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Midday Movies: 'Zero Dark Thirty'

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

Placing Torture In A Broader Context

Midday Movies: 'Zero Dark Thirty'
GUESTS: 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

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That new movie zero dark 30 tells the story of the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden. Considering that a Navy seal team conducted the raid on bin Laden the film is sure to have a special residence for San Diego audiences and it's been suggested as a possible Oscar nominee. But the film and its director Kathryn Bigelow has been announced by senators, government officials and many critics for the films indication that torturing detainees led to finding Osama bin Laden. Joining me to discuss the controversy are my guests first, David. Professor of applied ethics at Davidson College previously was a professor of ethics at the U.S. Army war College in Carlisle Pennsylvania. He's the author of a book on Partly Cloudy, ethics and war, espionage, covert action and interrogation and David, welcome to the program. DAVID PERRY: Thanks Maureen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Dr. Rex Garniewicz, Chief operating officer at the San Diego Museum of Man which currently has an exhibit on torture and Rex, welcome back to the show. REX GARNIEWICZ: Thanks for having me. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter and author of the blog cinema junkie, hi, Beth. BETH ACCOMANDO: Hi MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's begin with a scene from the opening of zero dark 30. The film opens with the graphic stating that it is based on first-hand accounts of actual events. Some of them comes to an interrogation of age 10 he by a CIA agent in which waterboarding is used. NEW SPEAKER: Your jihad is over. Get him up. Try to understand the concept here. Okay, I have time, you don't. I have other things to you, but you don't. It's cool it's just I never respected, I do and everybody breaks, pro-. It's biology. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: that is a clip from the film zero dark 30. First I would like David. To give us a little background on this subject. We have a national discussion, David, about waterboarding and other forms of torture in the last decade. Is there a consensus in the military about whether the methods work? DAVID PERRY: I think the general consensus is that they don't. At least, they are not reliable in producing accurate intelligence. You probably have some who would argue that on occasion they have succeeded in inducing someone let's say who has been trained to resist the more humane techniques, but on the whole I think that most of the folks who have had experience in interrogation either with the CIA or FBI or military would say that harsh techniques like waterboarding tend to be unreliable because they produce such distress and suffering that they would typically induce a person to say whatever they thought would end the torture. Which could be the truth, but it is historically been shown to be more likely to produce all kinds of false information, false confessions and so on. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right, and to be clear officials in response to this film and before that US officials categorically deny that information obtained during torture led to finding Osama bin Laden, but David, if we assume that torture might work at least sometimes if we ignore the legal prohibitions on it, what are the key ethical considerations here? DAVID PERRY: Those are big ifs, aren't they? I've tried to do that a bit in my book, just recognizing that torture is a terrific thing and historically has produced tremendous suffering and has scarred people for life who have been exposed to it. Okay, so I tend to distinguish between two different kinds of ethical concerns. One would be the area of rights and the other would be sort of questions of benefits versus harms. So if we think in terms of rights, then I think most people would intuitively say that the right not to be tortured is either absolute or otherwise it is one of the strongest rights that any of us could have. You know, it's going to be right up there with the right not to be raped, let's say. But, if we, certainly the view that the right not to be tortured is absolute is one that has been affirmed by all kinds of human rights organizations and it seems to be the position that is reflected in the convention against torture and other inhumane and degrading treatment to which we are signatories. And I think it also backs up provisions in in the loss of four, the Geneva conventions for example, and related military manuals that draw from those laws to say that and I pointed this out in my book, too, that even the armies counterinsurgency manual that was spearheaded by former Gen. Patraeus explicit references to those sorts of flaws in said it was absolutely wrong, so, but let's think about whether that makes sense. Apart from the law, as you suggested. Let's imagine, one way to think about this is to imagine that you are the CIA officer who has taken possession of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed after he was. Pakistan. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is still sort of considered to be the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. So just for discussion let's assume that you are now in a row when this guy, and you are as sure as you can be that this is indeed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. So, does that guy have an absolute right not to be tortured? Even if he not only was responsible for the attacks, but let's assume which I think is also possible that at the time he was captured he probably also had knowledge of additional plots MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The old question about whether someone who has plotted mass murder of the innocent has perhaps forfeited their right not to be tortured to reveal the plot that is also has to weigh in to the ethical idea when we discussed these issues. That is, I want to bring you in on the conversation, if I may. You've seen the film. How do you feel about the depiction of torture? ' BETH ACCOMANDO: I think the film opens itself to the criticism because it opens with a statement that says the film is based on first-hand accounts of actual events. So that sets the tone a certain way but it's a work of fiction essentially. I think the problem I have with it is that it reduces a very complex issue to a narrative device to get the story going and that's a shame because I think people can read into that the fact that this omission that torture is an effective tool. But for me personally when I went in and saw the scene, there's the waterboarding torture scene in the beginning, what struck me was there's absolutely no doubt that waterboarding is torture. And that I was disturbed at the fact that my government is allowed something like that to happen, so for me it was kind of making a very strong statement against torture from my point of view, but Nina, the accuracy of what they are depicting had come into play and that's part of what the discussion has been about. