Torture goes to the movies

I haven’t seen Zero Dark Thirty, the new film on the hunt for Osama bin Laden – its Australian release is due at the end of the month. A quick perusal of the American media, however, is enough to show that it’s been the subject of controversy for its frank and perhaps favorable portrayal of torture. You can follow the highlights of the debate here, here, here and here.

But the most interesting critique I’ve read is from Juan Cole at Informed Comment (an excellent source for Middle East news and analysis), and for him the torture story is only part of a broader problem:

The film is misleading precisely because it does what the Bush administration did not do. It stays with Afghanistan, Pakistan and al-Qaeda. At one point a CIA official complains that there are no other working groups concentrating on al-Qaeda, that it is just the handful of field officers around the table. But he does not say that the Bush administration ran off to Iraq and closed down the Bin Laden desk at the CIA. Nor do any of the characters admit that bad intelligence, including that gathered by torture, helped send the United States off on the Great Iraq Wild Goose Chase.

Cole goes on to explain how he started out as eager to help the adminis-tration in its fight against al-Qaeda (had he been younger, he says, he might have enlisted), but fell out of favor when he opposed the invasion of Iraq, believing – quite correctly, as is now clear  – “that Iraq was a massive train wreck and that it actually prolonged al-Qaeda’s significance”:

The Bushies were fine with a phalanx of quacks and phony experts descending on the capital to charge millions for their crazed schemes. But having someone come to town who knew whereof he spoke was intolerable.

Apologists for torture always claim that it can produce good intelligence, important information that we didn’t know before. But the truth is not just that it doesn’t do that, but that it’s almost never designed to do that.

Torturers don’t torture in order to find things out. They torture in order to break the will of their victims, either for its own sake – to punish their real or presumed enemies – or to obtain confirmation of things they already know, or think they know: confessions, incrimination of other suspects, support for a favorite theory like the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.

Read Cole’s whole post. It’s a window onto the madness of America’s recent past – a madness that it’s yet to really face up to.

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