This war will end, but it will not end soon.
Once upon a time, in jolly old England, a young suicide bomber named Hasib Mir Hussain tried to kill me. If you were in London on July 7, 2005, Hussain, along with his demented accomplices, tried to kill you too. This man did not know my name, or the names of any of his victims, but he wanted to kill anyone who rejected the prophet Mohammed while luxuriating in a secular western society. Using a large amount of explosives, Hussain destroyed himself, along with 13 other innocent human beings, on a bus in Tavistock Square. I was studying film theory in London during that summer and like all good twenty-three-year-old potheads tend to do, I spent my day off from class sleeping. On that day, my alarm clock was not an alarm clock, but a fierce explosion coming from somewhere very, very close. Every day prior to the attack, I stood at the very intersection where this obscene religious murder was carried out, and at approximately the same time. Blind luck kept me from being shredded by flying bus fragments. This was my brush with Jihad. Hussain was 18 years old.
Zero Dark Thirty recreates this attack, along with many others, reminding viewers just how many such assaults have taken place since 9/11. This movie shows us things we have seen before: very serious and stressful CIA meetings, Special Forces raids, and angry crowds of indignant Muslims. But these images are presented in such an unglamorous and realistic style that we forget that inferior films have presented us with identical imagery. Zero Dark Thirty not only makes the old new again, it makes what seems so unreal, real. It reminds us of the importance of such events—events that have come to define a decade, a generation, and generations to come. This war will end, but it will not end soon.
Much of what has happened in the domestic political landscape during the last two years has made it impossible for me to call myself a conservative. Things like the snubbing of the courageous Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director, and the accompanying leftist outrage over the portrayal of American torture in Zero Dark Thirty, have made it impossible for me to call myself a liberal. Some prisoners, in my view, should be water-boarded and coerced into divulging information through the application of misery. I will let Sam Harris, the author of “The End Of Faith”, and perhaps the clearest American mind on a host of issues, explain the logic behind the dark practice:
Opponents of torture will be quick to argue that confessions elicited by torture are notoriously unreliable. Given the foregoing, however, this objection seems to lack its usual force. Make these confessions as unreliable as you like--the chance that our interests will be advanced in any instance of torture need only equal the chance of such occasioned by the dropping of a single bomb. What was the chance that the dropping of bomb number 117 on Kandahar would effect the demise of Al Qaeda? It had to be pretty slim. Enter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: our most valuable capture in our war on terror. Here is a character who actually seems to have stepped out of a philosopher's thought experiment. U.S. officials now believe that his was the hand that decapitated the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Whether or not this is true, his membership in Al Qaeda more or less rules out his "innocence" in any important sense, and his rank in the organization suggests that his knowledge of planned atrocities must be extensive. The bomb has been ticking ever since September 11th, 2001. Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell us something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use every means at our disposal to get him talking.
Harris, like myself, makes it clear that he does not want prisoners to be tortured. The humanity of any decent person recoils at the thought of harming a pacified and unarmed human being. But what makes us recoil is irrelevant in this situation. Who lives and who dies is what is relevant, and if water-boarding a captured jihadist decreases the chances that a family will be torn to pieces during a dinner in Damascus, Dublin, or Denver, so be it. We are willing to drop bombs knowing full well that someone we do not want to harm will be “tortured”—i.e. lose a limb, liver, or life. But we will not torture a captured beast in furtherance of protecting ourselves? Please.
Here is a very simple thought experiment to conduct that proves, without doubt, the efficacy of torture: You have been captured, disrobed, and tied to a wall. Your captors produce a blowtorch, turn it on, and say, “tell us what we want to know, or we will burn your balls off.” Your captors mean this very sincerely. Now, I love my mom more than anyone else in the universe, and the thought of living without her brings me to despair. However, in this instance, I would tell these evil men her address, phone number, daily routine, and anything else they asked me, before delivering my genitals to their portable furnace. You would do the same. I would also ask my captors to kill me after I folded under this threat, and hope that my mom’s karate lessons or my grandpa’s shotgun would somehow save her. These final hopes might redeem me in the eyes of others, but probably not.
Zero Dark Thirty portrays the torture of prisoners. It does not celebrate it. Those who are unable to grasp this obvious and important distinction are either being dishonest, or are simply stupid. Zero Dark Thirty is concerned with the most serious ethical and geo-political issues the world has seen since the Cold War. There is no room for frivolousness or cynical soap-boxing in this conversation. Those who have claimed that Zero Dark Thirty is a perverse endorsement of torture must be disqualified from the discussion. It is simply not a legitimate opinion.
The plot of Zero Dark Thirty is no mystery to anyone who has been near a screen during the last 12 years, so a synopsis would be rather boring to read, let alone write. What I will say is that the human and technical detail found in this movie is absolutely mesmerizing. This movie, especially the raid itself, has the embedded-journalist-feel of a film like Restrepo, the celebration of modern militaristic mastery similar to Black Hawk Down, and the sneaky saboteur style found in Spy Game. The film doesn’t seem to care about standard movie “rules”, as it should not. This story is far too important.
Islam, like many other religions, is not a religion of peace. As Harris points out, it is a religion that authorizes violence in certain circumstances, and pacifism in certain circumstances. These circumstances are subject to the person who experiences them, and since there are many people on this planet, this subjectivity creates enormous problems. Islam is the most immature of the three monotheisms, in the sense that it is the most recently invented. Judaism went through its crusader period a few thousand years ago. Christianity went through its crusader period a few hundred years ago. Islam is going through its crusader period right now. The screens mentioned earlier will convince you of this if my logic is not good enough. Islam is the only contemporary faith that is both widely popular, and prone to outbursts of extreme violence when their prophet is depicted in cartoon form. When was the last time a Jewish or Christian head of state demanded that a person be killed for drawing a picture or writing a book? If you take the time to find one, how many followers do they have? Do millions of people take this person seriously? Honest answers to these questions lead to only one conclusion: the modern world truly is in conflict with an ENORMOUS segment of the Muslim world. This conflict is not exclusive to the battlefield, but it is a conflict nonetheless. The combination of nuclear weapons and suicide bombers is a cocktail guaranteed to cause a blackout, and not a blackout that we can shake off after a few days rest.
George Carlin was a fantastic cynic, and described the experience of war as “great theater.” 9/11 serves as a sort of lifetime pass to this theater. Zero Dark Thirty represents the end of a chapter in the fight against radical Islam. Many dinners have been eaten in front of many televisions during this chapter. A chapter that contains attacks and battles in New York City, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Detroit, Tunisia, Mali, and Israel. Osama bin Laden was the villain in chapter one. More chapters, more villains, and more Zero Dark Thirty’s will come.