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The Rise and Rise of Television Torture (interpretthis.org)
524 points by aychedee on Jan 7, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 285 comments

There are four lights!

It is a long time since I saw that TNG episode, but I remember it as a respectful treatment of the subject.

Any television series in a modern setting in which characters that are portrayed as "good guys" use torture to achieve their goals is despicable propaganda.

There has been more of that lately.

I grew up watching Star Trek: TNG and that episode is something to remember indeed. It makes a strong rational and moral case against torture. While modern American TV shows do indeed do the opposite.

I think I know the reason for this. Gene Roddenberry was a WW2 veteran i.e. the Geneva Conventions had a personal relevance to him. In the wars of the past you had to assume that many of your own guys would be captured by the enemy.. and that you might end up being one of them. In that scenario a strong international condemnation of torture suddenly looks way more appealing. In contrast, America's modern "wars" (I do not think these one-sided affairs deserve that name) do not lead to a noticeable number of American POWs. And you no longer have to worry about being drafted yourself either.

I think the foundation of the acceptance of torture in contemporary America is the firm conviction of the supporters that they will never be at the receiving end.

This type of thinking is unfortunately widespread among humans everywhere. It is never moral and often unwise to support a system you would not support if you did not have a favorable position within it.

Your explanation is probably part of it, but there's are lots of social factors in play. Gene Roddenberry was a member of the greatest generation. It was in a lot of ways a much more idealistic time in American culture than today.

One of the empirically observable facts is that faith in public institutions is a lot lower today than it was back then. I think this phenomenon cuts in the opposite direction compared to what a lot of people on HN would suppose. When people have less faith in the system, they have less faith that the system will protect them, and are more willing to embrace characters that will act outside the system to get the job done. Hence the popularity of the Jack Bauer character: the guy who ignores taboos against torture or procedural limitations like warrants in order to get the job done and save the day.

That's starkly different to the world conceived of in Star Trek. Star Trek is a world where government (the Federation) is morally virtuous, and institutional rules like the "Prime Directive" are to be followed rather than broken.

Captain Kirk violated the Prime Directive in practically every episode.

The Prime Directive wasn't mentioned until the end of the first season, and it wasn't defined until the end of the second season.

And, provided someone previously broke the Prime Directive, inadvertently or not, Starfleet personnel are permitted to directly intervene and ignore the Prime Directive to minimize the harm caused. And most cases where Kirk "violates" the Prime Directive, someone else already interfered, meaning no violation occurred.

> One of the empirically observable facts is that faith in public institutions is a lot lower today than it was back then.

I wonder if Gene Roddenberry would have had different opinions of public institutions if he grew up after the collapse of the USSR.

Actually, those of us born around the time the USSR collapsed are more in favor of public institutions: we've seen what happens in their absence.

Is this your personal ethos being projected across our entire generation, or are you referring to research that shows, when compared against public opinion of similarly aged people over the last many generations, we favor public institutions?

I'm referring to research. My personal opinions are very left-wing even for Gen Y.

Could you link it? I'm interested to see that, because most of my circles are very much not in that camp.

> It is never moral and often unwise to support a system you would not support if you did not have a favorable position within it.

Is this an intentional reference to John Rawls' concept of the 'veil of ignorance' laid out in Theory of Justice? If not, you would definitely enjoy the ideas in the book.


Exactly what I was reminded of; Rawl's theory of justice, paraphrased: the only just system/rules are ones you wouldn't have a problem being on either side of.

Isn't it just Kant's "categorical imperative"...?


The categorical imperative is strictly weaker: It's possible to use the veil of ignorance to argue against positions nobody is insisting must be made universal.

For example, "In this house, you always clean up": The categorical imperative only works to argue against this if you try to find a way to apply it to every household; the veil of ignorance works simply by forcing the members of the household to be ignorant about who 'you' refers to.

Small note, but Roddenberry was dead before The Chain of Command went into preproduction. I'm also not sure that was an episode he would have let through considering he was against the militarization of Star Trek.

> In contrast, America's modern "wars" (I do not think these one-sided affairs deserve that name)

That's a great point. America doesn't do wars anymore. They do conquests. And the American public at large seems perfectly fine with it (or they wouldn't allow it).

