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‘Zero Dark Thirty’: Separating the facts from Hollywood fiction

Zero Dark Thirty Still
Courtesy of Sony Pictures
For those who choose to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s critical to understand the difference between Hollywood fiction and the facts.

The release of the critically acclaimed film “Zero Dark Thirty” reignited debate about the U.S. use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. For more than a decade, opinions about torture have been more often grounded in opinion rather than knowledge of how torture is really used in the world today.

Curt Goering
Curt Goering

“Zero Dark Thirty,” a fictionalized account of the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden, rekindles the argument because as a nation, we have refused to fully account for our use of torture and cruel treatment, or to acknowledge the clinical, medical and scientific facts about torture.

Pop culture often depicts torture as a way of making a suspect or prisoner talk by applying a little physical pain, but that is not how it works in the world today.

Torture is a tool of repression used in more than 100 countries to control populations and destroy leaders through fear. Used by governments to stifle dissent, torture suppresses emerging movements and destroys what every citizen needs to engage in public life: trust in government institution, even trust in neighbors. The ongoing human atrocities in Syria are a horrible reminder that the use of torture, including the torture of children, still exists on an alarming scale.

Dismantling identity, humanity

Torture is not only about inflicting acute pain, but is a calculated and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity. It induces long-term suffering that leaves bodies and minds broken.

Torture is usually low-tech. Beatings are one of the most common forms of torture. But clinicians treating torture survivors increasingly see sophisticated form of psychological torture that leave survivors suffering from emotional trauma for years. Psychological torture doesn’t leave physical scars, one reason the United States used a combination of psychological abuse to increase suffering while leaving little physical evidence.

Disturbingly portrayed as normal and routine in CIA interrogations, the abusive methods shown in “Zero Dark Thirty,” from a medical, scientific and clinical perspective, constitute torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Tantamount to a mock execution

Waterboarding is a method of torture that goes beyond the fear of suffocation. It is tantamount to a mock execution that can result in the survivor suffering psychological trauma for years. Mock executions leave survivors feeling they were already dead. Tragically, they often relive these near-death experiences in their nightmare or flashbacks.

Sexual humiliation has devastating mental-health consequences. Forced nudity and other forms of sexual humiliation are common because they so quickly accomplish the torturer’s goal – to leave victims ashamed, demeaned and grief-ridden.

These forms of abuse, as well as stress positions, isolation, sleep deprivation, and others also are frequently used in combination to increase the severity of the physical and psychological pain.

Last month, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee adopted its report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program after September 11, 2001. The report is now going through a declassification process at the CIA.

Report must be made public with few redactions

It is clear from the controversy stoked by “Zero Dark Thirty” that the report must be made public with as few redactions as possible. Only when the facts are known can we understand what went wrong and what must be done to prevent the use of torture again in the future.

For those who choose to see “Zero Dark Thirty,” it’s critical to understand the difference between Hollywood fiction and the facts. Abusive interrogation methods used and once authorized as U.S. policy are forms of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Their use marked a dark chapter in our nation’s history when our government was turned from a leader in the campaign to end torture worldwide into a perpetrator.

Curt Goering is the executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, an international nongovernmental organization based in St. Paul and dedicated to healing victims of torture.

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Comments (2)

If We Can't Admit Our OWN Doubt of God and Fear of Death

And our own fears that each of us is NOT STRONG ENOUGH to do what's needed (to push death away),...

We are doomed to try to beat down those fears by doing violence to other people and, as is the case with all addictive behaviors pursued as psychological compensation for unacknowledged issues buried deep within us,...

if the dysfunctional way we're seeking to beat down those fears is not working well enough or long enough for us, to do more and worse of that same thing, up to and including the murder of others.

This doesn't EVER work for us because abusing others is ALWAYS a psychological compensation for our own internal doubts and fears, fears related to our own lack of strength and doubt related to God's mercy at the moment of our death,...

In using violence as a compensation for our internal issues, we are IGNORING the issues, the internal doubts and fears which are the source of our fear and anxiety.

Failing to accept our fate (that we, ourselves, will eventually die) and failing to face our fear that, living in a world filled with seemingly random occurrences some of us might die a good deal sooner than we, or those we love imagined or hoped,

and, for most of us, never having been taught what to expect from our own psyches when we are processing grief, let alone how to deal with it in healthy ways,

we are caught without the tools we need to deal with the tragedies that life visits upon us.

The fact is those tragedies WILL occur. Some of them will even be man made. Our choice in the face of such tragedy is whether we will waste our time seeking to create a world in which we will always be absolutely, completely, utterly safe, which is of course, impossible to achieve,...

(with the unintended consequences of our efforts likely making us far LESS safe than we were before)...

or whether we will take healthier attitudes to life and death, including that NONE of can escape "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," and that any religion or human philosophical or ideological pursuit which promises us otherwise is only setting us to rip us off.

None of this, of course, precludes our restraint of those who would do damage and work evil if given the freedom to do so, nor does it preclude efforts to change the circumstances which make violence and tragedy possible if not likely,...

but our treatment of and attitude toward those whom we have identified to keep restrained must be humane,...

For to do otherwise is to place ourselves on the wrong side of a very truthful equation: inhumanity results in more inhumanity and lowers the entire human race, especially the nations and people who perpetrate it, as the inevitable result, whereas,...

Humane treatment of others raises the entire human race, especially the nations and people who carry it out.

The US was once a champion of humane treatment across this entire planet. That we have so debased ourselves as to employ torture out of the fearfulness, weakness, and self-doubt of the leaders who ordered or acquiesced to such torture has greatly damaged and debased us and sent us racing toward the embrace of humanity's darkest impulses.

It is time for us to turn back toward the light,...

which for many of us means the light which was shown so brightly into our world through the life, ministry, teaching, and example of Jesus,

but for those who are not Christian, that same light also shines through the exemplars of every faith and through the best of science, philosophy and all intellectual endeavors,...

(although it has also been massively corrupted by dysfunctional people within every religion and every other field of endeavor by which humans seek to find strength, comfort, and meaning in life).

This commentary tells a truth

This commentary tells a truth that many still pretend is a question for debate: the United States used torture as part of national policy after 9/11. What the commentary doesn't tell is the legal implications of this truth: the activities were illegal as a matter of international law and U.S. treaty obligations. For that reason it is naive to think the report discussed will be released in any form that is not highly redacted. The U.S. government has not prosecuted any of the criminals under our command, and we are not going to admit that government operatives broke these laws.