Robert Jensen : Torture is Trivial

Zero Dark Thirty reinforces the story of American innocence.

Torture is trivial

Zero Dark Thirty tells the story most Americans want to hear, not the story that needs to be told.

By Robert Jensen | The Rag Blog | January 24, 2013

The great American torture debate has been rekindled by the nationwide release of Zero Dark Thirty, the hot new movie about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden.

But all the fussing over whether or not the movie condones, glorifies, and/or misrepresents torture is trivial, because the United States’ use of torture after 9/11 is trivial in the context of larger U.S. crimes.

Let me be clear: I don’t support torture. I think torture is immoral. I think government officials who ordered or condoned torture should be held accountable. Torture crosses a line that should not be crossed.

But when I look at the decade since 9/11, torture is hardly the greatest crime of the U.S. war machine. Since 9/11, the United States has helped destroy two countries with, at best, sketchy moral and legal justification. The invasion of Afghanistan was connected to the crimes of 9/11, at least at first, but quickly devolved into a nonsensical occupation. The invasion of Iraq, which was clearly illegal, was a scandal of unprecedented scale, even by the standards of past U.S. invasions and covert operations.

While the Iraq war is over (sort of) and the Afghanistan war is coming to an end (sort of) the United States is also at war in Pakistan and Iran. The U.S. routinely unleashes murderous drone strikes in Pakistani territory, and we can assume that covert operations against Iran, such as the cyber-attack with a powerful computer virus, continue even though Iran poses no serious threat to the United States.

All of this was, or is, clearly illegal or of dubious legal status. None of it makes us more secure in the long run. And if one considers human beings who aren’t U.S. citizens to be fully human, there is no moral justification for any of it.

The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it ignores all of that, as do most of the movies, television shows, and journalism about the past decade. It tells the story that Americans want to hear: We are an innocent nation that has earned its extraordinary wealth fair and square. Now we want nothing more than to protect the fruits of our honest labor while, when possible, extending our superior system to others.

Despite our moral virtue and benevolence, there are irrational ideologues around the world who want to kill Americans. This forces our warriors into unpleasant situations dealing with unpleasant people, regrettable but necessary to restore the rightful order.

A less self-indulgent look at the reality of the post-World War II era suggests a different story. Whether in Latin America, southern Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia, the central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been consistent: to make sure that an independent course of development did not succeed anywhere, out of a fear that it might spread to the rest of the developing world and threaten U.S. economic domination. In the Middle East, the specific task has been to make sure that the flow of oil and oil profits continues in a fashion conducive to U.S. interests.

This is not a defense of terrorism but rather a consistent critique of terrorism, whether committed by nation-states or non-state actors. The solution to the problem is not more terrorism by one side to counter the terrorism of the other. The solution is not torture. At this point, there are no easy and obvious “solutions” available, given the hole into which we’ve dug ourselves.

But there are things we can do that would help create the conditions under which solutions may emerge, ways to support real democracy around the world and a just distribution of resources. The first step is for those with more wealth and power to tell the truth about how that wealth was accumulated and how that power has been used.

The real problem with Zero Dark Thirty is not that it takes artistic license with some of the facts about torture. The film’s more profound failure is that by reinforcing the same old story about American innocence, it helps obscure the larger truths we don’t want to face about ourselves.

[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times (City Lights, coming in April 2013). His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

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3 Responses to Robert Jensen : Torture is Trivial

  1. Behavior conditions thought & rule making.

    Your last proposition is truly pregnant; “The film’s more profound failure is that by reinforcing the same old story about American innocence, it helps obscure the larger truths we don’t want to face about ourselves.”


    My brief scientific behaviorist comment;

    “Since we intuitively know that there is a rule for everything, we are
    easily misled into believing that rules govern or cause behavior. But the
    principle that rules govern or cause behavior is no more credible than
    the proposition that the earth is flat. Rules facilitate, motivate, and
    organize our behavior; they do not govern or cause it. The causes of
    behavior are to be found in the material conditions of social life. The
    conclusion to be drawn from the abundance of “unless” and “except”
    clauses is not that people behave in order to conform to rules, but they
    select or create rules appropriate for their behavior.”

    Marvin Harris; Cultural Materialism, p.275

  2. More evidence of rewriting the rules;

    The failure to close Guantánamo also involved Congress, where lawmakers passed legislation imposing severe restrictions on the administration’s ability to release prisoners, and the courts — specifically the D.C. Circuit Court and the Supreme Court. Judges in the Circuit Court rewrote the rules on detention, gutting habeas corpus of all meaning for the prisoners by demanding that anything produced by the government as evidence, however wildly implausible, should be regarded as accurate; and the Supreme Court refused to get involved, turning down appeals in 2011 and again last year, including one from a Yemeni, Adnan Latif, whose successful habeas corpus petition had been overturned by the D.C. Circuit.

  3. Todd Ackley says:

    I certainly agree that debate over the treatment of torture in the movie, Zero Dark Thirty, is trivial.
    I would like to start a real debate on what we should do about the crimes against humanity that this country engaged in during the Bush/Cheney administration. I believe that the invasion of Iraq was criminal in its inception and in the terroristic way it was carried out, namely Shock & Awe. But, we dropped the ball on that when the Democrats failed to start impeachment after they gained control of Congress in 2010.
    However, both Bush and Cheney have been tried and convicted, in absentia, of war crimes based on the use of torture. I think that we should consider turning them over to face trial a real trial on those charges in the World Court.
    I am sure we have extradition treaties with European Countries who would turn them over to the World Court. One of our most holier than thou pronouncements is that we are “A Nation of Laws.” Why don’t we live up to that standard for a change?
    That would undo a lot of damage to our image caused by the way that our nation has conducted our foreign policy since World War II. It would also be a more effective way to fight terrorism than using drones to ambush terrorists and killing innocent people in the process.

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