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Žižek, 'Zero Dark Thirty' and Torture

5 pages

In a recent article, the Slovene philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek voices his disdain for the movie "Zero Dark Thirty," imputing to its director an intention to normalize torture and thereby endorse it. The author's comparisons to the Holocaust are just about as disturbing as his conspiracy-phobia is quaint. The central point of his fulminations is summarized in the following statement:
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Žižek, 'Zero Dark Thirty' and Torture
In a recent article, the Slovene philosopher and cultural criticSlavoj Žižek voices his disdain for the movie "Zero Dark Thirty,"imputing to its director an intention to normalize torture and thereby endorse it. The author's comparisons to the Holocaust are just about as disturbing as his conspiracy-phobia is quaint. The central point of his fulminations is summarized in the following statement:
"Torture saves lives? Maybe, but for sure it loses souls -- and its most obscene justification is to claim that a true hero is ready to forsake his or her soul to save the lives of his or her countrymen."
We think this whole formulation of the torture problem is wrong. It differs substantially from the two most common approaches to the problem.
The first argues that torture never produces any valuable information, so it is gratuitous violence and thus immoral. "Zero Dark Thirty" argues that this position is factually wrong, and Žižek notably does not take issue with the film on this point.
The second approach is more complex. It allows that torture may sometimes save lives. But it insists that torture ought never be used, since it compromises the human dignity of the victims of torture. Even if it is effective at saving lives, it is inherently immoral by virtue of its costs to human dignity.
Žižek takes an altogether different approach; he concedes that torture may actually save lives. But he opposes it on the grounds of its deleterious effect -- not so much to the victims of torture, but to the side performing it. Torture, he claims, deprives the torturers of their humanity, and hence, even when effective, must viewed with the utmost contempt. Heroes, he claims, never torture.
Žižek's rationale is deeply troubling. We think that government policy should focus on life saving and not soul saving. If we can save innocent lives by applying psychic and physical anguish to those who pose an imminent threat, then it would be morally untenable for a society to categorically exclude this as an option, just as it would be morally untenable to prohibit soldiers or police officers from engaging in acts of violence for the purpose of protecting lives. When our public servants sustain injuries -- psychic or physical -- in the course of saving lives, we ought to treat that consequence while continuing to support them in their praiseworthy efforts. Life is just too precious. And everything must be done to preserve it -- and to support those who seek to preserve it.
We find it strange that the Slovene atheist would choose to employ the theologically fraught term "soul." It brings to mind the irony that the Inquisition developed many of the most brutal torture methods for the purpose of saving a soul, even if it meant destroying a body or a life. Our concern must always be to save lives, even when it inflicts great spiritual suffering.
It's undeniable that our public servants who are involved in violence against human subjects incur deep psychological injury. But instead of prohibiting life-saving methods, we as a society must seek to do we all we can to balm the wounds of those who sacrifice themselves on our behalf, and comfort them in their agony. In so doing, we will avoid the risk of desensitizing ourselves to violence, and affirm the supreme and inviolable duty of saving lives. Heroes are often injured by their acts of heroism. Yet instead of condemning them and denigrating their service, we must treat their injuries, whether they be physical or psychological.
To be clear: We are not writing in support of torture; our issue is rather with Žižek's moral reasoning. Does torture work? We do not know and leave the matter for experts to decide. But we maintain that if it can be shown that torture does indeed save lives, it ought not to be unequivocally ruled out as a course of action -- for the purpose of saving life. Above all, we must do our utmost to care for the spiritual welfare of those whom we commission to perform it, just as we must tend to the pain that torments many members of our military and police forces. A moral society can do no less. 2618299.html More …
Zero Dark Thirty
Zero Dark Thirty
Theatrical release poster
Directed by
Kathryn Bigelow
Produced byMark Boal Kathryn Bigelow Megan Ellison
Written by
Music by
Editing by
Distributed by
Release date(s)
Running time
Box office
Mark Boal
Jessica Chastain Jason Clarke Joel Edgerton
Alexandre Desplat
Greig Fraser
Dylan Tichenor William Goldenberg
Annapurna Pictures
Columbia Pictures
·December 19, 2012
[1] 157 minutes
United States
[2] $40,000,000
[2] $96,567,450
Zero Dark Thirtyis a 2012 Americanhistorical drama filmdirected byKathryn Bigelowand written byMark Boal. Billed as "the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man," the film is a dramatization of the United States operation that found andkilled Osama bin Laden, leader ofal-Qaeda. It was produced by Boal, Bigelow, andMegan Ellison.
It starsJessica Chastain,Jason Clarke,Joel Edgerton,Chris Pratt,Jennifer Ehle,Mark [3][4] Strong,Kyle Chandler, andÉdgar Ramírezwas independently financed by. It Ellison'sAnnapurna Pictures. The film had its premiere in Los Angeles, California on [5] December 18, 2012 and had its wide release on January 11, 2013.
