A lot has been said already about the depictions of torture by CIA agents against detainees in Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s newest movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Generally, the left finds the insinuation that torture played a key role in finding the alleged 9/11 mastermind morally abhorrent. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer found the lack of moral probing about the torture in the film to be both ethically and historically problematic. “If [Bigelow] were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful,” she wrote.
But the focus on Maya, the CIA operative and main character played by Jessica Chastain, is a portrayal of what kind of person is necessary to complete such sordid tasks, and it is not a pretty sight. She is obsessed with finding bin Laden, despite the view of the agency’s station chief in Pakistan who believes he is no longer important and what is more valuable is finding out when a cell is going to strike next. She vehemently maintains that as long as he is alive, the big guy is calling the shots. To stop these cells, the US must get bin Laden.
It’s a half-baked theory. As veteran British journalist Robert Fisk told Al Jazeera at the time of bin Laden’s death, he had become irrelevant, and his personal mission was sideswiped by the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Al Qaeda, especially in the mainstream media, is depicted as a regular organization, but its not. There’s no application to join, no hazing, no board of approval. “You can wake up in the morning and say ‘I am in Al Qaeda,’” Fisk told the news agency. Ask someone in Mali today if the execution of bin Laden has made life harder for religious extremists.
So what’s motivating her to embark on this Sisyphean quest rather than seek the immediate targets? Here’s what we know about Maya, most likely a composite of the intelligence agents who found bin Laden hiding in plan site: She was recruited out of high school and has been with the agency for 12 years. There’s a special reason she was tapped so early, but it isn’t specified, and timing makes it impossible for her to be an orphan of 9/11 victims. She doesn’t have time for romance or casual sex. She finds drinking and socializing tedious. She doesn’t reminisce about home. My guess is that somewhere in a leafy Maryland suburb, she exuded a troubling Asperger’s-like social anxiety matched with unparalleled intellectual prowess and a gnawing desire to understand South Asia.
Maya’s quest to find bin Laden isn’t overtly about revenge. She doesn’t flash back to memories of the Twin Towers, nor does she have a grand philosophy about the clash between the enlightened West and the Islamist plot to take the world back to the Thirteenth Century. She does not emote weepy sentimentalism about patriotism and the flag. She is also weirdly and callously disrespectful toward the members of SEAL Team Six who are about to risk their lives to finish the job for her (Side note: Chris Pratt, who plays a bumbling fool in Parks and Recreation, as an elite commando adds needed comic relief).
And of course, this is capped with a similar ending to Bigelow and Boal’s previous film, The Hurt Locker, where the protagonist realizes that there is nothing else in life but the mission; everything else is emptiness. Bin Laden is dead, an now Maya is crying, likely because this means she is returning to the void that is her existence beyond the hunt.
I think that this is an important insight into the mindset of people who are charged with such morally dubious tasks. Flip back for a moment to Confessions of an Economic Hitman, John Perkins’s memoir about being a consultant who convinced leaders of underdeveloped countries to accept foreign loans, thereby forcing them to go through neoliberal, structural adjustment. In it, he recounts his interview at the National Security Agency, and he is embarrassed to admit that he was broke, unsuccessful with women and had a checkered legal past. Thinking these shortcomings would count him out, he was surprised to learn that this made him a prime candidate for the job. Perkins was unconnected and had few alternative pathways to success. Of course he couldn’t question the morality of his assignments. He couldn’t afford to personally.
The labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, known both for this underworld dealings and dedication to the Teamsters, is another such example. He was famous for his teetotalism. The first time he ever danced was at his daughter’s wedding. When asked by a reporter how he entertained himself, he answered that work was the great joy. And yet, as it would unfold, he sold out the union, and his criminal dealings led to his own demise. Never trust a man with no vices.
It is this kind of isolation from the rest of the world, and a focus on one task that keeps Maya who she is. We all know a few people like this in our work lives: the first people in and the last ones out, mid-level bosses who have used their positions to replace the emotional inconveniences of normal social affairs. It isn’t just weird behavior, as we sometimes think. Our love affairs, relationships and spiritual and religious commitments (or atheistic commitment, for that matter) not only contribute to the beauty of life but ultimately give us moral grounding. To not have these avenues allow for a soul to become unbothered with questions.
It is this kind of figure who can take on these morally questionable tasks that involve torture and cruelty. That may have been the message Bigelow and Boal were trying to make.