“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” -Walter Benjamin
Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty was met with both large audiences and waves of criticism for how the film depicted, and seemingly endorsed, the use of torture. While it’s not surprising that a film about the War on Terror and the assassination of Osama Bin Laden has provoked controversy, what is rather troubling is that the majority of critics have chosen to focus their critique on the film’s questionable suggestion that information obtained through torture lead to finding Bin Laden, precluding any substantial ethical debate about the practice of torture itself.
The ideological force of the film takes hold in the way that it frames the debates surrounding torture within the language of efficacy and utility. When critics come to make ethical claims that solely rely on the values of efficacy and utility, or on how well specific means produce desired ends, they’ve already ceded great amounts of discursive territory and failed to question torture in ways beyond whether it is “effective” or “useful”. In this modality of critique, efficacy comes to be the dominant ethical register and largely determines the positions one can assume in the spaces of ethical contestation.
Efficacy becomes deeply ideological in this sense, in establishing a singular frame for thinking about torture and in obfuscating the plurality of ways a debate about torture could potentially take place. The questions of efficacy and utility always already contain assumed values and ideal outcomes, and suppress more fundamental formations of critique. This approach greatly impoverishes our ability to think about whether these practices are ethical in necessarily more complex and nuanced ways, and fixes their presence as a normative practice in our political landscape.
Since the U.S.’ War on Terror began a little over a decade ago, torture has transited from being politically unthinkable to being the modus operandi. It is no longer a question of if we should torture, but rather under what circumstances and with what techniques. This is illustrative of a significant historical shift in that way we think about what constitutes the ethical treatment of human bodies that has largely escaped analysis, and is representative of how the ethical frameworks produced by the War of Terror have thoroughly permeated our ways of thinking.
September 11th, 2001 marked the beginning of a rapid historical process of ethical and political decoding in which our collective worldviews cascaded into cycles of distortion and rearticulation. The radical expansion of the state’s power to indefinitely detain, torture and assassinate individuals under Bush’s presidency was shocking at the time for its unprecedented disregard of international human rights and its willingness to bypass constitutional protections. This dramatic movement operated to essentially shift the territories of ethical and legal thought and legibility.
These measures, that at the time appeared radical and only justifiable within the logic of a state of exception, have in many ways restratified into a new stable political reality during Obama’s presidency. Obama’s policies have reterritorialized and recoded these ethical and legal shifts into a new normative political present through the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), renewal of the Patriot Act, continued operation of the Guantanamo Bay detention facilities, as well as other measures.
In this process, we’ve eclipsed the questions of whether the practices of torture, targeted assassinations, and indefinite detention should be an accepted part of our political life, and instead are left with the inadequate questions of efficacy and utility which already assume these practices’ ongoing place in history.
The arguments in favor of the increasing use of drone strikes often rely on similar logics of efficacy and utility, claiming that the bombings are more precise, put fewer U.S. pilots at risk, and cost taxpayers less, while failing to question whether the strikes should be happening in the first place. In these discursive shifts, we can no longer interrogate with “why”, but instead are left circumscribed to the details of “how”.
The frames of efficacy and utility are often helpful in ethical discussions because they reveal the way certain decisions have the capacity to generate different kinds of material consequences. In combination with other approaches, utilitarian modes of analysis are capable of helping us make more ethical choices in our political lives. The problem arises when the lens of efficacy supersedes all others, as they have done in the conversations about torture in Zero Dark Thirty. Here, the questions of calculability and numerability come to displace broader historical and social approaches of constructing ethical frameworks that are not legible in the registers of efficacy or utility.
Ethical arguments in support of torture most often fall back upon fantasies of “ticking time bomb” scenarios, in which torture becomes the necessary evil required to spare innocent lives from impending terroristic violence. The problem with the frames of thought engendered by “ticking time bomb” style justifications is that when one looks to legitimize their actions on the basis of speculative dystopian (or utopian) outcomes, one finds that every means is permissible in response to these unverifiable ends.
