The release of Zero Dark Thirty last weekend raised many concerns amongst U.S. foreign policy scholars and international observers. Most of these complaints have centered on the film’s portrayal of American torture of al-Qaeda prisoners and other suspected militants in the years following the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Other writers have analyzed the film’s portrayal of the usefulness of torture, the differences between torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the long-term affect that such torture has on the so-called War on Terror. These are all necessary questions to ask and valuable discussions regarding the film, as it appears likely that many present and future Americans will see the film as defining American foreign policy in the War on Terror. Zero Dark Thirty, however, permits an even larger problem that its audience is probably unaware of: the film portrays itself as historically accurate but only gives an American view of events. The film depicts Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda as attacking westerners because they hate western freedoms, though bin Laden clearly listed his political reasons for the attacks in the 1990s. The film portrays al-Qaeda savagery in attacking western civilians, but ignores the fact the U.S. forces have shrugged off the murder of civilians during its drone assassination program. The film even defines al-Qaeda savagery in describing the size of bombs used against C.I.A. agents but avoids discussing the size of bombs the U.S. has dropped on Iraq, Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s civilian areas. Zero Dark Thirty closely resembles basic pro-government propaganda in all of these ways, and viewers should keep its propaganda role in mind while watching and discussing the film.
Propaganda can only be successful when its creators claim it to be an accurate depiction of fact. Zero Dark Thirty makes this claim at the outset, telling the audience that the film is based on first hand accounts given by people involved in the story. The film next legitimizes itself by immediately depicting the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City. The screen stays black while the audience listens to many cell phone calls made by those that died in the Twin Towers. Many callers are frightened, which inspires the audience to feel dread and revulsion in knowing that most of those voices were silenced that day. This is an artistic and inspired way to remind people of the national mood on September 11th that focused on sympathy for the victims and a desire to exert revenge on those that caused such terrible violence. However, audiences should also notice that the film only gives voice to American victims, completely overlooking the decades of violence the United States has supported throughout the Middle East. The film does not permit its audiences to hear similar statements of fear, death, and popular anger resulting from American bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or many other Middle Eastern countries. Zero Dark Thirty legitimizes American victims while ignoring the body count inflicted in the Middle East, contributing to an American myth of its own righteousness in fighting the War on Terror.
Such overwhelming focus on the American perspective dominates the rest of the film. One of the worst examples occurs in a scene depicting a C.I.A. office that runs a television in the background. The scene begins focused on the television, where New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg conveniently states that al-Qaeda attacks the United States because such Muslim extremists hate the freedom that American enjoy in their daily lives. The filmmakers clearly intend for the audience to hear these statements in order to define al-Qaeda as a savage, repressive force that attacks only in order to destroy personal freedom. This depiction ignores al-Qaeda’s political foundations explained by Usama bin Laden since the 1990s. Bin Laden said as early as 1996 that
Terrorising you, while you are carrying arms on our land, is a legitimate and morally demanded duty. It is a legitimate right well known to all humans and other creatures. Your example and our example is like a snake which entered into a house of a man and got killed by him. The coward is the one who lets you walk, while carrying arms, freely on his land and provides you with peace and security. (“Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” 1996, can be viewed at
He argued the same point in 1998, demanding that
The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque and the holy mosque from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim. (“Fatwah Urging Jihad Against Americans,” published in Al-Quds al-‘Arabi on Febuary 23, 1998 at http://www.mideastweb.org/osamabinladen1.htm)
Usama bin Laden argued throughout the 1990s that the United States attacked, controlled, and exploited Muslim lands in order to enrich its own companies. Bin Laden clearly defined al-Qaeda as more than a simple terror organization trying to kill American freedom, but instead as a Muslim revolutionary movement trying to overthrow American tyranny and establish a truly independent Middle East.
Such statements continued after the September 11th attacks. Bin Laden’s video messages released in 2003 and 2004 (the exact years depicted in Zero Dark Thirty) openly declared leadership of a Muslim resistance movement.
