Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Mysterious President George Wong Bu$h
After weeks of tortuous debate about torture, U.S. President George W. Bush backed down and accepted congressional demands to prohibit "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment" of anyone in U.S. custody earlier this month.
For now, those who would ban torture as both evil and unreliable have won the day against those who believe it can be a necessary act mandated by a ticking clock.
Regardless of the resolution in Washington, however, America's cultural consensus on torture was decided a long time ago. The verdict: It works.
For almost 40 years — beginning, ironically enough, with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda decision protecting the Fifth Amendment rights of criminal suspects — TV shows and movies have been filled with images of torture, ranging from seriously horrific to offhandedly funny.
Torture has become a casual, inextricable part of certain genres (cop dramas, suspense thrillers, horror films, spy pictures, macho action epics).
It's an element in the storyteller's tool kit, along with car chases and comic misunderstandings.
And despite cultural critics' strained efforts to make the entertainment industry's depiction of torture seem tangled and ambivalent (for instance, a recent article in The Nation analyzing torture in terms of "intimacy" and "isolation''), it's actually quite simple.
On TV and in movies, when bad guys torture, torture is bad, and when good guys torture, it's good.
Furthermore, when good guys torture, it results in usable information, but when bad guys torture, it results in strategic lies or macho insults. (Sylvester Stallone to the Russian commandos who electrified him in Rambo: "F- you.'')
In the 1987 film The Untouchables, Sean Connery's gruff street cop gets a laugh and a cheer when he terrorizes a smart-mouthed gangster into spilling his guts by shooting the corpse of a man the gangster believed was still alive. On 12 seasons of NYPD Blue, Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) and his partners and colleagues beat countless suspected perps without ever eliciting a false confession.
The original Lethal Weapon ends with detectives Riggs and Murtaugh (Mel Gibson and Danny Glover) surviving savage torture at the hands of heroin dealers. The cops break free and kill the torturers, and the audience is encouraged to whoop with righteous joy, yet in the movie's sequels, the detectives casually abuse helpless civilians — pinching a nerdy drug accountant's injured nose, jokingly threatening to shoot a jaywalker — and we're encouraged to chuckle and shrug.
It's hardly shocking that the recent political discussion was framed by talk of police and military responsibility to protect the public, and fears of a ticking bomb.
With rare exceptions — the art house picture Closet Land, for instance, or the Broadway-drama-turned-movie Death and the Maiden, or Quentin Tarantino's movies, which depict torture as pointless sadism — good guys are almost never wrong, and the tick-tock scenario is the only one in which torture ever gets presented.
On the small screen, you occasionally see ambivalent or negative depictions of torture — notably on Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, where human survivors of intergalactic genocide torture androids-in-disguise who have tried to infiltrate their ranks.
But for the most part, filmmakers hew to the "Good-guy torture is good, bad-guy torture is bad" equation. And they make sure to frame the act as a response to dire circumstances, rather than an attempt to intimidate political opponents or inflict pain for pain's sake (categories that account for the majority of torture cases reported to Amnesty International).
The tick-tock scenario drives Fox's hit terrorism series 24, as well as ABC's Alias (which has showcased waterboarding, electrification and other torture techniques) and most theatrical cop films and action movies (particularly the James Bond pictures and their imitators).
On 24, about a federal counterterrorism unit, there's always a bomb about to go off or a plague about to be released, and lone wolf antihero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) must resort to extreme measures to get the information America needs.
Over the years, Jack has pursued justice by threatening to execute a terrorism conspirator's child, zapping a prisoner with a homemade defibrillator made from a lamp cord, inflicting savage beatings and promising (and sometimes committing) on-the-spot executions. And that's just the short list. Jack's improvisations rarely produce bad data, and often result in the narrative equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.
Pop culture's depiction of torture as a solution to crises and a natural aspect of police and military life reframes an ugly reality in clean, comic-book terms. Sen. John McCain, (R.-Ariz.), who as a POW in Vietnam experienced what most of his political opponents have only seen in movies, is on record saying that the ticking time-bomb scenario almost never happens in real life, and that when it does, torture doesn't work, because prisoners will say anything to make the pain stop.
(McCain, not surprisingly, has been the driving force behind congressional efforts to ban torture.)
McCain's jailers once asked him to name the members of his unit, and he responded by reciting the starting lineup of the Green Bay Packers. According to McCain's biography, Faith of Our Fathers, his captors threatened to withhold needed medical treatment and then beat him until he confirmed his ship's name, his squadron number and their target; McCain has noted that because so much time had elapsed in captivity, the information was "was of no real use to the Vietnamese," but that hasn't stopped White House partisans from citing the incident as proof that torture works.
We shouldn't be surprised that many people believe that torture works, and that good people can torture without becoming evil, because pop culture keeps telling us it's true.
But perhaps we should have been surprised when McCain and his allies insisted the White House's argument for torture amounted to an official rejection of American values. Anyone who watches movies and TV knows it wasn't a rejection, but an embrace.
NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE