The Face of Torture



Zero Dark Thirty

USA, 2012

directed by Kathryn Bigelow


Zero Dark Thirty is not a movie about Osama bin Laden. It isn’t about Seal Team 6, either. It is about torture, though I am unsure accusations of the film’s pro-torture stance are obvious. The film is more complicated; it’s not so much a political or moral tale, but rather an ethical meditation, especially on that primordial aspect of our existence upon which our politics, religions, and ideologies (as well as all the violence that surrounds them) are built: the encounter with the human face.


Importantly, Zero Dark Thirty is philosophical and ethical, as opposed to merely moral, because it does not present a specific judgment about the themes present in the film; there is no clear “moral to the story,” e.g., torture is evil/necessary, murder is wrong/inevitable, war is inhuman/human. The viewer may come to such conclusions, but the film, like any provocative work of art, opens the space to truly face these themes in all their irreducible complexity. Put another way, the movie does not answer questions, it raises them—not in a cheap, didactic, or obvious way, but through the very concrete and visceral encounter with human bodies and human faces.



 “The Face of the Other”

The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas puts “the face of the Other” at the center of his ethical philosophy. The “Other” is a radical alterity, resisting any attempt to reduce him or her into linguistic or conceptual categories. When we encounter the face of the Other, we try to comprehend, reduce, possess, or, to use Levinas’ language, “totalize” this difference. In trying to totalize the face of the Other, we exert violence on it, reducing it to an object by giving it a name, possessing it, denying its independence, controlling it through enslavement, or totally negating it through murder. But “the encounter with the other consists in the fact that despite the extent of my domination and his slavery, I do not possess him.” “The face is present in its refusal to be contained.” It “overflows.” It is infinite. “To be in relation with the other face to face is to be unable to kill.”1


This radical Other is not something that threatens our existence; rather, the Other confirms our existence. The Other throws us into an ethical relation; it is precisely what makes us uniquely human. Through this alterity speech and discourse are possible, which is to say, religion, politics, and philosophy. “The epiphany of the face is ethical,” writes Levinas, as his philosophy is an extended meditation upon the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” which Levinas does not see as a command emanating from a god in the clouds, but as an invocation radiating from the human face, a transcendental and terrestrial encounter that makes possible humanity and freedom. The face of the Other “does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness ... It is thus the irremissible weight of being that gives rise to my freedom.”


Despite the bravura of the final raid of bin Laden’s compound near the end, Zero Dark Thirty is almost minimalist; the story moves just as much through the silent gestures of the face as it does through the shouting, gunfire, and explosions. Maya (Jessica Chastain) hardly speaks throughout the film. The success of her performance comes through the silence of her face and the unsettling encounters with other faces, the faces of friends, the faces of foes. 


Early in the film (Don’t worry, there are no spoilers. We all know how it ends.), Ammar (Reda Kateb) is being interrogated by Dan (Jason Clarke) at a black site in Pakistan. “Interrogated” meaning tortured—beaten, humiliated, waterboarded. We see his face—swollen, bleeding, broken—as his body hangs limp from the ceiling. Dan wears no mask while the rest of those in the room cover their faces. Though Dan “faces” Ammar, the two are not in an ethical relation. Ammar is an object, a use-value from which Dan wants to extract “information.” For Dan, Ammar is effaced, erased, dominated, totalized, effectively dead. Reciprocally, for Ammar, Dan is not a face but a fist, the dominator, not a particular subject but a vague force of pain and suffering. In this way, no human encounter is possible. Only the indifferent collision of violence remains.


This is the horror of torture: it destroys the face and leaves behind a walking corpse. Torture makes the ground of humanity, the ethical relation, impossible.


It is no coincidence that the ethical arguments in favor of torture are always consequentialist; that is, the ends justify the means. The consequentialist reduces faces to mere counts in a moral calculus: the greatest good for the greatest number. So long as utility/pleasure/happiness/safety is maximized in the end, the action is morally justifiable.2 In consequentialist ethics, the subject becomes object, ethics succumbs mathematics, the infinite mystery of the face is totalized and possessed by the closure of the fist.


For Levinas, it is not the alien quality that allows us to treat others in such ways. Rather, it is that radical Otherness that makes possible the ethical relation, discourse, and infinity. It is the desire to destroy the difference that makes torture and murder possible. When all qualities are reduced into an undifferentiated pulp, ethics becomes impossible. The face is nothing but blood, skin, bone. But in destroying the face of the Other, we destroy our own face—torture and murder are just as self-annihilating as any bomb could ever be.