The “ticking time bomb” framework is similarly ideological to the critiques of the representation of torture in Zero Dark Thirty in that it takes one of many potentialities and asserts it as an ongoing certainty, curtailing our ability to think outside of questions of utility. Ideology manifests precisely when we mistake something that is political for something that is natural, or posit something that we are capable of changing as something that is immutable.
As philosopher Brian Massumi has aptly made clear, a politics of potentiality that assumes a discrete “knowability” or “objective measurability” always function to produce the very conditions it wishes to repress, and as a result always confirms its own hypotheses, thus retroactively justifying whatever measures were taken.
In this way, torture can be historicized as preventing any given number of unknown atrocities, appealing to the Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns” that constantly threaten but are never present. In this instance, since the threat is always already assumed to be present, every response is already figured as maximally efficient: either the act of torture prevented the terroristic violence from occurring, or it failed to stop the terrorist act and we simply needed more torture to prevent it. In both scenarios, torture was justified, efficient and useful.
The “ticking time bomb” imaginary and Zero Dark Thirty produce bodies that are simultaneously one-dimensional (without subjectivity or history) and in need of torture. In the presence of such terrifying and omnipotent bodies that are perpetually setting our existential destruction in motion, torture emerges as the only sensible response. Being situated in this sensibility, the singular question that remains is how we are to respond, producing the context in which only torture is legible as ethical.
Because the imagined terrorist both holds the promise of our destruction and the capacity to save us, it ceases to be a body and instead becomes a container of utility, an object of fantasy that exists solely for the enactment of various strategies of violence. This is how we ideologically arrive at being preoccupied with the efficacy of torture techniques, instead of about the complex ethical dimensions of torture itself.
In rearticulating a body with agency and subjectivity as simply a container for utilitarian decision-making, we evade all of the necessary ethical questions demanded of us. The fact of being alive in a finite world, and sharing that world with other ineradicably different living beings, requires that we recognize others in all of their own distinct histories, complexities and embodiments. An ideology of efficacy abstracts the lives and bodies of others into simply being the variables of assorted calculations, and allows us to enact violences sprouted from these ideological fantasies onto these abstracted but still material bodies.
The “ticking time bomb” frame and Zero Dark Thirty also obfuscate the way in which torture is now a pervasive and common practice, and is by no means a “last resort” tactic used only in the most extreme of cases. As Ramzi Kassem’s writing on Zero Dark Thirty has made clear, the film’s excusatory framing of torture as an abhorrent, but ultimately necessary tactic that was required in the search for Bin Laden masks the way in which the practice of torture continues in many U.S.-run prisons around the world in the contemporary moment.
In the end, whether or not torture is an effective means of gathering intelligence doesn’t meaningfully enrich our critical capacities nor quell the ethical objections one could levy against the practice of torture. Even if information gleaned from torture had definitively led to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, this would not constitute an ethical justification for torture or assassination. While something that resembles “efficacy” must of course be a part of our ethical considerations, it must not come to foreclose other equally necessary approaches to our complex and nuanced political present.
In acknowledging the deeply ideological position that “utility” and “efficacy” have come to occupy in our ways of thinking and acting in the world, there is an opportunity to radically defamiliarize our ethical approaches and make the practice of torture the object of revitalized critique. Just because the practice of torture has become normative and largely inflected by the ideology of efficacy, this does not mean that we cannot act to uproot these assumptions and galvanize our cultural and political movements to rearticulate meaning and critique in relation to these practices.
The struggle against torture must undoubtedly start in challenging the framing of ethics as singularly being a question of efficacy or utility, and in asserting the constellations of ethical frames that are necessary in the imagining of and the fight for a more ethical world.
“It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” –Walter Benjamin
Ian Alan Paul is an artist and theorist living in the Bay Area of California. Ian’s current research focuses on queer-feminist critiques of human rights discourses. He received his MFA and MA at the San Francisco Art Institute in 2011 and is in the process of completing his PhD in UC Santa Cruz’s Film and Digital Media Studies program. He can be found on twitter at @ianalanpaul and his work is online at www.ianalanpaul.com.