The great American torture debate has been rekindled by the nationwide release of Zero Dark Thirty, the hot new movie about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.
But all the fussing over whether or not the movie condones, glorifies, and/or misrepresents torture is trivial, because the United States’ use of torture after 9/11 is trivial in the context of larger U.S. crimes.
Let me be clear: I don’t support torture. I think torture is immoral. I think government officials who ordered or condoned torture should be held accountable. Torture crosses a line that should not be crossed.
But when I look at the decade since 9/11, torture is hardly the greatest crime of the U.S. war machine. Since 9/11, the United States has helped destroy two countries with, at best, sketchy moral and legal justification. The invasion of Afghanistan was connected to the crimes of 9/11, at least at first, but quickly devolved into a nonsensical occupation. The invasion of Iraq, which was clearly illegal, was a scandal of unprecedented scale, even by the standards of past U.S. invasions and covert operations.
While the Iraq war is over (sort of) and the Afghanistan war is coming to an end (sort of) the United States is also at war in Pakistan and Iran. The U.S. routinely unleashes murderous drone strikes in Pakistani territory, and we can assume that covert operations against Iran, such as the cyber-attack with a powerful computer virus, continue even though Iran poses no serious threat to the United States.
All of this was, or is, clearly illegal or of dubious legal status. None of it makes us more secure in the long run. And if one considers human beings who aren’t U.S. citizens to be fully human, there is no moral justification for any of it.
The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it ignores all of that, as do most of the movies, television shows, and journalism about the past decade. It tells the story that Americans want to hear: We are an innocent nation that has earned its extraordinary wealth fair and square. Now we want nothing more than to protect the fruits of our honest labor while, when possible, extending our superior system to others. Despite our moral virtue and benevolence, there are irrational ideologues around the world who want to kill Americans. This forces our warriors into unpleasant situations dealing with unpleasant people, regrettable but necessary to restore the rightful order.
A less self-indulgent look at the reality of the post-World War II era suggests a different story. Whether in Latin America, southern Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, the central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been consistent: to make sure that an independent course of development did not succeed anywhere, out of a fear that it might spread to the rest of the developing world and threaten U.S. economic domination. In the Middle East, the specific task has been to make sure that the flow of oil and oil profits continues in a fashion conducive to U.S. interests.
This is not is a defense of terrorism but rather a consistent critique of terrorism, whether committed by nation-states or non-state actors. The solution to the problem is not more terrorism by one side to counter the terrorism of the other. The solution is not torture. At this point, there are no easy and obvious “solutions” available, given the hole into which we’ve dug ourselves.
But there are things we can do that would help create the conditions under which solutions may emerge, ways to support real democracy around the world and a just distribution of resources. The first step is for those with more wealth and power to tell the truth about how that wealth was accumulated and how that power has been used.
The real problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not that it takes artistic license with some of the facts about torture. The film’s more profound failure is that by reinforcing the same old story about American innocence, it helps obscure the larger truths we don’t want to face about ourselves.