Zero Dark Thirty, the Absence of Evidence, and the Fear of the Unknown

The September 11 attacks inaugurated a renewed era of containment culture in America. The trauma of 9/11 and the pervasive threat of terrorism engendered a new sense of insecurity and anxiety in the American public which responded by inflating its sense of patriotism and unity against a perceived threat. After 9/11, war was (quasi) declared, the “Patriot” Act invoked to provide for security, and “terrorism” became the ultimate enemy of the American people, to which our indomitable military and diplomatic strength was dutifully and righteously dispensed towards ending.


The movie Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization of the American manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. The movie begins two years after the September 11 attacks and follows Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst, over the next eight years as she gathers intelligence on the al Qaeda network, ultimately culminating in Bin Laden’s execution.

The film reflects containment culture through its insight into the power of perceived threats. In a scene from the movie, a CIA analyst who works alongside Maya, discusses a high level courier in the al Qaeda network, who may or may not exist. When the courier’s existence is called into question, the analyst retorts “we don’t know what we don’t know.” This quote is a hallmark of the “war on terror” and echoes the actual remarks made from then Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who, when questioned about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, said “unknown unknowns – things that we don’t know that we don’t know” are the most threatening to America; in other words, the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence. The US didn’t know with certainty if there were WMDs in Iraq, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t.

This notion of unknown unknowns directly reflects the epistemological characteristics of Containment culture circa 1950-60s, when McCarthyism and perceived (and often irrational) threats of communism captivated the country. While terrorism doesn’t pose (to use Biden’s words) an “existential threat” to national security, it’s the perceived threat of terrorism that creates the sense of anxiety and fear of the “unknown unknown” on the same scale that ICMBs and nuclear weapons did in the 1950s.


2 thoughts on “Zero Dark Thirty, the Absence of Evidence, and the Fear of the Unknown”

  1. The death of Bin Laden allowed many Americans to breathe a sigh of relief, while others predicted a new figure to rise in his place. Ultimately terror was far from dead, as was containment rhetoric. How much did this event change post 9/11 rhetoric moving into the future?


  2. That makes lots of sense, Alex! I think this idea of unknowns as threats definitely reflects the underlying fear and “us vs. them” mindset centered around terrorism. Rather than embracing the gray area of unknowns, it seems that the officials wish to contain everything within the definitions of safe/American and dangerous/terrorist.

    I think it’s also important to note the tagline at the top of the poster, “the greatest manhunt in history.” I feel like this gives it a one-sided undertone, rather than exploring the true motives and intentions behind both sides.


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