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Can We Know What Torture Is?


by Karen Malpede


‘Zero Dark Thirty’. Director, Kathryn Bigelow. Screenwriter, Mark Boal. Sony Pictures, December 2012; & ‘Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror’. By, Victoria Brittain. Pluto Press, February 2013.

Whenever the long arm of state-sponsored violence reaches into the lives of ordinary people, the artist, the writer, face choices, moral and esthetic. They can look away. Most do so, turning attention strictly to domestic or historical matters. Or, like film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, they can take the story power tells and retell it as it has been told to them, in this case by the CIA, which provided the filmmakers special access to the archives on the hunt for, and slaying of, Usama bin Laden.

A few, however, will refuse to become complicit in the narratives of power and will try to speak the true cost of violence. In a series of newspaper articles, two verbatim plays, a co-authored memoir of Guantanamo detainee, Moazzem Begg, and culminating, now, in Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, journalist Victoria Brittain has consistently brought to public view the lives of those deemed ‘other’, devout Muslims persecuted by the US and the UK in the so-called Global War on Terror. She has made connection with state-power’s victims, and, through her writing, created a sense of justice where justice fails to exist. This, then, is a tale of two diametrically opposed politically motivated esthetics: Brittain’s series of nonfiction portraits and Bigelow and Boal’s Hollywood film, Zero Dark Thirty, alternately described by them as fact or fiction.

Of course, every work of art about historical events is both fact and fiction. Brittain, in the choice of subjects and empathic approach to their stories, inserts her subjectivity. Bigelow and Boal, contrarily, say they have no point-of-view; they want to let the “work speak for itself.” All artists expect their work to stand alone, of course; otherwise why bother to make art? Nevertheless, there is something terribly disingenuous in their assumed neutrality. They will not comment on the “torture debate” their film has reignited among film critics, but also members of Congress and the human rights community; yet, contributing to renewed discussion of torture may be the film’s real merit. Ever since President Obama, upon taking office in 2008, announced, we must “look forward and not back”, the crimes of the Bush administration have been officially forgotten; at the same time, the percentage of Americans who believe torture is justified “to keep us safe” has continued to rise, until “for the first time in the U.S. we now have a protorture plurality”. Darius Rejali, author of Torture & Democracy, who tracks these numbers, attributes the increase to “the well- known psychological phenomenon known as false consensus generated by media elites.” If media tells us most people approve of torture then most people come to believe that torture works. This nation needs a torture debate; we need a definitive investigation into the crimes of the Bush administration and we need accountability, too. We remain a long way from a substantive dialogue on torture, but Bigelow’s big film and Brittain’s distinctive book bring crucial moral issues back to public consciousness, in furiously contrasting ways.

This is what I saw in the opening torture sequence of Zero Dark Thirty: an actor made- up to look as if he has a battered face and swollen eye, stripped half-naked (we know by Jessica Chastain’s wrinkled nose he has defecated into his pants), chained by the wrists to grommets on the walls, being faux- pummeled before the cameras.

Unwilling to tell his handsome interrogator what he wants to know, this actor, a “composite” character called Ammar, is further subjected to a single simulation of the simulated drowning which is water- boarding, before being folded and stuffed into a tiny box, and signaling, he’s had enough. The camera follows the torturer outside where he relaxes by feeding chocolate ice cream to the pet monkeys he keeps in a cage some feet away from orange-suited prisoners kept in their cages in the sun. (Is this detail a convenient fiction of the torturer with heart of gold, is it based on fact, or both?)

In a following scene, Ammar is given a humus lunch and a cigarette on the terrace of the Black Site prison; there he reveals the name of Usama bin Laden’s courier, setting offa21⁄2hourfilmofan11yearmanhunt,led by an inscrutable and persistent female CIA agent (unlike Valerie Plame whose husband, Joe Wilson, spoke against the lies that led to the Iraq war and so was outed by Dick Cheney, the identity of this agent presumably remains classified.) Zero Dark Thirty becomes something of a faux autobiography in which a lone, preternaturally dedicated woman, surrounded by handsome men with guns, masterminds the hunt for the wanted person—just as Bigelow in real life operates nearly alone in a male world surrounded and supported mainly by men while acing the male sport of action-adventure filmmaking. But, there’s a problem: the opening sequence is not true; torture first, lunch later did not, and does not, elicit crucial information.

