Here is how, in a letter to the LA Times, Kathryn Bigelow justified Zero Dark Thirty’s depicting of the torture methods used by 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 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 profoundly shattering that to depict it neutrally — ie to neutralise this shattering dimension — 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; later in the film she coldly blackmails a high-level Arab prisoner with, “If you don’t talk to us, we will deliver you to Israel.” 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 purest and 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. This is why Zero Dark Thirty is much worse than 24, where at least Jack Bauer breaks down at the series finale.
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 simply considered unacceptable, so that anyone who argues for it appears an eccentric idiot, not in a society where one has to argue against it. The same goes for torture: a sign of ethical progress is the fact that torture is ‘dogmatically’ 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.