Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Torture:  Banned by the Media

This makes me sick at heart. From Scott Horton's article in Harpers on Torture:

In the last eighteen months, Antonin Scalia, one of the most influential judges in American history, has twice suggested that he would turn to a fictional television character named Jack Bauer to resolve legal questions about torture. The first time was in a speech in Canada, and the second, only three weeks ago, in an interview with the BBC. This is evidence of the unprecedented influence of a television program on one of the most important legal policy issues before our country today. And it is, or should be, very troubling. [...]

I discovered that when I gave interviews to major media on this subject, any time I used the word “torture” with reference to these techniques, the interview passage would not be used. At one point I was informed by a cable news network that “we put this on international, because we can’t use that word on the domestic feed.” “That word” was torture. I was coached or told that the words “coercive interrogation technique” were fine, but “torture” was a red light. Why? The Administration objected vehemently to the use of this word. After all, President Bush has gone before the cameras and stated more than three dozen times “We do not torture.” By using the T-word, I was told, I was challenging the honesty of the president. You just couldn’t do that.

In early 2005, I took a bit of time to go through one newspaper—The New York Times—to examine its use of the word “torture”. I found that the word “torture” was regularly used to described a neighbor who played his stereo too loud, or some similar minor nuisance. Also the word “torture” could be used routinely to describe techniques used by foreign powers which were hostile to the United States. But the style rule seemed very clear: it could not be used in reporting associated with anything the Bush Administration was doing. [...]

But something happened beginning in 2002 which was a bit surprising, and that was the fairly dramatic transformation of the way in which torture was addressed by Hollywood. I will be generalizing here, and there are exceptions to every statement, but I will focus on one single program: Fox’s “24,” which takes an easy first place in this process—if offers 67 torture scenes in the first five seasons—so it is responsible for a large part of the total number of incidents shown here.

Whereas before, torture was the “tool of the enemy,” now torture is the tool of Jack Bauer. Its use is a heroic act of defiance, often of petty bureaucratic limitations, or of conceited liberals whose personal conscience means more to them than the safety of their fellow citizens. While Bauer is presented as an ultimate heroic figure (and also a figure with some heroic flaws), those who challenge use of the rough stuff are naïve, and their presence and involvement in the national security process is threatening. We see a liberal who defends a Middle Eastern neighbor then under suspicion, and who winds up being killed because the neighbor is in fact a terrorist.

We’re looking at a Hollywood specialty: a “reality” show which is divorced from reality. It grossly simplifies necessarily complex facts, and it pares away critical factors which a responsible citizen should be thinking about. But more importantly, perhaps, it is a head-on attack on morality and ethics. The critics of torture are shallow figures, self-serving politicians—vain, arrogant, indifferent to the harm they are doing to society. But in fact the arguments against torture are profound and informed by centuries of human experience and religious doctrine. Torture has in the course of the last two hundred years emerged as an intrinsic evil in Christian teaching; the teaching of most churches—protestant, Catholic, Evangelical—rejects the idea that a state can ever legitimately employ torture.

Key to “24’s” success is the ticking bomb scenario—indeed you hear it with all the introductions, breaks and trailers—the seconds ticking off. The myth of the ticking bomb is the core of the program. Torture always works. Torture always saves the day. Torture is the ultimate act of heroism, of defiance of pointy-headed liberal morality in favor of service to the greater good, to society.

We should start with a frank question: has “24” been created with an overtly political agenda, namely, to create a more receptive public audience for the Bush Administration’s torture policies? I think the answer to that question is now very clear. The answer is “yes.” In “Whatever It Takes,” Jane Mayer has waded through the sheaf of contacts between the show’s producer, Joel Surnow, and Vice President Cheney and figures right around him. There is little ambiguity about this point, namely, if the torture system introduced after 9/11 can be traced back to a single person, it is Vice President Cheney. He pushed relentlessly for use of the tools of the “dark side,” and he ruthlessly took out everyone who stood in his way. He also worked feverishly to disguise or cloak his intimate involvement in the entire process.

What's sickens me is that people have allowed their values of life and standards of human dignity to be so twisted as to condone torture. There is no moral or ethical argument in favor of torture that has any value whatsoever. Bush-Cheney has sold us all out. And packed the Supreme Court to the best of their ability with justices who are equally warped.

There's much more in his article and it's well worth your time. H/T to Andrew Sullivan


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