Column: Boundaries of the permissible
“I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it.” — Col. Nathan Jessep to Lt. Daniel Kaffee, “A Few Good Men” (1992)
WASHINGTON — “You,” said Jack Nicholson’s Jessep to Tom Cruise’s Kaffee, “have the luxury of not knowing what I know.” Viewers of the movie “Zero Dark Thirty” will, according to some informed persons, lose the luxury of not knowing about hard, but morally defensible, things done on their behalf. Other informed persons, however, say viewers will be misled because the movie intimates (actually it is ambiguous about this) a crucial role of “enhanced interrogation” in extracting information useful to tracking Osama bin Laden.
In “A Few Good Men,” Col. Jessep insists that a harsh — and proscribed — training method (“Code Red”) saves lives: “You f—in’ people . . . you have no idea how to defend a nation.” “Zero Dark Thirty” explores the boundaries of the permissible when defending not a nation but this nation. Viewers will know going in how the movie ends. They will not know how they will feel when seeing an American tell a detainee, “When you lie to me I hurt you,” and proceed to do so.
The movie, which is primarily about CIA operatives, probably will make at least a cameo appearance in the confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s nominee as the next CIA director, John Brennan. His 25 years with the CIA included the years when “enhanced interrogation” was used to squeeze crucial information from suspected terrorists.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the intelligence committee, and two colleagues have denounced the movie as “grossly inaccurate and misleading” for its “suggestion” that torture produced information that led to locating bin Laden. But former CIA Director Michael Hayden, while saying “there is no way to confirm” that information obtained by “enhanced interrogation” was the “decisive” intelligence in locating bin Laden, insists that such information “helped” lead to bin Laden.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey goes further: Khalid Sheik Mohammed “broke like a dam” under harsh techniques, including waterboarding, and his “torrent of information” included “the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden,” perhaps the one who is central to the movie’s narrative.
In 2007, Hayden ended the use of half the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding, because American law, our understanding of the threat and our sources of information had changed. He also says, however, that such interrogations produced half our knowledge of al-Qaeda’s structure and activities.
“In the end, everybody breaks, bro — it’s biology,” says the CIA man in the movie, tactically but inaccurately, to the detainee undergoing “enhanced interrogation.” This too familiar term has lost its capacity for making us uneasy. America’s Vietnam failure was foretold when U.S. officials began calling air attacks on North Vietnam “protective reaction strikes,” a semantic obfuscation that revealed moral queasiness. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, who warned about governments resorting to “long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
Viewers of “Zero Dark Thirty” can decide whether or which “enhanced interrogation” measures depicted — slaps, sleep deprivation, humiliation, waterboarding — constitute, in plain English, torture. And they can ponder whether any or all of them would be wrong, even if effective.
Mukasey says the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” is “so absurdly antiseptic as to imply that it must conceal something unlawful.” Such “harsh techniques” were, he says, used against fewer than one-third of the fewer than 100 “hard-core prisoners” in CIA custody.
The government properly cooperated with the making of this movie because the public needs realism about the world we live in. “We live,” says Col. Jessep, “in a world that has walls. . . . You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” Regarding terrorism, the problem is that we live in a world without walls, without ramparts that can be manned for the purpose of repelling an invasion by a massed enemy.
When the CIA woman who drives the pursuit of bin Laden is about to enter, for the first time, the room where “enhanced interrogation” is administered, the CIA man who administers it tells her, “There’s no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.” She, however, knows, and viewers of “Zero Dark Thirty” will understand, it is best to look facts, including choices, in the face.
George Will is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears most Mondays and Thursdays.