May I Have the Waterboard Please...

Neither waterboards, nor Zero Dark Thirty, which won but ½ an Oscar for sound editing, received much attention at last night's Academy Awards. Perhaps the better films won or it was luck of the draw. Perhaps, as British commentator Glenn Greenwald said "The stigma attached to the pro-torture CIA propaganda vehicle, beloved by film critics result(ed) in Oscar humiliation."

I appreciate such indignation, as well as that by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein and other elected officials who asserted Zero Dark Thirty presents a distorted, inaccurate view about torture's effectiveness and its role in finding Osama Bin Laden. But if the record is to be set straight, the responsibility lies with our elected officials -- not with Hollywood.

Of paramount concern is whether or not the recently completed Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA detention and interrogation program during the Bush-Cheney administration is released. Lest we forget, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie and a dramatization. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report is a historical record and likely the most comprehensive accounting of what actually happened. Zero Dark Thirty is and will continue to be widely viewed by the public. The Senate Intelligence Committee report risks being hidden from public view.

As a physician who cares for torture victims from over 90 countries, Zero Dark Thirty reminds me of the power and potential peril when art imitates life. The film captures how easy it is to torture and to morally disengage in the name and illusion of national security. Actress Jennifer Chaistin's CIA agent character, intent on finding Osama Bin Laden, quickly overcomes her revulsion for the torture she witnesses and becomes a willing participant.

Yet the film's torture scenes, albeit graphic, don't begin to capture the brutality of torture, nor how devastating its health consequences are. Each day, my colleagues and I at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture help rebuild the lives of refugees persecuted because of their political beliefs, religion, race, or sexual orientation. The scars we see and the persistent terror and hopelessness we hear remind us how torture dehumanizes, traumatizes, and causes lasting physical, emotional, and social sequelae to both the victim and the community.

I fear little currently stands in the way of preventing U.S. torture from happening again. Executive orders, such as the one prohibiting torture signed by President Obama shortly after he took office, can be overturned by subsequent administrations. Case in point: The back and forth permitting or prohibiting stem cell research. President Obama emphasized we need to "turn the page" on the abuses committed under the Bush administration. But as Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy so aptly states, "We can't turn the page unless we first read the page."

Publicly releasing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's report is crucial to understanding and preventing future U.S. torture. If not, then our political leaders in Washington, D.C. have only themselves to blame for the fact that the primary narrative in the public domain about U.S. torture is a Hollywood dramatization, which ends with a qualifying statement that some of the events and characters are fiction.