This is a Levinasian take on torture. The movie, however, remains somewhat ambiguous as to its judgment about the morality of torture. The “villains” in Zero Dark Thirty aren’t exactly humanized, but they are also not simply reduced to caricatures of pure evil: they retain their face. Though the film has been criticized for its allegedly apologetic depiction of torture, the pro-torture stance is not so clear. It may be the case that the film, through revealing these encounters between faces, throws the question into our laps, which is to say, it is a responsibility we must now face.


The Veil of Maya

Zero Dark Thirty’s story can be traced through the veiling, uncovering, and expression of Maya’s face. After the initial torture scene, the interrogators exit and Dan tells Maya that she does not have to be in the room. “I’m ok,” she replies. She does not put her mask back on as they are about to re-enter. Dan implores her to wear it. “You’re not wearing one,” she quips. And so, she must face Ammar as a face. At first, she winces and grimaces at the torture, but when he implores her for help, she responds coldly: “If you told the truth, this wouldn’t happen to you.” As the film develops, so too does Maya’s face: fatigued, stoic, hardened, grieved, determined, and eventually, weeping.


There is another moment of the film that is an important ethical fulcrum, subtle, but crucial, involving the seemingly minor character Hakim (Fares Fares), a CIA Special Activities Division officer and translator. He seems to be a native Pakistani, able to move fluidly through the streets and converse with the locals. At one tense moment, Hakim diffuses an impasse by talking with some motorcycle thugs bullying a surveillance van, convincing them to shoulder their guns and let the American interlopers pass. Through discourse, that is, entering into an ethical relation with speech and the face, violence was avoided.


During the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, after the neighborhood becomes aware of the event, Hakim tries to calm the growing mob outside the enclave. He shouts from his megaphone using their language, but the faceless crowd does not capitulate. The tension builds and Hakim finally shouts, in English (which means that the statement is more meant for us to hear), “Stop! Or they will kill you!” At this moment, there is a shift in the relationship between Hakim and the faceless mob. He no longer commands them or translates orders—he addresses them personally, speaks to them, implores them, as brothers, as faces, as human beings. He must do this to avoid the impending violence. There is no way to “know” what exactly is going on in Hakim’s heart and head. To know is not important. Something changes in his ethical core—we see it in his face.


Hakim then must retrieve a body bag from the downed Blackhawk, which he delivers to the third floor. He is forced to witness a macabre parade of death. He asks, “Who is the body bag for?” “Take it to the third floor,” he is commanded. Like a sacred Nothing, the name cannot even be uttered. The SEAL who fired the shot stammers: “I shot the third floor guy.” We never see bin Laden’s face, it is only implied by a beard; we only catch oblique glimpses of this evil through a camera as a soldier takes pictures of the corpse.3


“Depiction is not endorsement.”

Matt Taibbi comes down hard against the pro-torture depiction in the film. He writes that bin Laden “has to be laughing from the afterlife” and that any movie that Dick Cheney might enjoy ought to be a movie about which we are all suspicious. Director Kathryn Bigelow’s defense in the Los Angeles Times that “depiction is not endorsement” is hogwash (Taibbi uses a different word)  because there is no way to play the “objectivity” card: as a director, subjective editorial decisions are always made that shape the way the story is told. Though no one cheered at the end of the movie when I watched it as they did when Taibbi did, in my various conversations about the film afterward, there were many who went strictly to see the raid and assassination, and their (infuriating) response to the film reduced it to a conspiracy: “How can you be sure that they didn’t kill bin Laden’s body double?”


I agree with Taibbi that Bigelow’s movie should always be viewed alongside another important film about torture: Taxi to the Dark Side, the 2007 documentary about the death of an innocent taxi driver, which sheds light on American torture practices in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Moreover, important events and facts4 about the hunt for Osama bin Laden left out of Zero Dark Thirty not only provide meaningful context, but help us to make our final judgments about the supposed effectiveness of torture. And the fact that the film is beautiful (which it is), does not mean that we should give it a pass on some of the underlying moral or propagandistic aspects. There was another director who made unquestionably beautiful films that are also morally horrifying: Leni Riefenstahl.


“Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Most importantly, Zero Dark Thirty raises questions about our responsibilities, as humans, to each other. The question of familial responsibility runs deep in the histories of all people, no matter to which religious or ethnic groups we are aligned or assigned. The primacy of this ethical relation can be seen in the earliest mythologies of murder. All of the Abrahamic traditions trace the first act of violence to the murder of Abel by Cain. Abel, a herdsman, and Cain, a farmer, make offerings to God. God rejects Cain’s offer and accepts Abel’s. Cain kills his brother; the motive remains cryptic. In the Judeo-Christian5 version, God asks Cain about Abel’s whereabouts. The famous reply: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God curses Cain: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”


The curse is not only agricultural, but ethical. The “ground” is the ethical relation between faces, between brothers. Cain’s curse is not that his fruits will not come forth from the earth, but that he remains restless because there is now no “ground” for ethics, no possibility for relation, no face for him to encounter, both the face of his br(other) and the face of God. The harm is not that God’s law was undermined, but rather the very possibility of that wholly human domain, ethics, is ruined. God may as well have said, “Damned fool! You are impossible without your brother!” Cain’s murder of Abel was not merely a transgression of a moral decree, it was an ethical truth.


For Muslims, Abel was the first martyr. The story of the “two sons of Adam” has some interesting additions in the Quran.6 After the rejected sacrifice, Abel pleas to his brother, warning: "If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds.” Cain does not listen to his brother’s warning and, in and through the slaying of his brother, becomes one of the “lost ones.” Allah then sends down a raven, which scratches the ground. Cain laments, becoming “full of regrets:” “Woe is me! Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?”


Only after the negation of his brother’s face does Cain come to realize that it is also a negation of his own face, his own humanity, and his punishment is an exile from the “Kingdom of Faces” whereby he is truly alone, lost, a restless wanderer. For Levinas, when a human face calls out to me, I can only respond, like Abraham to God, with the words: “Here I am….” But it is precisely in and through that response that “response ability”—the “I” of “Here I am”—makes sense. Only in this response does my own subjectivity, my own moral standing, my own freedom become possible. Levinas writes, “The human face is different, speaks out and speaks to me without words, ‘Look at me, I am a human being much like yourself. Respect me as you would want to be respected.’” The face of the Other is the face of my br(other). The face of the other is the face of God toward which we must respond: “Here I am.” If the religious language is off-putting, the face is understood as that which radiates infinity, expresses our freedom, and makes possible our existence at all. “Thou shalt not kill.”


Whatever might be concluded or questioned after watching Zero Dark Thirty—about torture, murder, war, revenge, justice, love, peace—it is toward the face of the Other that we must begin and return. It is the face of the Other that calls us, to use Simon Critchley’s term, the “infinite demand” of ethics, responsibility, and freedom. The radical Other summons us into ethical relation, makes us human. To turn away from the face of the Other, to ignore it, to destroy it, is to destroy our own.


Apropos, Zero Dark Thirty ends with a face: an overwhelmed, crying face, a face that is utterly alone. Perhaps those tears are simply Maya’s wholly personal existential fear: “Now what?” But in those tears are refracted thousands of faces. The victims of 9/11 had a face. The dead children lying as collateral damage from a suicide bomber attack or a Predator drone strike had a face. The soldiers that died (and are dying) in the “War on Terror” had a face. And yes, Osama bin Laden, too, had a face.



  • 1. All references to Levinas taken from: Emmanuel Levinas. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Duquesne University Press, 1969).
  • 2. There are more nuanced accounts of consequentialism. Cesare Beccaria, one of the first utilitarians, was the first to systematically argue against torture precisely for consequentialist reasons. The irony is that one can argue against torture on wholly consequentialist grounds: if the end is information or safety, there are more effective ways of achieving this than torture.
  • 3. For Levinas, a “face” can be a beard, the small of a back, a flash of a person passing in the corner of our eye.
  • 4. For example, “the CIA did not obtain its first clues about the identity of bin Laden's courier from ‘CIA detainees subjected to coercive interrogation techniques.’” See Alex Gibney’s article in the Huffington Post (Dec. 12, 2012).
  • 5. Both Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. In the Bible, their story unfolds in the book of Genesis.
  • 6. In the Quran, the tale occurs in The Story of the Two Sons of Adam.
Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics, Human Rights, Morality, Osama bin Laden, Philosophy, Torture