George F. Will: Boundaries of the permissible

Published: January 13, 2013
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In 2007, Hayden ended the use of half the “enhanced interrogation” techniques, including waterboarding, because American law, our understanding of the threat and our sources of information had changed. He also says, however, that such interrogations produced half our knowledge of al-Qaeda's structure and activities.

“In the end, everybody breaks, bro — it's biology,” says the CIA man in the movie, tactically but inaccurately, to the detainee undergoing “enhanced interrogation.” This too familiar term has lost its capacity for making us uneasy. America's Vietnam failure was foretold when U.S. officials began calling air attacks on North Vietnam “protective reaction strikes,” a semantic obfuscation that revealed moral queasiness. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, who warned about governments resorting to “long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Viewers of “Zero Dark Thirty” can decide whether or which “enhanced interrogation” measures depicted — slaps, sleep deprivation, humiliation, waterboarding — constitute, in plain English, torture. And they can ponder whether any or all of them would be wrong even if effective.

Mukasey says the phrase “enhanced interrogation techniques” is “so absurdly antiseptic as to imply that it must conceal something unlawful.” Such “harsh techniques” were, he says, used against fewer than one-third of the fewer than 100 “hard-core prisoners” in CIA custody.

The government properly cooperated with the making of this movie because the public needs realism about the world we live in. “We live,” says Col. Jessep, “in a world that has walls. … You want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.” Regarding terrorism, the problem is that we live in a world without walls, without ramparts that can be manned for the purpose of repelling an invasion by a massed enemy.

When the CIA woman who drives the pursuit of bin Laden is about to enter, for the first time, the room where “enhanced interrogation” is administered, the CIA man who administers it tells her, “There's no shame if you want to watch from the monitor.” She, however, knows, and viewers of “Zero Dark Thirty” will understand, it is best to look facts, including choices, in the face.

George Will's email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP