I am very unconvinced that Zero Dark Thirty condones torture. While Maya gradually becomes indifferent to torture and probably had the potential for that indifference as indicated by her voluntary participation in the detainee program, I felt that it was strongly implied that she is nonetheless disgusted by it. In both of the torture scenes in which she watches the torture without a mask, her facial expressions and body language oscillate solely between shock and horror. Even if one concludes that torture was a “necessary evil,” I think that Zero Dark Thirty highlights the evil more than the necessity.
That is all I really have to say about torture per se. The outcry about torture in the movie perplexes me because in the end, it’s not a movie about torture. In fact, I contend that it’s not even a movie about the hunt for Bin Laden. For me,what ZDT is really about is how “intelligence” is one of the most hyper-political ideas of our time, yet it is treated apolitically. At one point, a CIA employee makes this explicit, claiming – this is a hazy paraphrase – “We don’t make decisions based on politics. We make decisions based on numbers and facts.” Numbers and facts don’t simply appear in one’s email inbox, beckoning to be acted upon. These numbers and facts, and the actions that they go on to enable, are extracted from bodies: unwilling bodies, tortured bodies, weakened bodies, brown bodies, dead bodies. This extraction is a political act and a political process, a violent one.
The film highlights the political nature of intelligence throughout, but this omnipresence of politics really emerges when Fares Fares’ character Hakim walks through Bin Laden’s compound during the moments directly after Bin Laden’s assassination. Hakim is a CIA officer, but he is Pakistani. As he walks through the ransacked compound, he expresses a noticeable mixture of grief and regret in response to what he sees and hears (and has done). These feelings culminate when he enters the room into which Bin Laden’s [former] co-inhabitants have been corralled: they are all women and children. International treaties protect these women and children, yet there they are, being held at gunpoint after being woken by intelligence-backed gunshots and murder. Hakim sees them and in spite of his immediate allegiances, he recognizes that they are more than data points, facts and numbers. They are bodies, politicized bodies. Moreover, they are bodies that are just as politicized as the ones that burned, buckled, suffered and splattered on September 11, 2001.
For Maya, what started with 9/11 has ended with 00:30 AM, 5/11. Intelligence, facts and numbers, have achieved their goal. For Hakim, intelligence, facts and numbers have demonstrated their troubling political foundation: bodies.