Recently an otherwise seemingly thoughtful person said to me, "I know torture ordinarily doesn’t work because you can’t coerce someone into giving you trustworthy information. But don’t you think there are times when the government has to step over the line to save lives? You know, if terrorists have a nuclear bomb or something?"
The juxtaposition in his question is fascinating and not at all uncommon. It boils down to, "Intellectually, I know it doesn’t work, but emotionally, I want to believe it can protect me anyway."
When we understand a thing is inert, but believe in its power anyway, the thing in question is commonly called a talisman. A religious symbol on a necklace. A weapon you won’t be able to reach, or don’t know how to use. The salutation "Be safe," as though saying it could make it so.
The world can be a scary place, and the government often has an interest in making it more so. Truman "scared hell out of the America people" to get the Truman Doctrine through Congress; today, fear is kept at a simmer by announcements of color-coded threat levels, barking airport and subway reminders that we must be alert and suspicious, bellicose political rhetoric and op-eds about the imminent danger from Iran and Islam. In the face of so much fear, legitimate or manufactured, it’s natural for the mind to grope for a source of comfort, like Linus pulling close his security blanket. If it really hits the fan, that anxious part of our unconscious tries to soothe us, there’s that one thing we can turn to and count on to protect us.
The right, which is adept at telling its adherents what they want to believe (white Christians are a persecuted minority; the economy is being destroyed not by corporatism and crony capitalism but by welfare queens and minority mortgage deadbeats; terrorists attack America because they hate our freedoms) has both met and increased the demand for a torture talisman by promoting fantasy dramas like 24 and torture-saves-the-day novels by writers like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor. Yes, Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh assure us, our enemies are as evil as they are committed to our destruction, but if we just "take off the gloves" and follow the lead of fictional characters like Jack Bauer and Mitch Rapp, we can make ourselves safe again. It’s as simple and appealing a promise as the benefits of "Drill, baby, drill," and as destructive.