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Susan Estrich
5 Feb 2016
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3 Feb 2016
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29 Jan 2016
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The Truth About 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 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 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.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



9 Comments | Post Comment
Torture is what law-abiding productive citizens are being subjected by Obama and his progressive, un-Constitutional power grabbing he has inflicted on These united States of America.
Comment: #1
Posted by: David Henricks
Fri Jan 4, 2013 1:44 AM
Well I'm glad to see that Susan is not fooled by this movie. Movies like this are often secretly sponsored by the defense department and made to be propoganda. And of course David is right about the Obama power grab. This is something that liberals should be concerned with too. After all, dems won't be in power forever and I cringe at the thought of a Mitt Romney-type with all that unchallenged power behind him.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Fri Jan 4, 2013 6:14 AM
Gee, you mean you can't believe everything that you see in the movies? Dorthy didn't really fly to Oz?

Matt Damon just made a movie that says fracking will kill cows, but there's actually no evidence of that. Is it possible that the movie he wrote is more interested in advancing a political agenda than in showing THE TRUTH? Oh, how are we poor, ignorant members of the public ever to tell the difference between information and propaganda?

President Obama uses drones to kill American citizens living abroad. Wouldn't that be a good subject for a movie? Of course, that policy is allowed by US law. But so is the "enhanced interrogation" which led to the targeting of Osama Bin Laden. As a member of the bar Ms. Estrich knows perfectly well that US police officers are allowed to trick and deceive suspects in order to elicit an admission. Good subject for a movie.

But this misses the point. Torture is happening all over the world. Women are shot for exposing a square inch of leg. People are not allowed to drive, go to school, or get medical exams. In China a farmer is forbidden to move into the city. A former Marine had to rot in a Mexican jail for months even though he committed no crime. The US should not descend into wrong-doing, but if we are against the injustice of human-caused suffering, we should go after the worst cases first.

It is not our fault if Pakistan allows its own people to catch polio. It is they who are using our mistakes as a pretext to torture their own people.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Cowboy Jay
Fri Jan 4, 2013 9:10 AM
"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."

Isn't that true?
Comment: #4
Posted by: Kingsley Wijesinhe
Sat Jan 5, 2013 7:08 PM
"Except it wasn't. This is a movie masquerading as a true telling when in fact what it tells is a lie."
Okay, I get it, Ms. Estrich, but here's the problem:
The battle for the "truth" on whether or not "waterboarding helped us find bin Laden" was waged a long time ago, and you failed to win it. It remains a point of divisive contention.
At the very least you should have attempted to explain why it is that this country continues to cling to the so-called myth that waterboarding led to us finding and killing Osama bin Laden. Because I for one, find myself persuaded that it did play a role.
Comment: #5
Posted by: Jorge
Sat Jan 5, 2013 11:26 PM
I don't believe water-boarding is torture. I do believe that stoning a women for infidelity is torture, in fact it's torture and murder. Cutting hands off of thiefs is also torture. Draw the line folks; you too Susan.
Are there any movies that are anything but historical fiction? Are there plenty of moviews that are just plain propaganda?
Comment: #6
Posted by: Oldtimer
Mon Jan 7, 2013 5:49 AM
Of course most of the movies are made to entertain rather than stay true to the factual events - how does one even know what's truth and what's just a heavily biased opinion - but Ms. Estrich's take on these types of movies is spot on: They do endanger Americans and those who are friendly to them, greatly and unnecessarily, all in the mane of artistic license. Movie industry must start taking responsibility for its damaging products; they are as culpable as the person who pulls the trigger, as it were.
Comment: #7
Posted by: Sehrazade
Mon Jan 7, 2013 11:38 AM
Re: Sehrazade
They (movie industry) will never take responsibility for morality in pictures because they don't have any! Give me the good old days; the movies in the forties and fifties were fantastic. They even included religion and God in their stories. Plenty of great heros too. I allways wanted to be like the king - John Wayne. Todays kids want to be like Snoopdog.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Oldtimer
Tue Jan 8, 2013 5:04 AM
wow, you poor little bleeding heart liberal and those poor terrorists... really? I wonder how you would feel if it were your son, brother or father that was beheaded alive with a dull knife. Imagine the "torture"? You know what, torture is too good for these terrorists, we should behead them immediately upon capture, that would suit me just fine. One thousand terrorists are not worth one American, get it? Why don't you stop worrying about everyone else for a change and start caring for and acting like an American (Rhetorical) as I know you don't get it and never will.
Comment: #9
Posted by: mec
Tue Jan 8, 2013 9:35 AM
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