Here is how, in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, Kathryn Bigelow justified Zero Dark Thirty’s depiction of the torture methods used by US government agents to catch and kill Osama Bin Laden: “Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.” Really? One doesn’t need to be a moralist or naive about the urgencies of fighting terrorist attacks, to think that torturing a human being is in itself something so shattering that to depict it neutrally is already a kind of endorsement.
Imagine a documentary that depicted the Holocaust in a cool, disinterested way as a big industrial-logistic operation, focusing on the technical problems involved (transport, disposal of the bodies, preventing panic among the prisoners to be gassed). Such a film would either embody a deeply immoral fascination with its topic or it would count on the obscene neutrality of its style to engender dismay and horror in spectators. Where is Bigelow here?
Without a shadow of a doubt, she is on the side of the normalisation of torture. When Maya, the film’s heroine, first witnesses waterboarding, she is a little shocked, but she quickly learns the ropes. Her fanatical pursuit of Bin Laden helps to neutralise ordinary moral qualms. Much more ominous is her partner, a young, bearded CIA agent, who masters perfectly the art of passing glibly from torture to friendliness once the victim is broken (lighting his cigarette and sharing jokes). There is something deeply disturbing in how, later, he changes from a torturer in jeans to a well-dressed Washington bureaucrat. This is normalisation at its most efficient — there is a little unease, more about the hurt sensitivity than about ethics, but the job has to be done. This awareness of the torturer’s hurt sensitivity as the (main) human cost of torture ensures that the film is not cheap rightwing propaganda: The psychological complexity is depicted so that liberals can enjoy the film without feeling guilty.
The most obscene defence of the film is the claim that Bigelow rejects cheap moralism and soberly presents the reality of the anti-terrorist struggle, raising difficult questions and thus compelling us to think (plus, some critics add, she “deconstructs” feminine cliches — Maya is tough and dedicated to her task like men). However, with torture, one should not “think”. A parallel with rape imposes itself here: What if a film were to show a brutal rape in the same neutral way, claiming that one should avoid cheap moralism and start to think about rape in all its complexity? Our guts tell us that there is something terribly wrong here. I would like to live in a society where rape is considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot. The same goes for torture: A sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is rejected as repulsive, without any need for argument.
So what about the “realist” argument: Torture has always existed, so is it not better to at least talk publicly about it? This, exactly, is the problem. If torture was always going on, why are those in power now telling us openly about it? There is only one answer: To normalise it, to lower our ethical standards.
Does Torture save lives? Maybe, but for sure it loses souls — and its most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready to forsake his or her soul to save the lives of his or her countrymen. The normalisation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty is a sign of the moral vacuum we are approaching. If there is any doubt about this, try to imagine a major Hollywood film depicting torture in a similar way 20 years ago. It is unthinkable.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Slavoj Zizek is international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, London.