatic and military efforts, of course. But it's not the movie that should scandalize. It's the actual practice. Torture is illegal, ineffective and immoral.

"The moral question is very related to the legal question -- it's immoral to us in part because it's illegal, but also vice versa," said Goering, who added that "what we hear again and again from people who have been through interrogations such as what is portrayed is they will say anything in order to alleviate the suffering and pain they are experiencing -- they just want it to stop."

We should want -- indeed, demand -- that this global scourge stop, too. Nothing less than a country's conscience is at stake.

"Nations that have employed these techniques -- if they don't confront what was done, [they] can never really turn the page and move on," Goering concluded. "I think it eats away at the soul of a nation. It can't really be an effective and vibrant democracy when these kinds of practices are used as instruments of the state and we don't come to terms with it."

The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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