America’s torture fascination

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

Since 24 started its sixth season in January, national buzz has descended upon the show’s graphic and frequent portrayal of torture. Special Agent Jack Bauer sticks a knife in a guy’s thigh. Special Agent Jack Bauer breaks some fingers. If Special Agent Jack Bauer has a rough day, then he might end up on the wrong end of the interrogation table; on a good day he gets to bite the villain to death.

Whether you criticize or condone the show’s treatment of torture, know that 24 is not a trendsetter. On the small screen, 24 shares company with everything from The Sopranos (torture in New Jersey) to Battlestar Galactica (torture in space). John Hayes of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote in January that no less than 13 movies currently showing in the Pittsburgh area featured scenes of torture. Letters from Iwo Jima may include scenes of torment as part of its unsparing portrayal of the realities of World War II; The Hitcher, where Sean Bean converts a semi’s trailer and cab into a torture rack on wheels, cannot make the same claim. Even the perpetually lucky James Bond can’t escape. Casino Royale finds him naked, tied to a chair, with his enemies taking out their aggression on James’s privates.

What would happen if we changed James’s British accent to an Iraqi one and put a sack over his head?

It’s a question that lurks, sometimes just out of sight, every time such a scene comes on the air. In politically charged shows like 24, the comparisons between fiction and reality may be overt, but even in horror movies like Saw (so successful that it’s been made into a trilogy) and Hostel, it’s difficult to completely escape the human truth of torture. Torture, unlike most fictional death, is slow and degrading and very much intentional. It’s one human deliberately putting another through excruciating pain and indignity for his own ends. You can sit ringside for a ticket price of $9.75.

In the past several years our national consciousness has been tuned into torture and we’ve become aware of our own role in committing such acts. The words “Abu Ghraib” have become synonymous with national shame. So why did the infamous prison’s exposure correspond with a sudden upswing in the entertainment industry for meat hooks, pliers, and amputated appendages? How can we condemn and consume simultaneously?

In his January article “Films and TV up the ante on graphic torture scenes” for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, John Hayes suggested that our willingness to watch fictionalized torture is a willingness to acknowledge our violent tendencies. I suspect that the reasons are more calculated. The more torture Americans watch in the media, the more they can rationalize and normalize it; the more they can normalize it, the less insidious it becomes when practiced in the real world. Jack Bauer, who often coerces his subjects in order to prevent imminent and catastrophic explosions, could then be seen as the norm rather than the outlier.

When torture happens in the real world, it is rarely to keep such immediate disaster at bay. It is used to intimidate and dehumanize the enemy. And when we pay money to watch movies like Saw, we participate in our own process of dehumanization. The victims of torture are no longer living, breathing people, but playthings. By thinking of them that way we make torture easier to swallow, and when we next see it on CNN or in The New York Times, we can distance ourselves from it a little bit more.

Sometimes it takes an encounter with a real victim to realize how inherently flawed our acceptance of torture is. During my first year of college, I had the privilege to attend a small meeting with a former political prisoner from Africa. He had been an English teacher on Africa’s west coast before being arrested by his country’s secret police. During his imprisonment (he never received a trial) he was repeatedly tortured, but, to his recollection, never interrogated. There was no purpose to the torture other than the process itself. He was finally released and fled the continent, making his way to Washington, D.C., where he joined a support group for survivors of torture.

His story was harrowing without being particularly detailed. When it came time for questions, one girl couldn’t withstand her curiosity. “What kinds of torture did they put you through?” she asked.

After a moment, he calmly began to recount what the secret police had done to him. Calmly and categorically, like he was reading instructions out of a handbook, he discussed water torture, electrical shocks, rubber hoses, and tire irons. Listening to him recount his experiences was probably nowhere near as painful for us as it was for him, but it was stunning just the same. It sounded as though it could have been from a film, but here was the man, standing in front of us, still alive, with a face and a memory that was forever damaged by his captors.

Think about that the next time you head off to the movie theater for Saw IV or tune into 24. While you’re watching Jack Bauer threaten his way to saving the country, a man is still struggling to put his life and faith together years after being victimized. And while you sit rapt in the movie theater, someone in the world, someone with a face and a name and a life, is losing all of that to their torturers.