Monday, May 11, 2009

Popular Depictions of Torture

Torture is a standard trope in many forms of popular entertainment. Frankly, it's so common that I don't think some writers even realize what they're including in their material. For example, the very fun (and mostly kid-appropriate) movie The Incredibles has some very intense scenes of torture. I realize that's a staple for superhero movies, but it didn't seem necessary in that otherwise terrific film. And it made me regret that my daughter saw the film, as I felt she was too young to understand that part (but old enough to be troubled by it).

Now, in my youth I saw plenty of "torture," too, but mostly in silly contexts such as cartoons or the Batman TV series, where the "danger" was usually so comical as to be laughable. I mean, Batman being fed to a giant "man-eating clam" is just too silly for even a child to take seriously. We get the message that the bad guy is trying to "torture" Batman, either to extract some information or to make his (highly dubious) demise slow and painful. And I suppose one could argue that such easy depictions of something truly awful might actually lessen one's horror at the real thing (though in my case, that obviously wasn't the outcome).

This is all brought to mind by my seeing the new Star Trek movie over the weekend. I really enjoyed it, both because it was a fun movie from end to end and because I can't even remember the last time I saw any movie on its opening weekend, even standing in line with friends to get good seats. What fun!

As many Star Trek episodes do, this one has some torture in it (though less graphic than much of what's out there these days). I can barely remember an episode of the original series where Captain Kirk or one of his crew didn't get abused in some way by someone. (And is it just coincidence that that series overlapped with Batman in the mid-1960s?) But I had forgotten the really excellent (and excruciating) episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation where Captain Picard is tortured at length by the Cardassians.

There's a great discussion of it at length in this article from Slate by Juliet Lapidos (hat tip to Josh Marshall at TPM). Read the whole thing; it's very good. Here's a highlight:
The extended torture sessions take a toll not just on Picard but on his interrogator as well. The more time the Cardassian spends with Picard, the more he becomes fixated on breaking his prisoner. And so the supposed goal of torture—information—is sidelined, while the means by which the goal will theoretically be achieved—mental submission—becomes an end in itself. As Picard puts it, "Torture has never been a reliable means of extracting information. It is ultimately self-defeating as a means of control. One wonders it is still practiced."
One gets the impression watching Dick Cheney recently that big chunks of the U.S. government crossed that line at some point (like waterboarding the same guy scores of times). Eventually the already dubious goal of forcefully extracting information gets lost in the mission of breaking the victim. Instead of the ends justifying the means (though they still insist that's what's behind it), the means themselves are merely trying to justify their own use. (If you can't break the subject, what's the point of trying to? Thus, you must keep trying.) Ultimately, torture demeans both the torturer and the victim, and for no good outcome.

The good news is that this stuff is only a minor subplot in the whole Star Trek movie. I highly recommend it to those who like the old Trek: the new angles on the familiar characters are a lot of fun. I'll avoid further comment so as not to spoil it for anyone. But go read the Slate article.

1 comment:

Sarette said...

Our mass entertainment industry does too much to desensitize society to violence and other troubling activities -- torture being one of them. I like 24 as much as the next guy, but I'm always uncomfortable at how far that show is going to suggest that torture has a viable place in America's security schemes. Same thing with casual depictions of torture in films like Star Trek. Ultimately, the entertainment industry is showing us that these things are normal. And why question normal things?

The reason to question all of this doesn't just begin and end with perceptions of America overseas. American soldiers who inflict torture in a war zone (for dubious and ultimately futile reasons) sometimes come home to be law enforcement officers. If they learn that torture is acceptable in Iraq, then why not in Los Angeles or Cleveland? Rubber hoses, anyone? It's all fair game so long as you're out to get the bad guy, isn't it?

This is a very real problem. I've talked to ex-military types who swear up and down that waterboarding is not torture. That's how far down the rabbit hole some of those guys have gone.

We MIGHT be able to stop this kind of behavior when we see it, but then there's the whole desensitization thing that's going on in American culture -- aided and abetted by the mass entertainment industry.

The obvious first step is to turn popular depictions of torture into something that is rare, shocking, and ultimately never successful. But to do that we'd have to inflict some serious community standards on T.V. and movie producers -- which is just a fancy way of saying 'censorship.'

There are no good answers here. I sometimes think we lost our civilization when we all started buying T.V.s.