I say to the American people we will continue to fight you and continue to conduct martyrdom operations inside and outside the United States until you depart from your oppressive course and abandon your follies and rein in your fools. . . . And may our mothers become childless if we leave any of you alive on our soil. (“Message to the US,” published October 18, 2003 by al-Jazeera English at http://english.aljazeera.net/English/archive/archive?ArchiveId=40700)
Similar ideas were expressed in bin Laden’s offer of a truce to European governments that began removing their military forces from the Middle East:
[W]e would like to inform you that labelling us and our acts as terrorism is also a description of you and of your acts. Reaction comes at the same level as the original action. Our acts are reaction to your own acts, which are represented by the destruction and killing of our kinfolk in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. . . . I also offer a reconciliation initiative to [Europeans] whose essence is our commitment to stopping operations against every country that commits itself to not attacking Muslims or interfering in their affairs – including the US conspiracy on the greater Muslim world. (“Truce Offer to Europe,” published April 15, 2004 by the BBC at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3628069.stm)
Usama bin Laden defined al-Qaeda as a political/military resistance movement from its inception in the 1990s and continued with that definition after the September 11th attacks and the War on Terror that followed. Zero Dark Thirty ignores all of these statements, choosing instead to focus on the common American misunderstanding of al-Qaeda as seeking to attack the United States out of pure hatred for American freedom. Zero Dark Thirty therefore perpetuates an American myth born and still advertised by the United States government. The film’s refusal to question that myth and the film’s portrayal of al-Qaeda’s motivations are hugely disturbing.
Zero Dark Thirty also goes to great lengths in depicting the savagery of al-Qaeda attacks against civilian populations. This is most powerful during the opening sequence of September 11th voices, the destruction of a peaceful neighborhood in the London bus bombings of July 2005, and the bombing of a popular American-style restaurant. The images powerfully motivate audiences to correctly despise al-Qaeda’s willingness to kill civilians. However, the film also implies American willingness to kill civilians, even children, during the War on Terror. This is portrayed in several scenes. The first scenes depicts a C.I.A. meeting in which the main character, a C.I.A. analyst hunting bin Laden, gets a statistical rundown and images of the house that bin Laden used for hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The analyst is told that the C.I.A. is certain of the age of many people living in the house thanks to satellite images. The analyst is told that several children live at the compound; they even have pictures of the children playing sword-fighting games around the house. Several women are also estimated to live at the compound, along with at least two adult men. A later scene depicts the main character’s first meeting with the SEAL team that would eventually attack the compound and kill bin Laden. The SEAL team leader seems reluctant to perform the mission because he says that they had been on other missions targeting bin Laden in the past that had been false leads. The film quickly gives the analyst’s response: she did not even want to involve a SEAL team. Instead, the female analyst preferred to drop a giant bomb on the house to kill everyone in it. This statement seems intended as comedy for the audience (and many in the theater laughed at it), even while her face is deadly serious. However, Zero Dark Thirty also shows its propaganda power: al-Qaeda is depicted as evil for killing civilians, but the C.I.A. is depicted with a righteous and even funny willingness to drop a giant bomb on a house that would likely have killed children and other anonymous adults along with the possibility of killing bin Laden.
The filmmakers also give some details of terrorist weapons in order to demonize anti-American groups. One emotional scene depicts the bombing of a C.I.A. interrogation group in Afghanistan, with later news reports defining the bomb used as being a powerful 2,000 pound device. Other C.I.A. leaders frequently remind viewers throughout the movie that 3,000 American civilians were murdered on September 11th. The filmmakers clearly included the bomb’s size and American death toll in order to convince audiences that the terrorists are brutal, merciless, and unconcerned for how many people die in their attacks. However, Zero Dark Thirty again fails to provide context for such information. The film conveniently skips past the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 along with the hundreds of bombs dropped and the thousands of Iraqi civilians massacred. The film never discusses American use of unmanned drone airplanes that constantly fly over Afghanistan and Pakistan, dropping scores of bombs that have killed hundreds of civilians. Emphasizing the American civilian death toll and the terrorists’ use of large bombs while simultaneously ignoring similar death toll and bombing statistics when killing other peoples reveals how closely Zero Dark Thirty resembles the American government’s perspective in the War on Terror. Audiences can only conclude that the filmmakers made such decisions consciously, and that Zero Dark Thirty approaches government-sponsored propaganda.
Zero Dark Thirty could be considered an artfully constructed war story due to its main characters’ emotional depth, the honest way that September 11th victims are represented, and for its descriptions of American motivations for fighting. However, its major weakness emerges when one realizes that the film refuses to project any of these qualities or descriptions onto America’s enemies and the innocents killed in American attacks. Middle Easterners in general, and al-Qaeda in particular, are portrayed as bloodthirsty, insane, brutal attackers seeking to destroy American freedom by killing as many westerners as possible with the biggest weapons they can get hold of. Such depictions ignore al-Qaeda’s core complaint against the United States: that the Americans have occupied, oppressed, and exploited Middle Eastern lands and peoples for pure economic profit. Zero Dark Thirty seems likely to define the War on Terror in the American popular mind, and it is a very scary thing indeed to realize that Americans will likely continue to misunderstand al-Qaeda’s fundamental goal. Zero Dark Thirty claims to be historically accurate, but its failure to give basic information brings it closer to a piece of American government propaganda. The C.I.A. should be proud of such an accomplishment.