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: that's a big part of the discussion. Rex, you have a torture exhibit going on at the Museum of Man. You've seen the film, what was your reaction? REX GARNIEWICZ: My reaction to the torture was very similar. To see it I think clearly placed waterboarding within the realm of torture the way it was portrayed in the film. And I think that it plays a role in making us think about our government and the way we responded to 9/11. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right now that's a lot of the criticism about the film has been not simply that the torture existed, that depiction as grisly as it might be I think would be okay for some people. But the implication that some critics and some officials in the US are saying that at least some part of the information that was gained through these extreme methods led to the discovery of where Osama bin Laden was. Most US officials are very vociferous in announcing this part of it. What was your reaction and why didn't Kathryn Bigelow say in the beginning that this is, this was taken from sort of documented evidence of her conversations with officials and so forth. Doesn't that just add to the problem that she has with this? BETH ACCOMANDO: I mean and the film started before Osama bin Laden was killed and was more overtly a work of fiction at that point because they were speculating on things that were happening when Osama bin Laden was killed during the course of making of the film they completely rewrote it. The writer Barbara Weller claimed that he did speak to some CIA people and got some information. But the other thing is, the film also shows that, the film uses the opening scene to give you kind of the seed that sets the main character my on her path of finding the courier who leads them to Osama bin Laden. So it's kind of the term, then I get the cancer going in the right direction. But there's another scene about halfway through the scene that's far less compelling, but it's a staffer who says hey, I've waded through tons of documents and data and found that five years ago right after nine of the last) of the Leavitt gave us a list of 10 officials in and out of people to watch that included the person you are now pursuing so the film does imply that old fashion kind of defect detective work place as weighty a part in this hunt as the torture did so in a sense you could say it's showing that maybe they would've found the information maybe even sooner if the torture had been used. But again, I'll be showing a very specific instance of torture it reduces that description to something very small when it is a very complex issue and because how it functions and the story leads you to believe that hey, that was an effective delay don't see a problem with using it when we are dealing with terrorists. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: and of course that goes counter to one of the main thrusts of the exhibit at the Museum of Man which is basically the fact that people need to be up standers rather than bystanders when they encounter anybody even suggesting these extreme methods to extract information from people who we made rightfully detest. What is the idea of up standers rather than bystanders, Rex? REX GARNIEWICZ: Let me go back just a little bit further because I think it is important to understand the context of why we torture and I think the movie actually does give some insight into that. When it opens with a scene at the twin towers, when they were bombed on 9/11, that is a really a familiar situation, being in an unfamiliar situation, having anonymity. Dehumanizing others. Calling them terrorists. It allows torturers to happen and we have to understand ourselves and why we torture because we all have the capacity in certain circumstances to do that. Once we understand that, we can actually try to be up standards and point out when things like this are happening recognizing that we are dehumanizing others recognizing we are in an unfamiliar situation and we should be more careful about the decisions we make. Be careful to have oversight over the process so that the student get out of hand. All of those things when we are aware of what causes us to torture other people understanding that allows us to stand up and say no this is wrong we should not doing. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: a very short time for you to answer this question, Beth, but if you would would you like people to keep in mind when they go watch the movie? BETH ACCOMANDO: That it is a work of fiction that anything you see on the screen should be questioned you should look at it and evaluate it and I would suggest going to the torture exhibit because it frames the discussion in a very similar way to the film by starting with 9/11 and ending by saying take action, me and I'm standard would say go to the film appreciated as a work of art and go to the exhibit. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wanted to think first of all Prof. David. I did not have anywhere near enough time to talk about his work, the book is called partly cloudy, ethics and or espionage covert action and interrogation. I also want to take the Rex and Beth, thank you all very much. BETH ACCOMANDO: Thank you REX GARNIEWICZ: Thanks MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Be sure to watch KPBS evening edition at its new time at 5 PM weeknights on KPBS television. Join us again tomorrow for San Diego's top stories on Midday Edition on KPBS FM I am Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.

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.

SDMM's Instruments of Torture