I finally got around to watching Zero Dark Thirty, the film about the decade-long hunt for bin Laden. Before it came out, conservatives were concerned because the White House gave the filmmakers unprecedented access to information about the hunt and about the actual hit on bin Laden. This opened up the possibility that (a) the movie would betray America’s security secrets and (b) the movie would become a pro-Obama piece of political propaganda.
I don’t know whether the first fear was realized, but the second certainly wasn’t. Those who claim that the movie supports using torture to obtain information are correct. The movie opens with audio of phone calls from people trapped in the Twin Towers, and then shifts to a torture site somewhere vaguely Middle Eastern looking. The torturer is a CIA man. The person being tortured is a money man for al Qaeda. Having heard that audio, you are not sympathetic to the al Qaeda guy.
Because of the CIA’s torture tactics, the man gives them useful names. This happens repeatedly, with al Qaeda members getting hung in chains, hit, subject to water torture, deprived of sleep and human dignity, etc., and eventually revealing names and phone numbers. The movie makes it clear that they are not being tortured for fun. They are being tortured to get them to yield information about their, and other people’s, role in killing 3,000 Americans.
The film also makes the point that this information is necessary. Every so often, after showing CIA interrogations aimed at drawing out a little more information about al Qaeda, the film breaks in with news reports about the Khobar Tower bombing, or the London bombing, or the Islamabad Marriott bombing. The implication is that it’s vitally necessary for the CIA to crack open al Qaeda’s notoriously closed infrastructure.
The CIA operatives in the movie are dismayed when the situation in Washington changes, making “enhanced” interrogation techniques impossible. As one says when his boss demands that he get information, if they ask someone in Gitmo, he’ll just get lawyered up and the lawyer will pass on the question to al Qaeda, which can then use it to their advantage. The only “anti-torture” argument in the movie is a 30 second or so snippet of President Obama saying torture is “not who we are.”
That’s not who we are? What a funny way to frame a rather more fundamental argument: Are we, as a society, willing to have our public servants use torture for certain limited purposes? That’s the question, and the movie answers with a definitive “yes.” If using torture will get information that can save hundreds, thousands or (G*d forbid) millions of lives, torture is not just appropriate, it’s necessary. We don’t torture for pleasure or “to make a point,” we do it to save lives.
As for Obama’s that’s “not who we are” statement, I was struck then, as I always am, by how self-referential Barack and Michelle are. They were at it again in Africa. Michelle, the spoiled darling of a middle-class Chicago family, said that she’s just like the Senegalese (and before that, she was just like youths in Chicago’s worst ghettos). I know she’s striving for empathy, but it just ends up looking narcissistic.
Obama is worse, though, because he is America’s official spokesman. While in Senegal, the press asked him about his response to the Supreme Court’s decisions opening the door for national gay marriage. (By the way, I like Andrew Klavan’s take.) Obama, of course, approves. Not only did he say that, he used the question as an opportunity to talk about gay rights as human rights. This is actually an important thing, because gays are subject to terrible abuse in both Muslim and Christian Africa. No matter how one feels about gay marriage or homosexuality, the torture, imprisonment, and murder gays experience throughout Africa is a true crime against human rights.
With the gay marriage question, Obama — who is the greatest orator since Lincoln, right? — had the opportunity to make a profound statement about basic principles of human dignity. Instead, he embarked upon a wandering rumination about his feelings and his thoughts:
The issue of gays and lesbians, and how they’re treated, has come up and has been controversial in many parts of Africa. So I want the African people just to hear what I believe, and that is that every country, every group of people, every religion have different customs, different traditions. And when it comes to people’s personal views and their religious faith, et cetera, I think we have to respect the diversity of views that are there.
But when it comes to how the state treats people, how the law treats people, I believe that everybody has to be treated equally. I don’t believe in discrimination of any sort. That’s my personal view. And I speak as somebody who obviously comes from a country in which there were times when people were not treated equally under the law, and we had to fight long and hard through a civil rights struggle to make sure that happens.
So my basic view is that regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of gender, regardless of sexual orientation, when it comes to how the law treats you, how the state treats you — the benefits, the rights and the responsibilities under the law — people should be treated equally. And that’s a principle that I think applies universally, and the good news is it’s an easy principle to remember.
Every world religion has this basic notion that is embodied in the Golden Rule — treat people the way you want to be treated. And I think that applies here as well. (Emphasis added.)
No wonder that the Senegalese president Mackey Sall had no compunction about delivering a smackdown to the American president. And I do mean a smackdown, since he told Obama that he was a hypocrite to say that every culture has its own way of doing things, and Obama totally respects that, it’s just that the American way is better:
These issues are all societal issues basically, and we cannot have a standard model which is applicable to all nations, all countries — you said it, we all have different cultures. We have different religions. We have different traditions. And even in countries where this has been decriminalized and homosexual marriage is allowed, people don’t share the same views.
Obama is a petty mind with a bully pulpit.