From what I’d read about the film before I saw it, I had expected to be repulsed by the opening torture sequence. Instead, I found myself waiting for the torture to get real.

For example: Khalid Sheikh Mohmammad, alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was water-boarded 183 times and told Red Cross investigators that “to please his captors,” he gave the names of innocent people to the CIA; some of whom remain in detention. Abu Zubayduh, trumpeted upon capture to be bin Laden’s ‘senior lieutenant’ was water- boarded 83 times in August 2002; suspended naked from hooks on the ceiling, not allowed to sleep for days on end he “confessed” to knowledge of a plot of blowing up shopping malls, sending the entire country into phony ‘Orange alert’ for days. The government no longer believes he was even a member of Al Qaeda. Walid bin Attash, another allegedly “high value detainee” told Red Cross investigators that ‘he was kept permanently handcuffed and shackled through the first six months of detention.” This Septmeber, Adnan Latif, a Yemini poet who had been cleared for release six years ago, after being found innocent of any wrong-doing, managed to kill himself inside Guantanamo.

Torture in the real world is far more brutal and more useless than its antiseptic reenactment in Zero Dark Thirty. Why do Bigelow and Boal willingly distort the facts to make a Hollywood film that shows that torture works? Does this “point of attack” fulfill an exigency of story-telling in their minds? Did Bigelow and Boal knowingly grant themselves immunity from truth-telling, striving instead to captivate (or manipulate) in order to sell tickets, to impress the New York Film Critics who awarded this “best picture,” and to remind us all how fortunate we are to live in an empire that supposedly has kept us safe by dumping habeas corpus rights and the body of Usama bin Laden into the deep blue polluted sea.

If it is truth about the last twelve years we’re after, we might listen, if we dare, to a far quieter voice, that of the wife of a former Guantanmo detainee that forms the epigraph to Victoria Brittain’s brave book:

“You have to be very careful how you speak to these men—they’ve survived traumas they don’t tell about.”

Living with torture, living with someone who has been tortured, or living with the thoughts of someone still detained who might be undergoing torture as I write, presents a different dynamic than splashing enacted torture up on the Technicolor screen. One speaks in careful, hushed tones, if one dares to speak, about such things.

It is difficult to over-estimate the enormity of the disaster: the damage done; lives ruined or lost, the economic cost, the emotional price that will be paid by generations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and the UK, for what Kleinian psychoanalysts name paranoid-schizophrenic rage (we are all good; they are all bad) that infected the Bush administration, and to a large degree, remains in the Obama administration, in the wake of 9/11.

Few Americans care to know what Victoria Brittain, Noam Chomsky, and others have documented: that Taliban leaders, who viewed Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, rightly, as a disaster for Afghanistan, offered to relinquish bin Laden for trial, an offer not responded to by the U.S. As many could see then, and all know now, the government project was to go to war against two nation states, not to bring a group of non-state perpetrators to justice. The U.S. began its bombing campaign of Afghanistan barely eleven days after the 9/11 attack, just as the delicate memorials were swept away, over- night, from the streets of New York. Those of us in the city remember the mournful air of reflection in which we walked and stopped to look at photos of mainly young dead. We came together in crowds in Union Square and Central Park to chant “our grief is not a cause for war,” in a futile attempt to forestall the vengeance just as on February 15, 2002, 3⁄4 of a million of us would join, on a bitterly cold day, hemmed by metal barricades and massive police brigades, the world-wide march against the invasion of Iraq, the largest antiwar march ever.

Perhaps when history judges this endless war on terror, futility will be the word that most accurately describes the actions of the decent.

Victoria Brittain remains unwilling to let the crimes of her time on earth go unremarked. Her densely informative first chapter relates modern history from the Muslim point- of-view, reminding us of many things, including how the Soviet invasion led to an influx of devout Muslims from the Arab world to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how they were later forced to flee, or were picked up when the U.S. invasion started, and of the mobilizing effect on European Muslim youth of then Serbian genocidal war in Bosnia.

