When the unclassified report on the CIA’s post-9/11 torture program was released to the public in December 2014, there were two contradictory narratives: one that the practice of torture was an aberration and a stain on the United States’ history, and the other that the CIA’s conduct was perfectly in line with its violent history.
If you saw the recently released film The Report, which stars Adam Driver and Annette Bening, you’d be inclined to think the former. In less than two hours, the film nearly opens and closes this “chapter” in US history, burying it away like other violent policies and helping to preserve the nation as a beacon of human rights.
The Report is based on the true story of Dan Jones, the lead investigator on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report, who worked tirelessly under the leadership of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to piece together and document the CIA’s rendition, detention, and interrogation program, which ran from 2002 to 2008. The film contains many important insights into the background and context of the torture report and how it was eventually produced.
But the intended audience of the film seems to be those looking for a white savior movie that takes US torture after 9/11 as an exception, not a rule, in the history of the United States. To this end, the US’s brutal history of state violence, whether by the CIA or other institutions, is left unquestioned while the film de-centers the US’s many victims — who in this case, are all Muslim.
One of the first introductions to Muslim characters is in a scene depicting Abu Zubaydah, who was the first person captured after 9/11 and who was said to be a key al-Qaeda operative. Almost immediately after Zubaydah is taken off the plane, FBI agent Ali Soufan greets him on the tarmac.
Later, a disheveled, distraught, and clearly injured Zubaydah is transferred to a facility to receive medical attention while strapped to a gurney. Epitomizing the caricature of a Muslim terrorist that the US has drawn, Zubaydah’s appearance in this scene brings a set of visual cues that dehumanize him. These cues also preemptively sanction the legitimacy of abuse for those who are bystanders, whether the CIA torturers in the room or the audience behind the screen. Unlike the portrayal of Jones, not once does the camera invite the viewer to get inside Zubaydah’s skin and truly empathize with or identify with him. This initial scene with Zubaydah also does little to prepare the viewer for later scenes of torture that follow.
Though Zubaydah has serious injuries, Soufan begins probing him while building rapport and assuring him that he will receive medical care. This stands in contrast to the scenes of the CIA’s “interrogation,” a.k.a. torture — showing that the FBI operates as an agency with clearly humane standards. But anyone from a group that has been targeted by the FBI, including Muslims and Black civil rights activists, can see through this false dichotomy between the good versus bad guy. Consider Cointelpro, an FBI operation that involved massive surveillance of the Black Panthers and other political movements, as well as psychological warfare and divide-and-conquer strategies that eventually destroyed Black resistance in the 1950s and ’60s.
In an interview with Vox, Scott Z. Burns, the film’s director, explains his belief that showing torture scenes was necessary for people to understand what was done in the name of Americans, even if it made some people uncomfortable. Under this logic, then, the audience wouldn’t believe what happened in these secret, offshore black sites were actually all that bad unless they were confronted with graphic scenes of violence against Muslim men, including walling, waterboarding, and short shackling.
These violent scenes become a spectacle, a ploy for the predominantly white and non-Muslim gaze to interrogate purported national ideals of the country’s refrain from torture and other human rights abuses. Even with the purpose of showing the brutality of the CIA’s torture methods, the consequence is that those who were tortured are stripped of any agency again.
For me, viewing these scenes was not just uncomfortable, it was traumatizing. They were a reminder of the humiliation, degradation, and abuse that have been sanctioned toward Muslims post-9/11 and of the fact that proof is still needed to substantiate the facts of their torture. Moreover, this film reiterated the reality that many of the torture tactics used on CIA prisoners used specific understanding of Islamic religious practices to make the violence more dehumanizing, such as showing prisoners naked in stress position and shaving a prisoner’s beard. And yet the identities of the prisoners as Muslim is otherwise mostly omitted.
The film ultimately seeks to rectify the wrongs of the CIA, with accountability limited to restoring and reconciling the agency’s crimes with an image America based on the rule of law, oversight, and transparency. Meanwhile, those directly victimized by the CIA’s violence are rendered completely invisible.
Though the film can be considered an achievement for reaching audiences previously unaware of this era of the war on terror, it unfortunately paints a picture of a United States where torture and the abuses of the CIA are an anomaly in the history of the United States. Many watching the film may feel satisfied with the film’s ending, in which a heavily redacted summary of the report is released and the US acknowledges its mistakes.
But as a Muslim viewer who recognizes the harm that has befallen Muslims in the war on terror, I felt a deep sense of sadness. Many prisoners who were tortured and murdered by the CIA’s program will never find justice. Perhaps one day, the US’s “reckoning” of its violence will include victims and a critical analysis of the institutions whose sole existence is to promote and conduct state violence.
Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia in the war on terror with her research and advocacy against Islamophobia spanning more than a decade. She is the co-director of Justice for Muslims Collective, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, and a Council Member of the School of the Americas Watch. Hilal received her PhD from American University in justice, law, and society.