Torture and the mask of moral ambiguity

Actress Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Zero Dark Thirty"
Actress Jessica Chastain in a scene from "Zero Dark Thirty"
Jonathan Olley/Columbia Pictures/AP Photo

Torture is “difficult.” That’s evidently the view of Jon Stewart, who on Wednesday used the word to euphemistically allude to Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes. He’s not the only one who feels that way, either: Any number of critics have praised the film for being “morally complicated” or “a morally ambiguous movie about a morally ambiguous subject.”

Let’s put aside, for a moment, the question of whether Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture is all that complicated. More important is the language that we use to describe actual torture: Complicated. Difficult. Morally ambiguous.

Note that one rarely, if ever, hears opponents of torture describe the issue as complicated. For them, it’s actually pretty simple. Phrases like “complicated” only come up when the speaker is conceding that there are situations where torturing someone might be the right thing to do. By calling that question “difficult,” one actually answers it.

So to call torture a complicated issue is to implicitly adopt the pro-torture position. But by hedging the issue and not endorsing torture outright, the speaker also satisfies a psychological requirement: He alerts you to the fact that he struggles with the issue internally, because he is disgusted by the idea of torture. He is reminding you, in other words, that he is still a good person.

There’s something more than a little self-aggrandizing about such a posture. If the decision to support torture is “difficult,” then it must require a certain amount of moral courage and sophistication. To say the issue is morally complicated is not only to take a position, but to pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to do so.

But in fact, those who take this position aren’t making some concession to reality or steering a moderate course between the anti-torture and pro-torture extremists. Instead, they’re buying wholesale into the pro-torture fantasy of the “difficult decision”—the illusion that torture is a heroic act not only because it saves lives, but because it requires the moral courage to commit ethically ambiguous acts.

Of course, there’s nothing courageous about concealing one’s support for torture. Nor is there anything particularly brave about saying the state should be able to do unspeakable things in order to keep you safe. Excusing and even fetishizing those unspeakable things is an act of cowardice—and there’s nothing particularly complicated about that.