Then, the book turns personal. In an attentive voice reflective of the modest self- containment of Muslim female culture, Brittain tells the stories of women and children whose husbands, fathers, and brothers were snatched away, for reasons mainly never explained, and held for years, sometimes not yet released, tortured and interrogated again and again. She traces the recurring descents into mental illness of Zinnira whose husband Shaker was captured by bounty hunters in Afghanistan and disappeared into Guantanamo and of Shaker’s two, nearly fatal, hunger strikes in prison. She quotes the poem Zinnira wrote to her husband in 2012, twelve years after his incarceration, and right before another bout with mental illness:

“You cared for me and were ever/On my side when I needed a favor,/I cannot forget you, no...never...”

She writes of a British M.P. assistant, Mark Jennings, who killed himself in despair and of the English-Arabic Koran she was given by the deeply religious woman, Sabah, she was interviewing, and whom he had sought to help, a nonverbal message not to succumb. Sabah once had taught school to international children in Pakistan, and later would earn a college degree in the UK. Her husband Jamil el Banna was arrested in Gambia where he had gone hoping to start a business to support his family and disappeared into Gauntanamo. “Allah will never give me more pain than I can bear,” she says.

Noor Alashi, a Palestinian-American in her twenties, is a creative writing graduate, who, while working on a memoir about her family, also leads the campaign to free her father, Ghassan Elashi, sentenced to 65 years in a maximum security, CMU prison in Illinois, for his role as head of America’s largest Muslim charity, the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, after being charged with “material support” to a foreign terrorist organization, Hamas in Gaza, convicted in a second trial on the same evidence that in a first trial had been thrown out of court.

I return to Zero Dark Thirty and what for me is another indefensible moment. As the hunt for bin Laden’s courier seems to stagnate, Jessica Chastain’s character, Maya, a name that means illusion, asks her CIA superior for help. He explains his powers have diminished since he lost the “detainee [read: torture] program” once Obama was elected. “Who am I supposed to ask? Some guy in Gitmo who is all lawyered up? He’d just tell his lawyer to warn bin Laden.” Chastain’s crest-fallen silence seems to corroborate his point: the defense lawyers are Al Qaeda sympathizers. This is how they are treated by guards when they visit their clients in Gitmo as if the traitors and these young guards have gotten their misinformation from the higher ups.

Of course, the opposite is true: the lawyers for the detainees are defending the American justice system against the injustice of the American torture program; they are defending victims, the vast majority of whom have been proven to be completely innocent, swept up in the War on Terror. And they are defending the few who may have committed criminal acts against the United States, but because of their torture have never been brought to trial. “By torturing...the United States has made it impossible to render justice on those criminals, instead sentencing them—and the country itself—to an endless limbo of injustice,” Mark Danner explains.

“’Zero Dark Thirty’ is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative,” Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and John McCain, who have reviewed the CIA records wrote in a public letter to the President of Sony Pictures.

Bigelow and Boal responded to the Congressional rebuke by urging “people to see the film before characterizing it.”

Sitting in a nearly full theater at the 2:30 p.m. show on the day after Christmas, the thought crossed my mind, “this would be a fine place for a mass shooting; this sort of film, on this day,” and for a moment I was frightened to stay. Several predictable hours later (we always know the girl will get her guy), as the credits rolled, the man seated directly behind me pronounced his verdict: “Twenty-Four’ is better.”

This is the Fox television program that, for years, dramatized torture as the necessary tool for stopping weekly ‘ticking time bomb’ scenarios. “Better” at conveying the fiction that torture works? Or, better at creating the media-driven adrenalin rush that substitutes for heightened life?

When we watch extremity depicted on the screen we might grimace, squirm, look away, or maybe sit straighter, engaged or aroused, but in the end, whatever our response, do we believe that we’ve seen it and we know what torture is?

Worse, because we have reacted viscerally to what we’ve seen, we might actually feel we have endured, and, that, hey, we’re still here; torture cannot be so unendurable, after all.

Energetically, does this action-adventure formula, purporting to put us through it, so- to-speak, and with its quasi documentary feel, convince that by our presence and with our gaze we have fathomed the unfathomable; and so know what is unknowable—another person’s harrowing pain, his shame.

