The Zero Dark Thirty Question: Does Torture Work?

January 16, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty is a really good movie.  It's dramatic, interesting, and oddly suspenseful (since we all know how it ends).  But it’s also controversial because it asserts that the use of torture by the CIA was effective, and yielded information that led us to find and kill Osama bin Laden.

The movie does not shrink from showing torture, nor is it a tangential part of the plot. The first section of the film is mostly focused on torture, and it is difficult to watch. The scenes are explicit, bloody, and very personal. We watch both the interrogators and prisoners in extreme, emotional close ups.  A man is beaten, water-boarded, and locked in a box about the size of a suitcase. We watch as intelligence gleaned from one session leads to more information from others. The harsh techniques, and the threats of more, are portrayed as effective in yielding reliable information.

All of that has led to loud complaints, including a formal letter to the filmmakers from leading U.S. Senators. Among them was torture victim John McCain. They object because they believe that torture is not an effective method of obtaining reliable intelligence; as well as being immoral and unworthy of the United States. They point to an extensive report recently issued which they say demonstrates that "enhanced interrogation" by the CIA did not yield useful information in the war on terror.

I don't know who is right, the filmmakers or the Senators. Maybe torture is a necessary evil in an ugly war; or maybe the victims just say whatever they think will stop the pain. (I suspect that very few people who write about this subject really know either, unless they were deeply involved in both the extraction and use of the information.  Or they were tortured themselves. )  I know I find torture morally repugnant, but that is different than the factual question of whether it works.

Too often, and for understandable reasons, people align their analysis with their hopes.  If you think torture is immoral, it is much easier to believe it is also ineffective.  Otherwise, you are faced with the terrible dilemma of deciding whether we should torture someone who might provide information to stop the mass slaughter of innocents. But that motivation to avoid hard choices doesn't mean those who oppose torture are wrong. There are strong arguments for the proposition that torture yields unreliable results -- which can also lead to danger (sending your soldiers into an ambush, for instance).  It also seems clear that using torture was a great benefit to Al Qaeda recruiting, and alienated many of our allies.

The point is, what's morally good and what works are not always the same thing.  I can know how much I hate the idea of my country using torture, without knowing if it is effective or not.  The filmmakers, who interviewed many participants in the hunt for bin Laden, apparently believed those who told them it worked.  I wish it were otherwise, but the honest and difficult answer is that I just don't know.

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