Zero Dark Now: An Open Letter to America

Posted: January 18, 2013 in Films, Top Films
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

On the day Osama Bin Laden was killed, I remember a mixture of emotions. Even today, sitting in the theater watching Zero Dark Thirty, I had a hard time reconciling what was going through my head. The victorious elation of Bin Laden’s defeat seemed to ram up against what I firmly believe, that we should never rejoice over the death of another. As the soldiers make their way through the Pakistani compound that housed Bin Laden, and the children there mourned their fallen parents, part of me wished that every one of those children would be forced to sit and watch footage from 9/11, the sorrow, the grief, the death. How dare they have the audacity to shed tears for those who killed so many, men who devoted their lives to murdering others. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.

And then, of course, rises the inevitable pity. Or does it? After all, this isn’t a film about pity. This is a film about the raw determination of a country, and a woman, determined to see justice done. Everything is left on the table. The bravery of our military and intelligence agencies, the frustration of dead ends, the ruthlessness of international terror at the hands of Al Qaeda, it’s all there.

And of course, the torture is there too. I’ve heard some argue that the methods shown here are not, in fact, tantamount to torture, but if this isn’t, I’m not sure what is. This is something that we, as Americans, need to come to terms with. This happened. Guantanamo happened, the waterboarding happened, this all happened. Whether you believe it was the right thing to do or not, it happened.

But now, instead of taking advantage of this time to evaluate ourselves, we’re doing the American thing: pointing fingers. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her crew have given us this chance to see the whole story. How did we get Bin Laden? This is how. We may not like it, but this is how. And instead of thanking Bigelow for laying bare what went on for that decade between

9/11 and Bin Laden’s death, we hear the war cries. All of a sudden, Zero Dark Thirty is a pro-torture film. All of a sudden, people are falling all over themselves to discredit it. It’s as if somehow, Bigelow herself was handing down orders for this brutality. How dare she show that torture helped us find Bin Laden! How dare she promote that kind of violence! And people point fingers, and accuse others, and refuse to hear how absurd it all sounds, all this empty anger spewing out of their mouths.

Zero Dark Thirty should be opening doors to a discussion. We should be asking questions. Was this worth it? Do the ends justify the means? How do we act moving forward? But we’ve devolved into irrational hate mongers instead, and instead of evaluating ourselves, we are blaming others. Instead of fixing a problem, we yell at each other. And this is actually our most common form of public discourse these days. Is it actually possible to have a rational discussion about anything anymore? I can’t even point out flaws in The Dark Knight Rises without getting called a idiot, how can anyone expect to be able to talk about something like torture, or abortion, or gun rights/control, or anything political, without having someone slobbering vitriolic idiocy all over them? We’re so quick to chide and blame, we can’t see problems with ourselves.

Sadly, this is how the next generation is learning to think. On all our favorite social media sites, the conversations aren’t civilized, we can have no decent debates. Even our presidential candidates bicker and insult each other in front of a national audience. And perhaps the thing that is even sadder is that the brakes have fallen off. The response to objective situations depicted in Zero Dark Thirty show that we cannot handle intelligent debate. Perhaps we’re afraid we’ll be wrong, so we blame others, we blame Hollywood, or the government, or the media, anything to take the blame off us. Why bother dealing with the reality of American torture when you can just have a verbal stoning and blame Kathryn Bigelow for showing it to us?

This movie should make us think. It should make us ponder what kind of world we want to be in. It shows just what determined Americans can do when they put their minds to it. We could be standing up, united, demanding that this never happens again. We could be willing to sit down with our friends and neighbors and have a civilized conversation about important issues. Or we could just stand around yelling at each other, because that always seems to work.




  1. RandyB says:

    If you’re going to say something about “the reality of American torture” then you really shouldn’t base you position on that “reality” by how it was depicted in a movie.

    Jose Rodriguez and Michael Hayden have both written that it didn’t happen the way it was portrayed. As I remember from the CIA reports (declassified by the Obama administration a few years ago), their descriptions don’t jibe with that movie either. It was much more measured in real life.

    Then you have to consider your own definition of torture. Many critics of the U.S.-side of the war opposed even the use of Sesame Street music, and pretended that was torture. We’re never going to satisfy them. While waterboarding is more obviously near the limits, it’s not nearly as bad as what our enemies do. Just consider that, not only have Americans been waterboarded for training or evaluation (including Hayden), but anti-war rallies have also had demonstrations for volunteers to see what it’s like. How many of those same volunteers would agree to submit themselves to what our enemies do?

    Here’s an example:

    There’s an obvious difference. You’re still welcome to say you think waterboarding is also torture, but you shouldn’t act like it’s in the same league, and you shouldn’t use that movie as a guide.

    • This is awesome. I was just watching an interview with Tarantino where he was talking about how he thought Django Unchained was starting a dialogue about slavery that hadn’t been had recently. He was saying how great he thought it was that people were taking to the internet to discuss it. And this is exactly what I think should be happening with Zero Dark Thirty, and what you’re doing with your post.

      You’re right, it would be folly to base reality on a movie, especially one that isn’t 100% accurate (not many are). The important thing is to have the discussion, have the debate about what is acceptable and what isn’t. I saw Argo recently too, and am put out by people complaining that the Iranians were shown as too savage. Well, I’m sorry, if you do what they did to our people, then you deserve that when an American film company makes a film out of that.

      Like it or not, in the war on terror some prisoners were subjected to bad things. And you’re right, the movie doesn’t display everything with 100% accuracy. But we can still have the discussion, which is what we’re doing. Thanks for the insightful post. I’ll take a look at that link.

  2. RandyB says:

    A discussion is great, but you need to look at it from all sides. And by that, I don’t mean only us and the jihadists. You need to look at the film industry, too.

    Another movie, The Road to Guantanamo, was about the Tipton Three. These were three young British Muslims who went into Afghanistan, and were portrayed as having been innocents who’d just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In reality, they did go there for weapons training (one admitted having trained on the AK-47). Former neighbors had said, before 9/11, they were known to be sympathetic to radicals like the Taliban. No one can truly believe that anyone who associates with these three actually care about human rights. None of them oppose even the cruelest forms of torture when their side is doing it. And yet that’s the side that movie was portraying as innocents.

    This carried over into ZD30, which probably had its “torture” scenes influenced by Road to Guantanamo. I can’t blame ZD30’s filmmakers for this. The war’s critics would have really flipped if ZD30 tried to explain everything from the CIA’s POV.

    Yes, some prisoners were treated badly. The military had tens of thousands in Afghanistan, most of whom were treated well. Some were treated badly, but many of those were cases of bad guards, not necessarily a matter of interrogation policy. The CIA (which is what ZD30 was about) only had about 100 prisoners during that period. Only 1/3rd of them got rough interrogation, and only three were waterboarded.

    Keep in mind that, in the first year of the war, there were serious fears that Al Qaeda had gotten a couple of old Soviet nukes. That was only the #1 fear. There were lesser worries as well, which were still quite serious. If lawyers can find a line between rough interrogation and true torture, they had good reasons to find that line go right up to it.

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