Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 12:33 pm | Fair 75º


Susan Estrich: The Truth About Osama bin Laden

At the very beginning of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, the audience is told that the movie they are about to see is “based on firsthand accounts of actual events.” Then we hear tapes, terrifying if familiar, of those final calls being made by those trapped on 9/11.

Then comes the torture.

Bigelow has defended the scenes, which leave audience members rooting for our heroes (who are doing the torturing) as a “part of our history.” If you believe the movie (and you shouldn’t), torture was key to finding and killing Osama bin Laden.

Except it wasn’t. This is a movie masquerading as a true telling when in fact what it tells is a lie.

Others, including Jane Mayer in The New Yorker and Glenn Carle on the Huffington Post, have detailed what’s wrong in Zero Dark Thirty — what’s wrong about the efficacy of torture (which tends to produce false information or none at all) and what’s wrong about the role of torture in the killing of bin Laden. (The key name did not come from a detainee in CIA custody, according to former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who knows more about the “actual events” than Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal.)

And contrary to the defense being offered by the filmmakers in the aftermath of such criticism, the film does not, in Boal’s words, “show the complexity of the debate” about torture. There is no “debate” in the movie. Everyone in it — hero and heroine and their bosses — is for it. The only contrary voice is a clip of President Barack Obama in the background, whose condemnation of torture seems, while you’re watching it, to be the voice of a legalistic priss.

But the problem with this movie isn’t just that it’s wrong. Plenty of movies are wrong. Oliver Stone’s movie about President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is wrong.

The problem is that it’s dangerously wrong, and not simply because it is distorting the debate here at home about torture (“Look, Mom, it works,” you’ll hear some conservatives boast.), but potentially and much more seriously because it could endanger the lives of Americans who are already risking their lives for our country.

This movie won’t be seen only by those who know that what they’re seeing is fiction. It won’t be seen only by Americans. Entertainment is America’s biggest export. The myth that Americans support torture, that we depended on it for our greatest military operation, will be seized upon not only by those in the world who already hate us but also by those who might grow up to hate us and those who are still not certain about how much they hate us. Just as we are lulled into supporting torture, they will be lulled into hating us for it.

The “myth” — and that is what this movie is selling, pure and simple — that torture is what allowed us to kill bin Laden insults the hard work of the Americans who risked their lives and also endangers those who follow in their footsteps. It arms the extremists with far more powerful propaganda than anything their own machines are capable of producing. It cements the view that there is no limit to the evil we will engage in to suit our goals, and that in this respect we are no different from our enemies.

At one point, one of the heroes/torturers tells the detainee that if he doesn’t cooperate, we can send him to Israel. Even in the midst of the film’s drama, I cringed. The point was: We’ll send you to Israel, and they’ll kill you. The danger of gratuitous lies is not limited to Americans.

Another scene in the movie, one of the doctor knocking on the door of the “safe house” in the hopes of collecting information under the guise of giving polio vaccines, provoked a collective chuckle in the theater. Except that there really isn’t anything funny about it. There was, reportedly, such a doctor, who is being held in a Pakistani prison. But the myth that polio programs were created by the CIA to gather intelligence has led to the suspension of such programs in Pakistan and elsewhere and has blocked efforts to wipe out that scourge. And we’re laughing? We are better than that.

The First Amendment protects the right to make movies, including this one, not because words are harmless but because they aren’t. They have power. With power should come personal responsibility for how it is used.

I wanted to see a movie about the hunt for bin Laden. I wanted to feel proud of the Americans who risked their lives to hunt him down. If it’s just a movie, as its defenders have urged, it should not pretend to be based on “actual events.” It isn’t. But God help us if it leads to them.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >