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Torture scenes from the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

Recently released movie Zero Dark Thirty has sparked speculation and criticism amongst many circles for its particular portrayal of the use of torture (in the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden). The movie shows a captive, “Ammar,” being physically, psychologically, sexually, religiously, and culturally humiliated and tortured, specifically being struck, yelled at, deprived of sleep, food, water, and light, put in stress positions for long periods of time, placed in confined spaces, waterboarded, exposed to music torture for long periods of time, forced to be naked (in front of a female), and put on a dog leash and “walked.”

The character of “Ammar” in Zero Dark Thirty seems to be based mainly on Guantanamo Bay detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani (pictured below), a (at the time of his capture) 23 year old Saudi man accused of being the 20th 9/11 hijacker.


Al-Qahtani underwent a gruesome, 49-day procedure approved by the US Government of physical, psychological, sexual, cultural, and religious torture and humiliation at the hands of the US Military and the CIA in an attempt to “make him talk.”

For 20 hours per day for 49 consecutive days, al-Qahtani was repeatedly physically assaulted, sexually molested by a female, strip searched for “control purposes” (as opposed to security purposes), denied the right to use the toilet and hence urinated and defecated on himself, strapped to a hard metal chair which caused him pain and discomfort, forcibly given an enema, forced to wear female lingerie, forced to be nude, forced to dance with his male interrogator, deprived of sleep, food, and water, exposed to bright lights for months on end, tortured with loud music for long periods of time, exposed to extreme temperatures to the point that he became hypothermic, forcibly straddled and felt up by a female interrogator, forced to watch as an interrogator squatted over a Qur’aan (as if he was defecating on it), woken up by screaming and barking of dogs and other loud noises, punished for falling asleep by having cold water poured over his head, prevented from praying, forced to eat during Ramadhaan, forced to listen to interrogators call his mother and sisters “whores” and threaten his family members, forced to pick up trash with his hands cuffed while being called a pig, repeatedly told that no one cares for him and that the rats in the island are more cared for than he is, placed in tight restraints for long periods of time, deceived into thinking that he is being held in another country, forcibly given IVs, yelled at, chained in stress positions for hours on end, hooded for hours on end, taken to a shrine to Bin Laden and told that Bin Laden was his god and he could only pray to him, forced to look at pornographic content, made to watch puppet shows of himself having sex with men, called a homosexual repeatedly, verbally abused and taunted, put on a dog collar and “taught lessons such as stay, come, and bark to elevate his social status up to that of a dog,” (p. 47), had his beard and hair forcibly shaved, had his phobia (dogs) used against him to induce stress in him, and was threatened with further torture.

Some of these techniques were also used against detainees in Abu Ghraib (relatively less graphic photos shown below):






Additionally, al-Qahtani was held in isolation for six months.

When al-Qahtani would break down into sobs of pain, anguish, despair, and/or sheer frustration, pleading his interrogators to stop torturing him, his interrogators would yell at him “to prevent him from crying in order to prevent him having an emotional release” (p. 68).  On the  15th day of the 49-day long ordeal, the combined effects of isolation, sleep deprivation, music torture, extreme cold, sensory deprivation, stress positions, sexual assault and various other torture and humiliation methods proved to take their toll on al-Qahtani’s body and mind as his heart rate slowed down to 35 bpm, almost causing him brain damage. The decision was then made to rush him to the hospital in an ambulance to be revived, yet his interrogators continued to interrogate the almost unconscious detainee in the ambulance on the trip to the hospital. Throughout the ordeal, he was repeatedly driven to the brink of death and/or mental exhaustion but was always revived to bear more. The stress positions he was put in for hours on end, such as standing or being short shackled to the floor, caused him blood circulation problems and his limbs to swell. Additionally, al-Qahtani would break down and sob loudly and uncontrollably immediately after being sexually molested (on an almost daily basis), upon which his interrogators would taunt him and ask him what his mother would think of him if she could see him now (getting sexually molested). He became so mentally exhausted throughout the ordeal that he believed himself to be possessed. By the end of the ordeal, al-Qahtani’s weight had fallen from 160 pounds (72 kgs) to 100 pounds (45 kgs).

Several FBI agents who observed al-Qahtani’s treatment filed complaints  that CIA and military interrogators were exposing a detainee (later identified as Mohammed al-Qahtani) in Guantanamo Bay to “abusive and illegal behaviour”. Released in an FBI memo, the complaints of the agents included, “… Detainee chained hand and foot in a foetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water… urinated and defecated on himself… had been left there for 18 hours or more,” “… The air conditioning had been turned down so far… that the barefooted detainee was shaking with the cold,” “… the A/C had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room probably well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his own hair out through the night.” 

Al-Qahtani has retracted all of the statements he made under torture, claiming that the intense torture he underwent made him lie. His lawyer Gitanjali S. Gutierrez stated that “al-Qahtani today appears to be a broken man, fearful and at times disoriented — someone who has painfully described how he could not endure the months of isolation, torture and abuse, during which he was nearly killed, before making false statements to please his interrogators.”  Scott Horton explains this in Taxi To The Dark Side: “Someone who is tortured will tell his interrogator what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear” in order to make them stop the torture.

The convening legal authority of the Guantanamo military commissions, Susan J. Crawford, decided to dismiss all charges against al-Qahtani after reviewing his interrogation log and concluding that he had indeed been tortured. Al Qahtani’s defence team as well as several Pentagon officials and military interrogators believe that the torture he underwent at the hands of the United States prevents “him from ever being put on trial” and prosecuted.

The movie Zero Dark Thirty is hence critiqued as “it glorifies torture: because it powerfully depicts it as a vital step - the first, indispensable step - in what enabled the US to hunt down and pump bullets into America’s most hated public enemy,” when the reality is far from this. Senators who complained about the movie claimed a review of “six million pages of intelligence records indicated that no useful intelligence had been gathered through the use of torture,” rather, they had been provided with “misleading disinformation” from all the detainees they had tortured. “Acting CIA Director Michael J. Morell echoed that sentiment, saying it “creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques that were part of our former detention and interrogation program were the key to finding bin Laden. That impression is false.”

The movie propagates the necessity of torture and is bound to influence its viewers to adopt this view.  Emily Bazelon’s article concerning the movie seems to confirm this, as she claims,

“At the end of the interrogation scenes, I felt shaken but not morally repulsed, because the movie had successfully led me to adopt, if only temporarily, [the CIA agent]’s point of view: This treatment is a legitimate way of securing information vital to US interests.”

This type of portrayal in movies and shows has built “a constituency for torture”  which allows the US Government to constantly and repeatedly “get away with the way it twists laws, and treaties (concerning torture) and doesn’t spark popular outrage,” as explained by Professor Alfred McCoy in Taxi To The Dark Side.

The problem with Zero Dark Thirty is hence not with portraying the torture of detainees, as to do otherwise would be to sugarcoat and downplay the use of torture by the United States, but with glorifying torture and propagating it as a necessity (for the security of the United States).

Mohammed al-Qahtani is currently being held in Guantanamo Bay with no official charges pressed against him for an 11th year of detainment (without charge).

My mind just went blank at this. 




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