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Killing Osama bin Laden has often been touted in the United States as one of the major achievements of US President Barack Obama's first term. But just as he gets ready for a grandiose second-term inauguration on Monday, the Hollywood movie Zero Dark Thirty is set to cast a shadow on this.
The movie, which began playing in cinemas nationwide on Friday, tells of the prolonged manhunt that led to the killing of Bin Laden on May 2 in 2011. It features various torture scenes of terror suspects by CIA operatives, using methods such as waterboarding, humiliation and sleep deprivation.
The 157-minute movie has since drawn fire despite its box office success last weekend, which saw it rake in nearly $25 million. Some senators, such as Democrat Diane Feinstein and Republican John McCain, have called the movie "grossly inaccurate and misleading in its suggestion that torture resulted in information that led to the location of" Bin Laden.
The film secured five Oscar nominations last week, but director Kathryn Bigelow was excluded from the Best Director list. Bigelow wrote an article published in The Los Angeles Times on Wednesday responding to the criticism that the movie condones torture. She argues that depiction is not endorsement, otherwise no artist would be able to paint inhuman practices, no author could write about them and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time.
She declares that she supports all protests against the use of torture and inhuman treatment of any kind. She hopes that some of the sentiments alternatively expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these US policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.
Bigelow believes that torture was used in the early years of the Bin Laden hunt and should not be ignored as part of the story. "War, obviously, isn't pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences," she wrote.
This is a strong defense from Bigelow, but far from enough. The movie failed to even mention the countless Afghan and Iraqi lives lost during the US' War on Terror, while repeatedly stressing the 3,000 people that died in the terrorist attacks against the United States on Sept 11, 2001.
Watching the movie last Sunday night, I was glad that none of the audience applauded at the end, as I expected based on my experiences in New York. It seems Washingtonians are more sophisticated in this regard.
To me, this movie is not an endorsement of torture, it is an expose and condemnation of torture and all inhuman and questionable methods employed in the 12-year War on Terror.
I am not sure if Obama's inauguration speech on Monday will touch on such issues. After his inauguration in 2009, he authorized the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention and interrogation center, where "terror suspects" are held without rights and legal proceedings,. But two years later, he signed the Defense Authorization Bill, which made the closure literally impossible.
This month, which marks the 12th anniversary of the Guantanamo facility, would be a perfect time for Obama to raise this issue again and seize the moral high ground.
Four years ago, Obama banned unlawful interrogations, but it is widely reported that extraordinary rendition, where terror suspects are moved overseas for enhanced interrogation, is still a reality today, though with somewhat more oversight.
In fact, Obama's picking of John Brennan as director of the CIA last week, has reminded many of the torture and questionable techniques used in the war on terror since George W. Bush's presidency.
Brennan, a high official in counter-terrorism, was directly involved in extraordinary renditions. He was supportive of using "enhanced interrogation" techniques on suspected terrorists. Both Brennan and Obama also favor the growing number of drone attacks, which have provoked fierce protests both in the US and abroad.
There is no doubt that Obama needs to clarify all these issues before his second term. He could probably do so by joining the debate over Zero Dark Thirty.
The author, based in Washington, is deputy editor of China Daily USA.
(China Daily 01/18/2013 page8)