Zero Dark Thirty Trailer: Kathryn Bigelow's Film Trivializes the War on Terror

Zero Dark Thirty is the recent film release that chronicles the search for and eventual killing of, Osama Bin Laden. The film is focused on the trials and tears of Maya, a CIA agent who spends her entire tenure at the CIA focused on finding "UBL" — Osama Bin Laden, as referenced by Maya in the film during her briefing to Navy Seal Team 6. This movie is not unexpected; as I heard the news on May 2, 2011, I knew that a movie would be forthcoming. The movie begins with a black screen and the sounds of 9/11, screams, sirens, and telephone calls. The movie begins with 9/11 because this is moment in which the hunt for Bin Laden began, but it is also the moment in which America entered a new state of war.

The "war on terror" requires the exceptionalism of wartime, but lacks the temporality. Mary Dudziak, in her book War Time, evaluates war as a concept of time and argues that this concept of war impacts law and politics and ultimately frames history. Dudziak states, military conflict has been ongoing for decades, yet public policy rests on the false assumption that it is an aberration. This enables a culture of irresponsibility as 'wartime' serves as an argument and an excuse for national security-related ruptures of our usual legal order." Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ongoing war on terror and the visual representation of this war in Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty then moves to when Maya is doing her first interrogation at a CIA black site, in which she witnesses enhanced interrogation techniques, torture, for what seems to be the first time. She flinches and seems increasingly uncomfortable as the interrogation continues. Eventually as the move progresses, we see Maya in a different interrogation in which she appears confident, in control, and is instigating the violence perpetrated against the prisoner. Maya's transformation is also indicative of a similar transformation in American society. A change that has made what has traditionally been an exceptional point in history, war, normal and commonplace. General Counsel of the Department of Defense Jeh Johnson, states in a speech at Oxford University in 2012, "war must be regarded as a finite, extraordinary, and unnatural state of affairs." The traditional view of war has been just that, a temporary point in time that justifies a move away from normal law and politics.

The war on terror, has curtailed the civil rights and liberties of Americans. The view of war as temporary has served as a justification for torture, as the debate raged on what exactly constituted torture. These breaches of human rights were acceptable because we were in war, and war eventually ends. The war on terror has major human rights implications. Derogation of certain rights is allowed during times of security crisis, but a permanent security crisis risks permanent right infringement. The war on terror is a new type of conflict that forces us to reevaluate our concept of war as temporary and exceptional and thus to reconstruct the laws that govern this permanent state of conflict. This shift in the law of war is evident throughout Zero Dark Thirty. Maya and her colleagues operate in a new framework, one in which the war is permanent and the security risk is high. 

The movie spans the entire search for Bin Laden post 9/11 and we can see on screen as war loses its exceptionality and its temporality and becomes the new normal. When war has become the new normal, law needs to reflect this in order to remain effective, but most importantly, the way we view war needs to reflect this change so that it is no longer a justification for suspending normal law and politics. 


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Tye Tavaras

A native of Atlanta, Georgia with a B.A. from Emory University in International Studies. A graduate of The American University in Cairo with an M.A. in International Human Rights Law. Recently graduated with a Juris Master Degree from Emory Law School focused on International Law and currently works in the field of international education.

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