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How Zero Dark Thirty Sanitizes Torture

For torture victims, it's the psychological wounds, not the physical ones, that never really heal.

| Wed Jan. 2, 2013 7:01 AM EST

He had been tortured by agents of the Maliki government, supported by the United States in the interest of national security. Masked men bound him at the wrists and ankles and hung him upside-down. He said that they neither asked him any questions nor demanded any information. They whipped his testicles with a leather strap, then beat the bottoms of his feet and the area around his kidneys. They slapped him. They broke the bones in his right foot with a steel rod, a piece of rebar that would ordinarily have been used to reinforce concrete.

It was painful, he told me, but he had felt pain before. What truly wounded him was the feeling of utter helplessness. A man like himself, he stated with an echo of pride, had never felt helpless. His strength was his ability to control things, to stand up to enemies, to fight, and if necessary, to order men to their deaths. Now, he no longer slept well at night, was less interested in life and its activities, and felt little pleasure. He showed me his blackened toenails, as well as the caved in portion of his foot, which still bore a rod-like indentation with faint signs of metal grooves. When he paused and looked across the room, I thought I could almost see the movie running in his head.

Alone in the Dark

I encountered those two tortured men, who described their experiences so similarly, several years and thousands of miles apart. All they really had in common was being tortured and meeting me. They could, of course, have been lying about, or exaggerating, what had happened to them. I have no way to verify their stories because in neither country were their torturers ever brought to justice. One man was tortured because he was considered a threat to South Korea, the other to Iraq. Those "threatened" governments were among the company the US keeps, and they were known torturers, regularly justifying such horrific acts, as we would also do in the first years of the twenty-first century, in the name of security. In our case, actual torture techniques would reportedly be demonstrated to some of the highest officials in the land in the White House itself, then "legalized," and carried out in global "black sites" and foreign prisons.

A widely praised new movie about the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, opens with a series of torture scenes. The victims are various Muslims and al-Qaeda suspects, and the torturers are members of the US government working for the CIA. We see a prisoner strapped to the wall, bloody, with his pants pulled down in front of a female CIA officer. We see another having water poured into his mouth and lungs until he wretches in agony (in what during the Middle Ages was bluntly called "the Water Torture," later "the water cure," or more recently "waterboarding"). We see men shoved forcibly into tiny confinement boxes that do not allow them to sit, stand, or lie down.

These are were among the techniques of torture "lawfully" laid out in a CIA Inspector General's report, some of which would have been alarmingly familiar to the tortured men I spoke with, as they might be to Bradley Manning, held isolated, naked, and without sleep in US military prisons in a bid to break his spirit.

The movie scenes are brutal, yet sanitized. As difficult to watch as the images are, they show nothing beyond the infliction of pain. Horrific as it may be, pain fades, bones mend, bruises heal. No, don't for a second think that the essence of torture is physical pain, no matter what Zero Dark Thirty implies. If, in many cases, the body heals, mental wounds are a far more difficult matter. Memory persists.

The obsessive debate in this country over the effectiveness of torture rings eternally false: torture does indeed work. After all, it's not just about eliciting information—sometimes, as in the case of the two men I met, it's not about information at all. Torture is, however, invariably about shame and vengeance, humiliation, power, and control. We're just slapping you now, but we control you and who knows what will happen next, what we're capable of? "You lie to me, I hurt you," says a CIA torturer in Zero Dark Thirty to his victim. The torture victim is left to imagine what form the hurt will take and just how severe it will be, almost always in the process assuming responsibility for creating his own terror. Yes, torture "works"—to destroy people.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, accused 9/11 "mastermind," was waterboarded 183 times. Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj spent six years in the Guantanamo Bay prison, stating, "They used dogs on us, they beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn't allow me to sleep for six days." Brandon Neely, a US military policeman and former Guantanamo guard, watched a medic there beat an inmate he was supposed to treat. CIA agents tortured a German citizen, a car salesman named Khaled el-Masri, who was picked up in a case of mistaken identity, sodomizing, shackling, and beating him, holding him in total sensory deprivation, as Macedonian state police looked on, so the European Court of Human Rights found last week.

Others, such as the Court of Human Rights or the Senate Intelligence Committee, may give us glimpses into the nightmare of official American policy in the first years of this century. Still, our president refuses to look backward and fully expose the deeds of that near-decade to sunlight; he refuses to truly look forward and unambiguously renounce forever the use of anything that could be seen as an "enhanced interrogation technique." Since he also continues to support robustly the precursors to torture—the "extraordinary rendition" of captured terror suspects to allied countries that are perfectly happy to torture them and indefinite detention by decree—we cannot fully understand what men like the Korean poet and the Iraqi tribal leader already know on our behalf: we are torturers and unless we awaken to confront the nightmare of what we are continuing to become, it will eventually transform and so consume us.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year veteran Foreign Service Officer at the State Department, spent a year in Iraq. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about Iraq, the Middle East, and US diplomacy at his blog, We Meant Well. Following the publication of his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, the Department of State began termination proceedings against him. Through the efforts of the Government Accountability Project and the ACLU, he instead retired from the State Department in September 2012.

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