The simple fact is you can’t reliably separate the gold from the dross that torture yields. “He had us chasing the goddamn geese in Central Park because he said some of them had explosives stuffed up their ass,” one FBI counter-terrorism agent said in frustration
The third objection to torture is that it has unintended consequences, both on the wider world and on those who inflict it. By this point, there is little doubt that revelations of torture performed by Americans dramatically affected the position of the United States in the world. It degraded us, among our friends and enemies. It topped any recruiting material al-Qaida could possibly devise.
Even given that huge damage, arguably the more severe and longest lasting unintended consequences have been those we have inflicted upon ourselves. That we are still debating torture’s virtues is itself strong evidence of the ill effect of torture on those who would wield it, in this case an entire society. There has been not just a coarsening of our ideals but a rebuke of them. In failing to assess and acknowledge the damage we’ve done, we have cheapened the idea of America.
We rationalize this so completely that we can double down and insist that we had a right to employ “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and that it was somehow heroic to have done so. Whether the filmmakers meant it to or not, Zero Dark Thirty joins other retellings of the tale in which this myth is being remade as history.
We have so contorted ourselves that earlier this month a military judge ruled that the man whose real-life torture is described in the movie, Mohammed’s nephew Ali Abdul Aziz Ali, will not be allowed to describe his torture at trial. The methods used to extract information from captives is a state secret, the judge said, as are the victim’s recollections of it.
Apparently, those methods can be celebrated in a movie but not acknowledged in a court of law.
Terry McDermott is the author, with Josh Meyer, of “The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.”