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Pop Torture

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If this is beginning to ring a bell, it's because 24's absurd plot and gimmicky premise indulge the "ticking bomb" scenario so commonly invoked by apologists for real-life torture. When Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz risibly proposed that judges ought to issue torture warrants in the "rare 'ticking bomb' case" (which, as even he admits, has never occurred in the United States), he might as well have been scripting 24's next season. It's not just Dershowitz. Taking a page from so many James Bond scripts, University of Chicago law professor and federal judge Richard Posner writes, "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used." He further argues that "no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility." Since this philosopher's dilemma is streamlined to resemble film treatments, there's no messy reality to deal with, no shaky evidence, no fallibility. The problem with this scenario is not just that it starts down a slippery slope but that it allows a plot dreamed up by Hollywood to determine the limits of moral authority. As a flight of fancy, the ticking-bomb story tells us nothing about torture's actual application and everything about how we would like law enforcement to behave in a state of emergency in which the stakes are dire, the information perfect and the authorities omniscient. That is, we want our guardians to be like Jack Bauer. Unfettered by law, unhampered by civilian ethics, Jack Bauer is awake while the world sleeps, protecting us. For him (and for the hypothetical agent in the philosopher's dilemma) torture is more than just a technique of interrogation. It is the very badge of power.

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Richard Kim
Richard Kim
Richard Kim is the executive editor of TheNation.com. He is co-editor, with Betsy Reed, of the New York Times...

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If the first three seasons of 24 stage torture as a kind of necessary evil and mark of resolve, then the fourth and latest season veers toward a different cultural logic of torture. Not only is there a lot more of it--happening in so many episodes that it loses its shock value--it is also utterly collapsed into the secondary genre of the show, the family or workplace melodrama. In this season, torture plays itself out as a kind of surrogate love scene or family feud, taking place not just between agents and suspects but between family members, co-workers and rivals in a love triangle. When terrorists kidnap Defense Secretary James Heller, CTU agents suspect his lefty, Michael Moore-watching, environmentalist son Richard as part of the plot. Using sensory deprivation and drugs, they interrogate him. Though he screams in agony, he confesses nothing. When Heller is freed, rather than punish his men for torturing his own son, Dad orders another round because he intuits that Richard is still hiding something. Later in the day, after a third round of interrogation at the hands of his sister and father, Richard finally reveals what he's been concealing all along. He's gay! (OK, so he had sex with a terrorist, too; we all make bad choices sometimes.)

Secretary Heller is also the father of Jack's current lover, Audrey (Richard's sister). When Jack discovers that Audrey's estranged husband, Paul, is connected to the terrorist plot, he shocks Paul with a lamp cord while she watches. Miraculously, only moments after he's been tortured, Paul teams up with Jack to foil the meltdown of nuclear reactors across the country; he even takes a bullet for him. It's only later in the day, when Jack causes Paul's death by denying him medical treatment, that Audrey realizes her new love might not be such a good guy and promptly dumps him. In casting torture as melodrama, 24 reverses the dehumanizing mode of actual torture and replaces it with something familial and social. So blasé are these victims of torture that they come as close as one can to consenting to it. Less focused on torture's instrumentality, the narrative upshot of torture in this rendition of 24 is that it troubles, deepens and ultimately clarifies personal relationships. In this instance, popular culture construes torture as a humanizing social ritual enmeshed not in war and violence but in the drama of family and love life.

Even a show such as the Sci Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, which takes a decidedly anti-torture tone, plays torture as intimacy. In one episode, a particularly sadistic crew rape and torture a captured enemy agent until she's reduced to a catatonic state. (She also happens to be a humanoid robot posing as a gorgeous blonde lingerie model.) Playing good cop to their bad, the ship's resident scientist, Dr. Baltar, feeds and heals her in order to assure her cooperation. Since she's the identical clone of his former lover, he tearfully confesses while doing so that he really did love her all along. As absurd as it may seem, this particular fantasy of torture has its cognate in the actual "war on terror." In response to accusations of torture at Guantánamo Bay (including religious and sexual abuse and the denial of medical care), Col. Mike Bumgarner, the commander of the military unit that oversees the daily handling of detainees, told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, "We have to be like the parents here. In loco parentis. That's how we look at it. It's like a big family."

Following the Abu Ghraib scandal, Rush Limbaugh defended the troops' "emotional release" as just a harmless "good time" that was "no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation." In his independent report, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger characterized Abu Ghraib as "'Animal House' on the night shift." Abu Ghraib was, of course, no Skull and Bones tomb or National Lampoon's production. Beyond essentially exonerating military command, such analogies ignore the nonconsensual nature of torture and neatly invert its dehumanizing process. In doing so, apologists exploit the uncanny resemblance between torture and intimacy. When one consents to participate in or witness ritualized violence--whether in the bedroom or on the playing field--one expects to emerge from it more fully human, to have one's desires recognized and fulfilled or to become a big man on campus. Despite their patina of cruelty, such scenes are intended to socialize, to connect the individual to a larger public body. In contrast, in her brilliant book The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry notes how real-life torture converts the mundane, pleasurable and intimate into sources of terror and isolation. Voices and pictures of loved ones are used to break victims' psyches. Everyday objects like telephones, bathtubs, beds, soda bottles and refrigerators become instruments of violence. Normally nourishing actions like drinking water or eating are forcibly repeated until even the most quintessentially intimate object, one's own body, is made a foundation of agony. This dimension of torture--the transformation of the familiar and human into the grotesque and inhuman--is obscured when ritualized social violence and intimacy are conflated with actual torture.

Popular culture can aid and abet this mystification of torture, its transformation into scenes of righteous agency or scenes of intimacy. But because cultural representations of torture are hyperbolic and surreal, they can also help reveal how specious the rationalization and justification of actual torture really is. Watching television momentarily transports us through the looking glass into a warped, alternate reality; the Bush Administration would have us live there.

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