Zero Dark Thirtyreceived wide critical acclaim and was nominated for fiveAcademy Awardsfor the85th Academy Awards, includingBest Picture,Best Actress(Jessica Chastain) andBest Original Screenplay.Zero Dark Thirtyearned fourGolden Globe Awardnominations, includingBest Picture – Drama,Best Director, andBest Actress – Dramafor Chastain, which she won.
It has also generated controversy, both for graphic portrayal of torture of suspects and for what is described by some as a misleading portrayal of torture as critical to the United States' success in gaining information on bin Laden's associates and location. In addition,Republicanssuggested that the filmmakers were given improper access to classified materials, which they and theObama administrationdenied. Plot In 2003, Maya, a youngCIAofficer, has spent her entire brief career, since she graduated from high school, focusing solely on intelligence related toOsama bin Laden, leader ofal-Qaeda, following theterroristorganization'sSeptember 11 attacksin the United States. She has just been reassigned to theU.S. embassy in Pakistanto work with a fellow officer, Dan. During the first months of her assignment, Maya often accompanies Dan to ablack sitefor his continuing interrogation of Ammar, a detainee with suspected links to severalSauditerrorists. Dan subjects the detainee totorture, includingwaterboarding, and humiliation. He and Maya eventually trick Ammar into divulging that an old acquaintance, who is using the alias 'Abu Ahmed', is working as a personal courier for bin Laden. Other detainees corroborate this, with some claiming Abu Ahmed delivers messages between bin Laden and a man referred to as Abu Faraj. In mid-2005, Abu Faraj is apprehended by the CIA and local police inPakistan. Maya interrogates Abu Faraj under torture, but he continues to deny knowing a courier with such a name. Maya interprets this as Abu Faraj's trying to conceal the importance of Abu Ahmed. Maya continues to sift through masses of data and information, using a variety of technology, hunches and sharing insights. Displaying the zeal and frustrations of a 'single-tasker', she concentrates on finding Abu Ahmed, determined to use him to find bin Laden. During a span of five years, she survives the 2008Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombingas well as being shot at in her car by armed men. Dan, departing on re-assignment, warns Maya about a possible change in politics, suggesting that the new administration may prosecute those officers who had been involved in torture. Maya's fellow officer and friend Jessica is killed in the 2009Camp Chapman attack. A Jordanian detainee claims the man previously identified as Abu Ahmed, from a photograph, is a man he personally buried in 2001. Several CIA officers — Maya's seniors — conclude the target whocould beAbu Ahmed is long dead, and that they have searched a false trail for nine years.
A fellow analyst researchingMoroccanintelligence archives comes to Maya and suggests that Abu Ahmed is 'Ibrahim Sayeed'. Maya agrees and contacts Dan, who is working at theCIA headquarters. Maya has found that Ibrahim Sayeed had a brother, Habib, and theorizes the CIA's supposed photograph of Abu Ahmed was of Habib. He bore a striking resemblance to Ibrahim and was killed in Afghanistan.
Dan uses CIA funds to purchase aLamborghinifor a Kuwaiti prince in exchange for the telephone number of Sayeed's mother. The CIA traces calls to the mother, and one caller's persistent use oftradecraftto avoid detection leads Maya to conclude the caller is Abu Ahmed. (Computer-aided voice recognition analysis is shown, among the many technologies.) At Maya's behest and with the support of her supervisors, numerous CIA operatives are deployed to search for and identify Abu Ahmed; they locate him in his vehicle and eventually track him to a large urban compound inAbbottabad, Pakistan, near the national military academy.
The CIA puts the compound under heavy surveillance for several months, using a variety of methods, but cannot prove bin Laden is there. Meanwhile, the President'sNational Security Advisortasks the CIA with producing a plan to capture or kill bin Laden if it can be confirmed that he is in the compound. An agency team devises a plan to use two top-secretstealth helicopters(developed atArea 51) flown by the Army's160th Special Operations Aviation Regimentto secretly enter Pakistan and insert aU.S. Navy SEALteam to raid the compound. Before briefing the President of the United States, the CIA Director holds a meeting of his top officials, who assess only a 60-80% chance that bin Laden is living in the compound, rather than another high-value target. (Maya, also in attendance, asserts the chances are 100%.)
The raid is approved and isexecuted on May 2, 2011. Although execution is complicated by one of the helicopters crashing (and rousing the neighborhood), the US has backup and the SEALs kill a number of people within the compound, among them a man on the compound's top floor who is revealed (though never fully seen) to be bin Laden. They bring bin Laden's body back to a U.S. base inJalalabad, Afghanistan, where Maya and other CIA and military officers wait. She visually confirms the identity of the corpse. Maya is last seen boarding a military transport to return to the US and sitting in its vast interior as its only passenger. The pilot asks her where she wants to go but she doesn't reply and instead begins to weep quietly.