'Zero Dark Thirty' and the role of lawyersMartha Rayner in The National Law Journal, January 28, 2013
by Martha Rayner
I have not seen and will not see Zero Dark Thirty. I would like to see it to judge for myself what story it tells, what messages it sends. But I simply cannot stomach the torture scenes that I have been told dominate the first half of the film. I cannot endure even staged torture scenes because I represent a man who was tortured by our country. Over the seven years I have been meeting with him, I have witnessed the deeply immoral acts imposed on my client through his words as well as the impact it has had on his mental health. It has left me raw — psychologists call it secondary trauma. Hearing about deprivation, degradation and inhumane treatment directly from the person who experienced it is a terrible experience. I wish I did not know what I know.
What I know has been compounded by the fact that these unspeakable acts were carried out by my government. They were sanctioned from the highest echelons of power. This chilling fact is compounded yet again by the fact that the decision to torture was facilitated by members of my own profession. Government lawyers used their skills and talents to legalize torture.
And President Obama's decision to cover up our country's crimes is salt in the wounds. He has maintained a level of secrecy about our country's torture program that rivals that of his predecessor. Obama's failure to deplore and expose the conduct of the Bush administration sends so many troubling messages, ranging from inappropriate neutrality to outright approval.
So I want to give the film's director, Kathryn Bigelow, credit for including torture in the film. She said she did so because it is part of the story. Absolutely. Certainly a story of the hunt for Osama bin Laden that depicted only interrogations taking place over pita and hummus would be a troubling distortion of history. But, it is the information extracted from the victim during the scenes of torture that has sparked controversy. The controversy centers on whether the information obtained led to the location and ultimate killing of bin Laden. If it did, then perhaps our country's decision to secretly detain and torture men was not wrong. If it was not effective, then what was the point — it must be wrong.
Of course torture is wrong — morally and legally. It is absolutely prohibited everywhere under all circumstances. Why, then, do we continue to focus on whether it is effective or not? I fear it is because as a country we have not completely denounced torture. It is as if we must convince ourselves torture is ineffective to prevent its revival. Because if it played a critical role in advancing the hunt for bin Laden, might our country engage in it again, should fear and uncertainty obliterate our better selves, as it did post-September 11?
I ask people who have seen the movie whether the Jessica Chastain character comes out a hero. Everyone says yes. Yet her character was present and complicit in the torture depicted. Why is this character a hero when she aided and abetted torture?
Ultimately, though unwatched, this film has caused me great pain. Torture is still with us as a country; it has not been permanently removed from our menu of responses to terrorism. It lies just below the surface and will rear its ugly head as readily as it did in the past should we face similar challenges.
Martha Rayner is an associate clinical professor of law at Fordham University School of Law.