Oscars fever: Time to take a stand against torture

Friday, February 22, 2013

It’s that time of year when the red carpet is being rolled out and Oscars fever is upon us. Win or lose, one film is sure to create controversy. Zero Dark Thirty - up for five nominations - is a dramatization of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden, and claims to be ‘based on first hand accounts of actual events’. There is no doubt that the storming of bin Laden’s compound on 2 May 2011 had all the ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster… and so here it is.

The film opens with highly evocative recordings of the voices of 911 victims, trapped in the World Trade Center.  In the first half hour viewers are presented with many scenes of torture of suspected terrorists. Housed in filthy prison conditions, detainees are seen being slapped in the face, punched, forced to listen to extremely loud heavy-metal music, suspended for prolong periods, deprived of sleep, sexually humiliated, confined in a coffin-sized box, led around in a dog collar, and being subjected to simulated death by drowning – more commonly known as waterboarding.  One detainee, who is subject to all of these techniques, finally discloses what the captors want to hear – and this information is shown to help the investigation. Other pieces of the investigative puzzle fall similarly into place.  Scenes of various terrorist bombings around the world are interspersed throughout the movie, as if to remind viewers that the torture they see is for the larger goal of preventing further terrorist attacks.

Seeing torture on the big screen is not new – what then, is the fuss about?

The storm of controversy arises from the film’s claim that crucial intelligence that led to the identification of bin Laden’s hideout was gathered through the use of torture (or in the CIA’s preferred nomenclature, ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’).

No less than the CIA Acting Director himself has responded, in a rare move of issuing a press release to directly refute the film’s central premise (‘I would not normally comment on a Hollywood film, but…’). Chair of the US Senate Intelligence Committee Diane Feinstein and Armed Services Committee Carl Levin have also concluded that evidence gathered from CIA torture was not the clincher in finding bin Laden, after overseeing the review of more than 6 million pages of records relating to the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation program. Former CIA interrogators, prison staff and former detainees likewise concur. The range and seniority of players that have weighed in on this issue suggests that what is at stake is no less than the movie’s potential to rewrite history in a very dangerous way.

Under international law, torture is one of the few human rights violations considered so egregious that it is absolutely prohibited everywhere. This includes States that have not yet signed treaties like the UN Convention against Torture, and in the ‘black sites’ that were established by the CIA to conduct the dirty business depicted in the movie.

Not the right way to go

One of the big problems with evidence gathered as a result of torture is that it is often unreliable – something that interrogators as well as academics will attest to. Individuals exposed to physical or mental pain so severe will, in many cases, look for any way they can to make the pain stop – including telling captors what they want to hear.

On a practical level, if you want to successfully prosecute terrorists and lock them away, torturing is not the right way to go. Many modern legal systems reflect the international legal rule that any evidence obtained by torture cannot be admitted into court. Thus if you torture someone and they give you information that leads to the arrest of a terrorist, unless you have other, untainted evidence to convict on, that terrorist will walk free. This rule recognizes the inherent unreliability of tortured evidence and aims to deter the use of torture as an evidence-gathering tool.

And what about when the captors get the wrong guy who simply cannot tell them what they want to hear? In one tragic case, German citizen Khaled el-Masri, detained in 2003 by Macedonian security officers at a border on suspicion of being an al-Qaida suspect, was handed over to the CIA. The CIA proceeded to handcuff, blindfold, undress and sodomise him before taking him to a black site in Afghanistan where he was secretly detained and tortured for four months. When the mistaken identity was discovered he was taken to Albania in Eastern Europe and dumped on a roadside. The European Court of Human Rights recently found his rights had been severely violated but his quest for justice in the US was thwarted when the US Supreme Court upheld a decision that his case should be dismissed on ‘state secret’ grounds.

Instead of being the effective investigative tool the movie portrays, torture causes severe and ongoing suffering for victims, their families and their communities.  Does it take its toll on the perpetrator too? At one point in the film we see a tired looking CIA agent returning to America saying he needs a rest from months of work and ‘100 naked bodies’.  Images of the horrendous pyramids of detainees that became public when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke come to mind. Yes, torture has an impact on those who practice it and the societies in whose name it is practiced.

Creating a public appetite for torture

Zero Dark Thirty is not the first Hollywood film to take ‘significant artistic license, while portraying itself as being historically accurate’ as the CIA press release puts it. It won’t be the last. The larger problem with this film is that it creates a public appetite for torture, which sends a strong signal to intelligence gathering agencies and the government about what is acceptable conduct for government officials: that the means can justify the ends. Shows like the long-running TV series ‘24’, which depicted counter terrorist agent Jack Bauer regularly torturing suspects to obtain crucial information risk leaving the impression on the public psyche that torture is acceptable, indeed necessary. Despite speaking out against the CIA’s practices when coming to office, President Obama has so far failed to hold to account those senior government officials that gave the seal of approval to interrogation techniques that amount to be torture. It would not be a stretch to say that the TV show 24 was an indirect influencing factor on the priorities the public have set for their leaders. Accountability for torture is crucial, not only for the individual victims (such as Mr el-Masri) but also because it prevents torture, by deterring others from acting the same way.

Zero Dark Thirty starkly highlights the vulnerability of those deprived of their liberty.  How can we counterbalance the potentially destabilizing influence of this film on public standards? Independent oversight of all places of detention is one of the best ways to prevent torture and ill-treatment. The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) is a treaty that requires this oversight. By ratifying the OPCAT governments send a strong message that torture is not supported.


A version of this article has earlier been published in The Australian