There has been much debate over the last several weeks over the inaccurate use of scenes of torture in the new film Zero Dark Thirty to suggest that so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques" were key to the capture and ultimate killing of Osama Bin Laden. (See "Zero Dark Thirty's Wrong and Dangerous Conclusion" by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, for example, or Glenn Greenwald's "Zero Dark Thirty: new torture-glorifying film wins raves", which asks "Can a movie that relies on fabrications to generate support for war crimes still be considered great?")
Beyond the question of whether it is appropriate or not to use blatantly false and misleading "dramatic license" in a theatrical film which it's filmmaker describes as employing "almost a journalistic approach to film", there is another troubling issue that seems to be getting lost in the debate.
It is disturbing, if not altogether surprising, to find an article on the front page of the Los Angeles Times recently, discussing the film, and its related "debate" amongst Democrats and Republicans on the U.S. Senate Intelligence over "the value of 'enhanced interrogation techniques.'"
The topic is one we have covered extensively here at The BRAD BLOG --- coverage that has included a five-part series on the history of CIA torture and a dire warning that the very survival of our Constitutional Democracy could hinge on justified prosecutions of those who previously ordered or engaged in torture.
In early 2009, in "Fixing the Facts and Legal Opinions Around the Torture Policy," I took dead aim at the sophistry employed by President Barack Obama to evade his constitutionally mandated obligation to see that the laws are faithfully executed. The same Harvard Law School-educated President who said that, in torture, America had lost its "moral bearings," suggested we must only look forward, not back. As I noted at the time, it was an "illogical formulation [that] was incompatible with the very essence of the rule of law."
Those prosecutions were not forthcoming, and, as a result, we find two writers at Los Angeles Times discussing the dispute triggered by the movie, Zero Dark Forty, over the efficacy of torture without so much as a passing reference to the fact that torture is a crime under both U.S. and international law.
This woefully deficient "coverage" drew a sharp and very personal response, given my family's history, by way of a Letter to the Editor I wrote to the paper, which they recently edited, and then published...
My letter/response to Los Angeles Times follows:
In Dec. 1941 my father was waterboarded by the Japanese in Shanghai. Even though he thought he was signing his own death warrant, he confessed that he was a British agent. It wasn’t true, but, at that moment, he would have signed anything just to end his ordeal.
Irrespective of whether the information garnered by torture turns out to be true, and there’s no way at the time to know, torture is a crime under both U.S. law and international treaties. In 1948 the Japanese officer responsible for waterboarding my father was tried and convicted at the war crimes trials in Hong Kong. That same standard should be applied to the Americans who ordered or took part in waterboarding.
In a reply email, Los Angeles Times Letters Editor Paul Thornton advised me that an edited version of the above letter was "scheduled for publication in Sunday's Los Angeles Times." The edited version did not include my criticism of the paper's failure to mention the legal issue in its coverage of the story.
Instead, the first line, published on Dec. 16, reads: “I am deeply troubled that anyone would suggest there's a debate on the efficacy of torture.”