Back to the Dark Chamber

Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, and Waiting for the Barbarians


Today it’s been exactly two years since Osama Bin Laden was killed. The date has, unsurprisingly, gotten me thinking about Zero Dark Thirty again. The film was released on DVD last month. Presumably it’s now crowding Best Buy shelves and the “shopping carts” of countless Amazon accounts, promising the chance to relive the moment of supreme discomfort that occurred when we were all in the theater this winter, crunching popcorn happily through the previews, only to be suddenly confronted with the screams of 9/11 audio that open the film. As you know, the moral queasiness of Zero Dark only intensifies from there, the torture scenes in particular drawing much critical attention (“Did they, or did they not suggest that ‘enhanced interrogation’ directly led to the killing of Bin Laden?” etc.). By this point, the depiction of these acts has been debated and counter-debated and counter-counter-debated. However, for anyone who—like me—still can’t stop thinking about it, I have a recommendation.

No novel better wrestles with the ramifications of torture—and its “usefulness” to national security—than Waiting for the Barbarians by South African Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee. Set in an imaginary desert colony named simply “the frontier,” Waiting for the Barbarians follows a local official as he deals with the Third Bureau, an agency tasked with protecting a vast nation called “the Empire.” The book makes it clear early on that its story functions as an allegory for the nature of imperialism. As the plot unfolds, the Third Bureau begins to suspect that “the barbarians” (a.k.a. natives of the frontier) are plotting to destroy the Empire. Throughout the novel the Third Bureau aims to crush an imminent barbarian attack, which it suspects may happen at any moment. But the Bureau has no evidence, except for the torture-induced confessions of a few barbarians.

Published in 1980, the book originally intended to comment on South Africa during the ’70s, focusing on white anxiety about native African resistance to apartheid. Coetzee’s novel is particularly linked to a spate of incidents where police tortured anti-apartheid leaders suspected of plotting against the government. This torture was an effort to force them to inform on their collaborators, who may or may not have existed, and it often resulted in detainees being beaten or starved to death. Later, the authorities would publicly assert that these deaths were suicides, unfortunate accidents, or the result of detainees refusing to break their hunger strikes.

Although the novel was published 30 years earlier, it’s uncanny how much Waiting for the Barbarians resembles the American War on Terror—and by extension Zero Dark Thirty. In a number of ways, Bigelow’s CIA is a dead ringer for Coetzee’s Third Bureau. For each, torture is their go-to method. But the similarities go further. Both agencies appear to be obsessively—almost robotically—bent on the goal of protecting their homeland. Watching the single-minded Maya and her CIA expend unfathomable resources as they churn their way toward Bin Laden, I couldn’t help but recall these lines from Barbarians: “One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere.” Well, in Zero Dark Thirty “its bloodhounds” are helicopters full of Navy SEALS. But you get what I mean.

Yet despite so many similarities, the works have key differences. In Bigelow’s film, we see the world—sympathetically—through the eyes of the torturers. We are meant to wonder: is there an instance when torture is justified? Or is the simple motivation to do justice enough for us to forgive the CIA’s dehumanizing actions? Bigelow wants us to feel unsure in the end. Conversely, Coetzee paints the Third Bureau as little more than paranoiacs wielding too much power for no good at all. Repeatedly, the information the Third Bureau gains through torture is completely fabricated. The torturers seem like fools for failing to realize that their victims simply tell them whatever they wish to hear in order to escape cruel treatment. This, it seems, is the view that Bigelow’s critics have adopted, pointing out that “enhanced interrogations” have produced Coetzee-like results in real life.

After Hitler, every person featured in Time Magazine's "red X" cover design has been an Arab: Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Osama Bin Laden.

After Hitler, every person featured in Time Magazine’s “red X” cover design has been an Arab: Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Osama Bin Laden.

In 1986, Coetzee spoke at length about the artist’s challenge when depicting torture in a New York Times Book Review article called “Into the Dark Chamber.” On one hand, it is immoral for the artist to simply ignore torture, allowing it to continue without confrontation. On the other hand, describing torture in detail runs the risk of turning it into a form of lurid entertainment. Coetzee refers to this as “a questionable dark lyricism,” a depiction of torture that—perhaps subconsciously—derives pleasure from violence. Faced with this conundrum, Coetzee seeks out a “middle way” between these two extremes. As he says:

For the writer the deeper problem is not to allow himself to be impaled on the dilemma proposed by the state, namely, either to ignore its obscenities or else to produce representations of them. The true challenge is how not to play the game by the rules of the state, how to establish one’s own authority, how to imagine torture and death on one’s own terms.

As a result, Waiting for the Barbarians leaves most of the torture—and especially the more violent torture—off stage. Rather it is the character-based consequences of torture that are given primary dramatization.

Bigelow doesn’t share Coetzee’s sentiment, and instead gives us a dramatic blow-by-blow representation of CIA interrogations. Bigelow claims this is an attempt to represent the search for Bin Laden without agenda, an effort to portray all aspects no matter how ugly or inconvenient. In so doing, she’s avoided the issue of “ignoring the state’s obscenities.” But what would Coetzee say? If someone got this notoriously hermetic man on the phone, would he say that Zero Dark’s shocking images lack moral center? That they are nothing more than a “questionable dark lyricism?”

One thing Coetzee and Bigelow agree on, though, is what precipitated this violence in the first place: hysterical fear. In Bigelow’s film there’s no better demonstration than the fact that 9/11 screams fade directly into the first scene of torture, creating a causal link between them. In Coetzee, too, fear is the energy source of the Empire: “By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cities, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.” For Americans, the image of disaster that has fed our military-industrial complex so long is easy to conjure. It is plumes of smoke ascending from the twin towers.

Ultimately, the Empire collapses because of its own bad choices. Anxiously searching for a non-existent barbarian threat, the Empire overextends itself, shattering its once functional society. Reading the book now, it’s impossible not to think of the War on Terror’s ill-prepared offshoot, the Iraq War. It is only after tremendous expense and countless deaths that we learn our fears are entirely ungrounded, leaving us to await barbarian attack forever. If the war were rewritten as a Coetzee novel, it would be called Waiting for the WMDs.

If only Coetzee’s novel matched all the facts of recent history. I’d love nothing more than to discover that everything we fear exists only in our minds. However, that’s impossible given the facts of 9/11, attacks around the globe, and—most recently—the Boston Marathon bombing.

Instead we are left to contemplate the sorrowful realities of terrorism. How, we are forced to ask, should this horror be managed? And do we have enough grounds to justify the heightened way we respond to it? Can we expect more wars in the decade ahead? More torture? More events like the protracted, aggrieved hunt for Bin Laden? One senator has gone so far as to suggest that enhanced interrogation should be used on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The possibility of this happening is doubtful. But perhaps—if fear eventually runs high enough—a day will come when torture insinuates itself into the fabric of American life. It has happened elsewhere.

In any case, it seems the time to read Waiting for the Barbarians has come around again. I implore you: Read (or reread) immediately.

Cam Terwilliger’s stories have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Mid-American Review, Post Road, West Branch, and Narrative, where he was selected as one of the magazine’s “15 Under 30.” His writing has also been supported by scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the American Antiquarian Society. He teaches at Louisiana State University.

1 Comment

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One Response to Back to the Dark Chamber

  1. Henk

    A great article and some thought provoking questions.
    Will we learn from history?

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