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

Torture is not only about inflicting acute pain, but is a calculated and systematic dismantling of a person’s identity and humanity.

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

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.

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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.