Is Pop Culture Making Us “Meh” About Torture?

With prime-time TV shows and movies normalizing horrific human rights violations, it’s no surprise the CIA interrogation report is so appalling.

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I was delving into the torture report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee last week when my daughter texted. A senior at college, she was following the New York Times’ Twitter feed as reporters raced to the end of the just-declassified executive summary.

“Everything that’s coming out with this torture stuff is incredible,” she wrote. “What is going to happen?”

As a human-rights advocate who’s closely followed this issue since September 11, 2001, I had to be frank. Little in what was released surprised me. Torture even has an important connection to our home state, North Carolina. A CIA contractor, AeroContractors, is based just outside Raleigh and used its executive jets to fly dozens of men to sites where they would be tortured. Torture, in other words, is literally happening in our backyard.

“There will be some internal reforms and a lot of screaming,” I texted back. “But a Republican Congress will be sworn in this January. It’s lucky Feinstein pushed for the report to come out now or the report never would have seen the light of day.”

Detainees—a quarter of whom turned out to be wholly innocent—were drowned to the point of near-death, so-called waterboarding. Men were stripped, deprived of sleep and urgent medical care, exposed to extreme cold and isolation, and threatened with harm to their children, wives, and mothers. Some abuses were approved by the Bush administration as “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Others—including beatings and “rectal hydration”—were not. From 2002 to 2008, when President Obama formally stopped this program, the CIA misreported information to authorities and even blocked congressional oversight.

For my daughter and most Americans, the details are both sickening and shocking. They shouldn’t be. By this, I don’t mean to suggest that children should have known about this (though adults should have, since the media and human-rights groups have documented much of it). In disturbing ways, torture has become a quiet, pervasive part of our lives.

How? One technique denounced in the Senate report is routine in our prisons. Every day, tens of thousands of incarcerated Americans are punished with prolonged solitary confinement, perhaps the most brutal torture possible. Though it leaves no physical mark, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a Washington-based rights group, solitary can cause permanent and devastating psychological harmA recent study by the University of North Carolina Law School found that on any given day, more than 3,000 inmates of the state’s 37,500 inmates are in solitary confinement.

For most people, though, prisons are as much of an abstraction as any CIA black site. There’s another, more insidious way that torture has become a part of everyday life: entertainment.

Prior to 2001, most of the torturers on television and in movies were bad guys who physically abused the good or the innocent. But by 2006, when Human Rights First launched its “Primetime Torture” project, the torturers were “good guys.” In shows like 24Alias, and Lost, heroes tortured dark-skinned suspects in brutal—and always effective—ways. 24’s grim-faced operative Jack Bauer became a virtual engine of torture, injecting suspects with chemicals, applying electric shock, shooting a man in the kneecap, and breaking many bones.

24 is ancient history, you might say. Unfortunately, torture isn’t. On new shows like Chicago PD and the Katherine Heigl vehicle, State of Affairs, torture is front and center.

State of Affairs is a Filene’s Basement mashup of ScandalHomeland, and The West Wing, with none of the freshness or snappy Sorkin dialogue. There are a number of reasons I wouldn’t recommend State of Affairs (the costumer dresses Heigl’s CIA briefer as somewhere between a Victoria’s Secret angel and a Topeka real-estate agent, for example), with torture being front and center.

In the fourth episode, Heigl’s character is on a supposed “Black Site” ship to observe the torture of a man suspected to have had a role in her fiancé’s murder. “The detainee has been prepped for interrogation,” her hunky black ops friend-with-benefits growls. “This isn’t America, honey, international waters … You puke, you clean it up.”

Then he suffocates the man, douses him in gasoline, and lights a match.

Heigl’s character makes a token protest. And by the next episode, the prisoner is brutally beaten and shackled to his cage. Heigel’s character plays “good cop,” telling the man that they’re both the same. “The desire to hunt and kill is just as alive in me as it is in you,” she says, a particularly repugnant moral equivalence from a woman wearing Prada to a man who needs a transfusion and about a hundred stitches.

But since we know she’s lost her fiancé to terrorists, we’re primed to think, “Good for her.”

On TV, torture always works. Not so in real life. In the CIA’s own words to Senate investigators, torture “failed to elicit detainee cooperation or produce accurate intelligence.” Addendum: ever. Yet torture as an acceptable, effective way to get information is a script staple, like the manic pixie dream girl or the “meet cute.”

In the aftermath of the report’s release, Jon Stewart (as usual) seems to be the only one to get the connection to our torture-loving entertainment industry. On December 10, the guests on The Daily Show were Kathryn Bigelow, the director of the torture-positive and award-winning film Zero Dark Thirty and former Bush Administration official Juan Zarate, now CBS News pundit.

In an awesome example of disastrous timing, they were on air to promote a save-the-elephants campaign. That morning, loyal soldier Zarate had already gone on record repeating the line of pro-torture advocates like former vice president Dick Cheney, who supports even the torture of the innocent

“Mind blown,” Stewart quipped, commenting on the report release. Stewart then asked Bigelow if she thought she’d been lied to by the government sources she used for a screenplay that depends on the flawed assumption that torture works.

“It’s complicated,” she answered, squirming.

Of course, the people who actually devised and took part in the torture program, not the general public, should be held accountable. Most countries commit abuses but never have the fortitude to (at least partially) come clean. For that, the Senate Select Committee and Senator Dianne Feinstein in particular, deserve recognition.

Not only human rights groups, but also United Nations officials as well as foreign leaders are rightly calling for prosecutions. Countries like Chile are leading the way in prosecuting former security force officials who tortured, and their democracies are stronger for it.

But exposés and even trials aren’t enough. As a nation, we have to look inside ourselves and recognize the monster within (I suspect it looks an awful lot like Dick Cheney). Our society has become a silent supporter, accepting torture as not only normal, but necessary. As Gail Collins noted in the New York Times, “the public attitude toward torture is kind of meh.”

Let it be shouted from every rooftop: Torture made us less safe. Torture earned us many new and unnecessary enemies. Torture corrupted our government and our security forces. Now, torture is teaching our young people that the country they are inheriting is profoundly broken. We need to fix it.

“This all makes me so sad,” my daughter texted me before making her way to the library.

I couldn’t agree more. But sad isn’t enough. If programs feature torture as a positive, we need to vote them off the island. We need to write the sponsors, write the providers, even write the directors, crews, and actors. Torture has seeped into our society like an especially noxious spill, and we need to pay attention and speak up to get it removed.

We can’t play good cop to this anymore. 


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