Visual reenactments of torture make familiar what is, in fact, beyond imagining. How do you film edema of the legs, the swelling of the musculature and stretching of the skin, until it is taut and thin as tissue and starts to rupture, that results from being hung in stress positions. Instead of offering Brittain’s humility before another person’s suffering Bigelow’s filmic reenactment provides us an all-knowing, a “been there, done that” sort of perspective, arrogant and dangerous for many reasons, not the least of which because it jacks the viewers up to demand ever greater depictions of ever-greater pretend pain.

The torture scene is prelude; the film’s climax is the much touted assault on the complex, filmed through green night vision goggles, in which the Navy Seals got up to look like creatures from another planet, murder of a couple of unarmed men and a barefoot woman, on the way up the stairs to shoot bin Laden. Such voyeurism is the opposite of empathy, whether or not violent media contributes to actual acts of random violence like mass shootings is, perhaps, a matter of debate, but that it encourages ignorance must, at least, be clear.

Reading Shadow Lives, in contrast, is a nearly meditative experience. Breathing calms as awareness grows. The strange and unfamiliar true stories in this book send us deeper into quiet reaches of ourselves, ask for our attention, offer connection to others, deepen our compassion, and renew humility.

We follow Brittain into the crowded living room of a terror suspect known as only as Detainee OO, “a wheelchair-bound, diabetic grandfather with high blood pressure, heart disease and renal failure, then held in a hospital wing at Belmarsh prison...There he seemed to have lost his mind.”On two long couches across from Brittain sit six heavily veiled women, the wife and daughters, of “OO”, while his son attempts an explanation. “No one except the authorities knew what had made him a terror suspect.” Most likely his former torturers in Jordan gave his name to intelligence colleagues in Britain where he had been granted asylum after fleeing Pakistan. Fearing that she will never get this story straight and knowing that writing about the case is unlikely to have any effect, Brittain nevertheless persists because “a small act of solidarity might just raise spirits and help keep up hopes.” Over time, she becomes intimate with the sisters and their mother Hamda,whose portrait, from happy, young wife in Jordan and Pakistan to bereaved family matriarch in London, she draws with simple, deft strokes: “This experience can make a person become another person... in fact, I think they are trying to make us become another person,” Hamda says.

Finally, after years of Byzantine journeys through prisons, mental hospitals, suicide attempts and courts, the frail, old man, his short-term memory nearly gone, is released back to the care of his wife and family where miraculously he recovers “his old joie de vivre”. Hamda is able, then, to return to Jordan with her daughters and their daughters for a three-week feast with extended family, every step of which is filmed for her husband in London.

In Jordan, growing up, Hamda says, “Our house was always open. 24 hours a day, anyone could come for our hospitality.” Back in London, Brittain watches her prepare a Ramadan feast with the help of her husband, “popping almonds out of their skins for her and reciting prayers” tacked to the walls so he can remember their words, and she sees how Hamda has become like her own mother whom she revered: “For the new generation of her grandchildren, for her grown up children and their husbands, she was the rock and reference of how to live.”

Shadow Lives makes me grateful for the graceful act of story-telling that opens doors and invites us in to unknown worlds. Language is human beings’ particular gift; we are here to listen and to tell. Stories are what make us human, after all. If there has been scant justice in the courts for the victims of torture and their families, they have not been completely forgotten, either. Insofar as their stories are told, there is some slight comfort and some redemptive virtue. Chapter after chapter, these women emerge as unique selves, often in despair, near madness, but also preternaturally strengthened as they continue to set examples of orderliness, studiousness, and politeness for their children and they endure, offering warmth and hospitality to extended family and guests.

Because Brittain has listened and attempted to enter the unfathomable to share experience of the inexplicable, the burden and the isolation of these families is to some degree lessened. Because, if no one knew their stories, the triumph of the evil done would be ever-more complete.

Therefore, it seems to me that Brittain has chosen her esthetic wisely, while Bigelow and Boal have squandered their choice.

They might well win an Academy Award; Zero Dark Thirty is being heavily promoted to do so. (To assuage the unconscious national guilt over torture and targeted assassination?) In comparison to such mass marketing, relatively few people are likely to read Brittain’s affecting book.

Yet, judging from another perspective, altogether other than commercial success, which record would we rather have remain to tell the story of our time—the film that promotes torture and targeted assassination or the book that honors enduring powers of tale-telling, resilience, and compassion?




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