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  • Lioui Benhamou

The Hidden Violence in Zero Dark Thirty


Boal, M., Bigelow, K., & Ellison, M. (2013). Zero Dark Thirty. Universal Pictures Nordic

Zero Dark Thirty, directed by Bigelow, is a film based on the events of the war on terror after 9/11 and the search for Osama Bin Laden. Bigelow has argued that "the film doesn’t have an agenda" (in Filkins, 2012) even if the film depicts violence in the form of terrorists attacks and torture from a U.S point of view which therefore influence the narrative. Hollywood is considered by many scholars as an "Interlocutor in World Politics" (Saunders 2014) to the extent, in the case of films about terrorism, that the film's depiction of real-life events "contribute to a shared understanding of terrorism" (Jackson et al 2011, 61). We will see that identity is the theme at the center of different focus and scales.


The film begins in darkness, with the date of 9/11 written for a few seconds on screen, and the sound of the terrorist attack resonating alongside the screams and the wails of the sirens, allowing the viewer to add his own images of the real world in his imagination. The film forces you to remember real events. Fiction enters in friction with reality. An American viewer, as soon as the film starts, may have their genuine feelings and thus their genuine political views in mind: those same views and emotions that make Maya, the main character, commit, and contribute to, violence.


Thus Zero Dark Thirty is political, despite what Bigelow claims, and I will provide some answers as to why politics turns to violence in connection with this film. The film depicts its hero, Maya, as tired and damaged, just as the American nation was in a post 9/11 world (Frederica and Hamilton 2015). In this review, I will focus on the character of Maya and try to understand what she tells us about the question of why politics can turn to violence. I will also focus on certain key scenes that are important for the message and answers given to us by the film about this question. I will reveal the way in which identity - in the form of a separation between “us” and “them”, group violence and national culture - is at the centre of a holistic response to this question.


In a first part we will focus on direct violence as the use of torture and show why the film show us how politics turn to violence because we obey and because we create a separation between 'us' and the 'other' that make violence possible on a individual level. Then, we will see what the film tell us about the reason why people use violence as a group, either a terrorist group or the C.I.A . And finally we will discuss why politics turn to violence at the scale of a nation, how important is the idea of a national identity for the legitimisation of violence, and we will discuss state terrorism.


The clearest exposition of politics turning to violence in the film is of course torture. The opening scene show us the use of waterboarding against a presumed terrorist. Zero Dark Thirty want us to acknowledge what was done by the U.S during the war on terror: Torture was used as a political tool to get information.


At one point, Maya looks at recordings of torture scenes, eluding the frontier between her and the viewer both sat behind a screen, which make us identify with her. Thus we share her feelings and her aims, forcing us to consider the possibility that torture is tolerable if there executed with a purpose.


If politics turns to violence, in this case, being torture, it is because we obey. Maya obeys the C.I.A and her colleague, she even participates in the torture by helping a C.I.A agent because he asks her to. Thus politics turn to violence for some actors at the personal scale because they are asked to use violence by an authority and the responsibility is projected onto this authority (Brown 1942). But it is not the only explication, as Maya seems to do more than is asked of her: her colleague does not demand she go inside the torture room, but she does. Maya not only obeys, but actively participates. She might not be completely at ease doing so, but it is clear that she is certain that it is the necessary thing to do.


Zero Dark Thirty is not making the case for torture. But the fact that torture is always shown to be working in the end - and that when violence is used against Maya twice, always by complete surprise without any purpose except to put to death - depicts the way in which Zero Dark Thirty falls into Newman’s observation that in most films "Torture is an atrocity when perpetrated on Americans but is justified when used by Americans" (2006, 31). We can see that cultural violence, a violence that refers to when a culture is used to legitimise violence, makes torture, a form of direct violence, "at least not wrong" (Galtung 1969, 291).


Yet, the terrorist that is tortured is humanised in the film, the camera focuses on his eyes, and he expresses himself, which allow us to feel empathy for him. Zero Dark Thirty is also, then, questioning the use of torture. But, the terrorist is not given time to explain his reasons for joining Al-Qaeda. The terrorist is part of the "other" in Zero Dark Thirty. Dexter argues that "to form any community or group there has to be an ‘other’. When this other is considered an enemy, violence often follows." (2007, 1063). We have the time to feel empathy for him, but not to understand his motives, which are not very relevant for the C.I.A’s mission to ensure the U.S is secured. Thus in Zero Dark Thirty politics turns to violence because the US, as a group who has an 'other' to oppose, uses violence, as Foucault would argue, to secure the existence of a population (in Campbell, 2005).


