A theological view of Zero Dark Thirty

Almost nine years ago, journalists on “60 Minutes II” and at The New Yorker revealed a trove of photographs showing the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi detainees by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison. The images of inmates variously stripped, hooded, leashed like a dog, piled into naked heaps and forced to simulate oral sex then spread widely, causing international outcry.

Even on the patriotic home front, the revulsion was widespread. President George W. Bush called the Abu Ghraib episode “abhorrent.” Senators across party lines, having been shown more than a thousand photos, described them as “appalling” and “horrific.”

At the 2013 Oscars on Sunday night, one of the nominees for best picture, indeed one of the most lauded films of the year, contains scenes of prisoner treatment that closely recreate the Abu Ghraib tactics. Yet in “Zero Dark Thirty”the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding, forms part of a heroic narrative, as a valiant C.I.A. officer tracks down Osama bin Laden.

There has been much debate about the film, primarily about its historical accuracy, but one might say not the right debate, not the deepest debate. Aside from a few Hollywood dissidents like Edward Asner, it has been left largely to theologians to call the film into question not on the pragmatic ground of its fealty to facts but on the moral ground of its message: that torture succeeds, and because it succeeds we should accept it.