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Midday Movies: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Placing Torture In A Broader Context

'Zero Dark Thirty

Credit: Sony Pictures

Above: 'Zero Dark Thirty" looks at the years' long hunt for Osama Bin Laden.


David Perry, Professor of Applied Ethics and Director of the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson College and author 'Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage, Covert Action, and Interrogation'

Rex Garniewicz, Chief Operating Officer, San Diego Museum of Man

Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter and author of the blog Cinema Junkie


Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" opened over the weekend. It deals with the CIA's years long hunt for Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks. The film has been racking up kudos from critics and awards organizations but has also drawn criticism for its depiction of torture. Some have criticized it for suggesting that torture is an effective tool and that it led to crucial information in finding Bin Laden. The filmmakers insist that the film is not in any way "pro-torture."

David Perry is Professor of Applied Ethics and Director of the Vann Center for Ethics at Davidson College in North Carolina. Previously he was Professor of Ethics at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He's also the author of the 2009 book, "Partly Cloudy: Ethics in War, Espionage, Covert Action, and Interrogation" in which he looks at the legal reasoning adopted by Bush Administration to justify the use of waterboarding. He notes that human rights groups such as Amnesty International have"vociferously condemned waterboarding and categorized it as a form of torture."

Perry says that "waterboarding and other forms of torture are not effective because the detainee is likely to say whatever he/she thinks the interrogator wants to hear in order to end the torture, so there's a big risk of false claims being made. A declassified CIA manual also made that point, but further suggested that some individuals who've been trained to recognize and evade more humane tactics can sometimes be induced to reveal the truth under harsher measures. But it gave no specific numbers or percentages of detainees for whom that was true."

Rex Garniewicz says that the San Diego Museum of Man's Instruments of Torture Exhibit tries to place torture in a context, and it asks people to become "Upstanders" rather than bystanders.

"We've sort of reinvented the Museum of Man," says Garniewicz, "and created a new mission, which is inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience, and this [Instruments of Torture Exhibit] is a dark part of the human experience but we feel that it's very important to cover this and so far in this exhibit I've seen people talk about incredible things, things that they hadn't talked about in years. We've had people from the military come through this exhibit with their children and say, yeah, I was in Southeast Asia and I saw these things happen and their own children had never had that sort of exchange before with their parents. And that's really compelling to see people talking about torture and I think that's a sign that this exhibit has been very successful."

Beth Accomando suggests that if you see "Zero Dark Thirty" you should make a point of seeing the Museum's exhibit in order to understand what the film leaves out in terms of the discussion of torture. Accomando visited the exhibit and produced this video feature.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando visits the San Diego Museum of Man's Instruments of Torture.

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