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Zero Dark Thirty and Torture: Evil is Not Washed Away by Good

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 19, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | December 19, 2012 |

The political blogs are all aflutter with talk of Zero Dark Thirty and who can blame them? We get movies and television to rant about all year, but they’ve got this whole Pon Farr thing in which they only get the big show every couple of years, so they have to find a little on the side now and then to keep them going. Dan will have a review for us on Friday, but if the political blogs can ramble about movies before they come out, so can we. It’s certainly never stopped us before. And the very special thing being discussed is the role of torture in the film.

By all accounts, Bigelow does not preach in any direction about the shadow of torture embedded in the American pursuit of terrorists over the last decade. It shows horror and neither seeks to justify nor condemn its use, dwells on neither its efficacy nor its morality. It shines a light on an evil without editorial. The result is that the film is heralded on both sides as justifying their position, which makes it either an exceptionally cowardly or exceptionally saavy script. Given Bigelow’s nuanced film making, I’d go with the latter, because by refusing to make a point it it refuses to engage anyone in their argument and simply makes them look. It points at horror and says “we did this” and calls it by its name instead of some lawyer dance about enhanced interrogation techniques. And because the film refuses to participate in the argument it forces acknowledgement of the raw facts.

In high school I read a lot of nineteenth century philosophy, a side effect of being a debater of some seriousness. And of course I was a master, to answer everyone’s automatic question. John Stuart Mills was the easy favorite since he eloquently argued for all the sorts of ethics that modern Americans simply accept as the way the world should work. John Rawls existed to blow your mind in ways that made you realize just how abominable Ayn Rand’s philosophy really was. According to debate legend, Rawls had an ongoing problem with high school debaters tracking down his office line at Harvard and calling to try to ask him for quotes that they could use. He apparently became quite adept at hanging up and taking his phone off the hook.

Immanuel Kant though was an enigma in his insistence on absolute morality that drove me insane in any example used to illustrate it. Lying is wrong. And so even though hiding a Jew from the Gestapo is right, lying to the agents who knock your door is wrong (bear with the example even though the Nazis were long after Kant’s time). That sort of example illustrated to me quite clearly at the time that Kant was simply an ivory tower idiot incapable of understanding the nuance of morality in the real world. The fact that Kant was a primary influence of Rawls’ was lost on me at the time. I could make no connection between the two.*

As I’ve aged like wine into the finest of vinegars, I’ve reconsidered Kant, realizing that the lack of nuance is actually as profound a nuance as you can derive. Kant is not arguing that one should tell the Gestapo about the Frank family in your attic, but that you cannot claim that the action is right just because by some moral calculus you end up on the positive side of the ledger. Like Doyle told Angel back in the day, there is no grand scale, saving a life doesn’t balance out the evil of ending another. That’s not to say that there isn’t a time for ending a life, and certainly not to say that sometimes an evil act isn’t needed for the greater good. But it is an almost Catholic vision of the nature of sin: even when we must commit evil for good, we should never pretend that our accounts come out positive. Sin, evil, whatever you call it, stains us, eats at us. Evil is not balanced by good, it keeps its own accounts.

And this brings us in a roundabout way back to torture. The argument of which I think misses the point on all sides, a point brought home by Bigelow’s decision to simply show instead of tell. The efficacy of torture should be completely beside the point in any argument. One side argues that the means justify the ends, the other argues that they do not. But whether torture was effective, or whether it provided bad intelligence, is completely beside the point. It is an evil.

Consider the trite example of the ticking time bomb, the warhead buried in a storage locker and counting down to a mushroom cloud of a million dead. The prisoner knows something, and there’s no time. The one side argues that of course torture should be deployed. They point to the fictional scale of good and evil, note that its clear which side outweighs the other. The other side argues that either the situation is contrived and never happens or that the information obtained would be worth less than nothing anyway. Note the tacit acceptance of the basic premise of cost and benefit.

Both sides are wrong, trapped in the alluring simplicity of a morality in which good and evil can cancel each other out, rather than being orthogonal concepts. The soldiers who believe that the prisoner holds the key to saving a million lives should under no circumstances be allowed to torture. There should be no legal sanction, no appeal to some rule that specifies under what conditions evil is permitted. And that rule should not be a wink, it should be iron clad law. Those who break it will be arrested, will be cast into the machinery of the system.

And I expect that one of those soldiers will break the rule anyway. That is what a hero is. That is what a martyr is. We must make our rules against great evils have no exceptions, so that when it is necessary for horror to be deployed for good, it is done out of sacrifice not out of a subsection of a bureaucratic handbook. The fate of that hero is terrible, it is unfair, and it is absolutely necessary for a moral society. And if our society is such that not one person will sacrifice themselves in that way, then either the need for the evil was not so pressing, or we are a society without heroes and not worth the saving anyway.

In a sense this is exactly what Star Trek’s Prime Directive boils down to: the unbreakable rule that you know must be broken. The solution to such a quandary is not to get rid of the rule, not to codify the means by which it can be broken. No, the answer is to put a man in charge who is willing to break the rule. But this is only half the answer, and it’s definitely the easier half. It’s simple to put a rulebreaker in charge, trivial to give the wink and nod expectation that the rule only exists to pacify those who complain about morality, or to tame those lesser men who feel bound by such intangibles. The really hard part about morality is accepting a system that will bring down the thunder even when we agree that the breaking of the rule was justified.

The evil is not washed away by the good.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

*I’m recalling impressions of hastily read philosophy filtered through the shady lens of years and my eleventh grade intellect, so I’m inevitably not doing justice to these theories.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.