Indeed, politics turns to violence because people join groups that use violence as a mean to achieve a certain end. The reasons why people join those groups is central to answer our question. The popular myths of terrorism that form the orthodox view of the study makes generalisations about terrorists, their motives and the definition of terrorism (Stohl 2008).They illustrate that factors like the economic background, lack of education and political aims alone explains terrorism. The film show that Maya and her colleague, Jessica, do not spend a lot of time trying to understand the reasons for violence. In one scene, Jessica says to Maya that terrorists are in it only because of financial gain (2012). Maya answers instead that "they are radical" (2012) and thus that ideology is necessary and sufficient to explain terrorism. Both claims fall into the orthodox view of terrorism.


Maya does not try to understand why politics turn to violence for Al Qaeda's members. From her point of view, politics turn to violence because this is simply part of the ideology of certain people. But then, when Maya is asked if she has any friend or boyfriend back in the US, she does not answer. What the film makes us realize is that Maya has no other activities or interests but the quest for Osama Bin Laden. In fact she even told the C.I.A director that she has done nothing other than work for the C.I.A her entire life. The film mention the idea that people, such as Maya, join groups that use violence, here the C.I.A, to join a social group and have a sense of belonging; violence is not only used to pursue a political aim, but also to join a group (Abrahms 2008). This is done only for the individual, in this case, Maya, not for the 'other'.



Therefore Maya's cry at the end of the film can be understood as the expression of her internal crisis at the fact that she has nothing left to do and thus is, in a way, belonging nowhere. Zero Dark Thirty is not completely one sided, it does not affirm that violence done by a group can be explained only in one or two practical ways, rather, it lets us think about complex reasons for actors to join violent groups. Zero Dark Thirty has several levels of understanding, and is more complex about our question than it might first seem. But even when the film does gain this complexity, it is only from the perspective of the 'us'.

It is from this side, also, that politics turns to violence because of the desire for revenge. "I believe I was spared so I can finish the job" (2012) says Maya which indicates that she is ready to use violence because it was used before on 'her' and most importantly on 'her' group. The war on terror is easily seen as a way for the US to get vengeance for 9/11, personified by Maya’s attitude.


The U.S after 9/11 was mourning as a nation, and the last scene of the film which depicts Maya crying is like many Americans felt : there is a trauma from witnessing the War on Terror (Frederica and Hamilton 2015). Violence is never done with optimism, but is done in this case because Americans believe in certain values, in what they represent (Frederica and Hamilton 2015). "Identity politics has always been central to war" (Dexter 2007, 1063). The US, as a nation, tolerate violence to get revenge, and so did most people because it is part of their identity. Zero Dark Thirty show us this identity and, to some extent, actively helps to shape it.


The film pictures events as if 9/11 started everything that followed, but for the viewer to be able to make up their mind freely about the issue, the reasons that caused 9/11 should have been shown, or at least mentioned. Thus there is a "heavy subjectivist bias" we need to be aware of (Engert and Spencer 2009, 89). But Zero Dark Thirty also raises questions rather than trying to give a full picture of the post 9/11 world as many recent film do (Frederica and Hamilton 2015). The violence of terrorism, defined as non-state actors violence, is not tolerated by states and thus they create laws against it that do not apply to their actions (Jackson 2008).


The film question this. When there is a protest in front of the US embassy in Pakistan, one of the signs reads "Stop American Terrorism" (2012). Thus Zero Dark Thirty asks certain questions surrounding state terrorism, which are often too absent, even in the scholarly literature (Schmid and Jongman 1988). If we consider state violence to be legitimate then the answer to the question of why politics turns to violence is obvious: violence is simply an extension of politics (Clausewitz, 1976). Yet the film doesn't stop there when it talks about the violence of the state. By calling the U.S actions an act of terrorism, by giving a voice to the “other”, Zero Dark Thirty makes us wonder if legitimacy truly exists when we talk about violence. Politics might turn to violence if there is no legitimate ways for an actor to get what it wants and this desire comes before any moral questions. The violence done by a state is seen as acceptable by a population which identifies with a nation. Thus reiterating my previous point that politics might turn to violence because we think it's at least tolerable that it does.


Zero Dark Thirty does have an agenda, contrary to what Bigelow has argued, because it shows certain things to the viewers with a U.S narrative. The answers to the question of why does politics turns to violence brought by Zero Dark Thirty are varied, but the most important theme is the one of identification, of a group or a nation. While Zero Dark Thirty, with the character of Maya, also shows us that politics turns to violence because we obey, and because it is a supposed necessary to protect one group, the answer that identity shapes who we are and thus what we do, and in certain cases the violence we commit out of revenge, protection, or to enter a social process, seems to be the main one we can draw from Zero Dark Thirty. It encourages us to look beyond direct violence to the more manifest forms of cultural violence, less obvious, but no less real.

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