I wouldn't say that the American public at large seems perfectly fine with it (or they wouldn't allow it.) That's a very broad brush you're painting with. A large proportion, probably a majority, don't like what's being done with our military. We tried to get Bush Jr out of office after his first term, and that was a very close election with just as much evidence of vote tampering as the his first election. Obama was overwhelmingly elected because everything thought he would do things differently and restore our standing in the world, but that's turned out not to be the case. His reelection was much closer, and he probably only won because his opponents were so weak.

After all these years, I think the American public has largely given up on their votes making any difference whatsoever; President, Senate, House of Representatives, they mostly all do whatever their financiers want once they're elected, public opinion be damned.

Anyone want to come in and liberate us from our corrupt government? (I was going to say tyrannical, but I don't want to devalue that word; we're not there yet.)

There's been a joke for a few years: the USA needs to invade America, bringing freedom, providing democracy, constructing infrastructure, and creating jobs.

I like your analysis, DougWebb, I deeply like it.

Please note it's important you American citizen communicate on your opinion as much as you can, beyond your borders. Even if you see no immediate effect, it will benefit you.

Too many typos in that; too late to edit it. Oh well. I need to proofread better before I submit a reply.

What the U.S. does is to use military force to preserve the international status quo. E.g. if we go into an oil rich state like Iraq, we don't just take the oil, we just ensure that it continues to be sold in the market as usual. This isn't "war" but it's not "conquest" either.

The thing is that the status quo is in the favor of the US, and they ensured that the oil continued to be sold to the US.

Sure, the status quo is in favor of the U.S., and we ensured that oil continued to be sold to the U.S., but it's also in favor of France and Germany and the U.K. and Australia, etc, and we ensured that oil continued to be sold to those countries too. It doesn't really make sense to call that "conquest."

Since when does conquest have to benefit just one party to be called conquest? If Russia and China split the US amongst themselves, would you call it conquest?

Did we split Iraq amongst the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K., Canada, Australia, etc? When many beneficiaries are involved, a military action seems less like conquest and more like an attempt to maintain a certain balance of powers.

"maintain a certain balance of powers" and "conquest" are not mutually exclusive.

"many" really just means "more than one", but okay: if 50 nations invaded and split up the US, would that be conquest?

Sounds like conquest by NATO vs solely the United States.

The other thing is, it's not just the US that benefits from the status quo. Lots of allies get to ride on their coattails.

Isn't that generally what goes along with allying yourself with someone - the parties agree to do mutually beneficial acts and let each other benefit from each other's actions? I don't see how benefiting your allies makes an action less self serving.

Don't forget that we can also just ignore it or have it hidden from us. In that case it happens without us being for or against it.

And the use of torture in America's modern wars has led to a great amount of lost goodwill in the world, not to mention the military failures on the ground.

Do unto others...

How quickly morality fades ....

That episode of TNG was a work of art. I think it's a bit unpleasant to watch, and it's supposed to be. It should be. But knowing about this stuff is part of being a real adult. That sort of evil is still out there.

By contrast, what's the purpose of Fringe's torture? Am I actually supposed to find this entertaining? Honest, if leading, question.

I don't remember a multitude traditional torture scenes in fringe? There were some "weird things up the nose mind reading" bits?

I remember a security guard near the finale, but that's about it. Was it more common than my memory tells? What does that say about how little it impacted upon me?

The main problem I have with this article is that it doesn't give specific examples of when torture is used, especially by the show's protagonists. I love both Fringe and the X-Files, but I've actually more recently seen the X-Files (I'm on Season 7) so Fringe isn't exactly fresh in my mind.

The main scene I remember where one of the protagonists resorts to torture is in the final season where Peter tortures a captured Observer to figure out how to put together a time portal stabilizer the Observers are using for transport. But if I remember the scene correctly, Peter doesn't even want information - he's just really pissed off at the Observers for killing his daughter. Even though this scene shows one of the protagonists doing something wrong, I question whether it was really trying to get the watcher's approval for the his actions. If anything, it was trying to show disapproval for his actions by depicting him as mentally unstable. I'm not saying that there aren't more scenes where the protagonists resort to torture, just that I can't remember them.

A further question that I have is what exactly torture is in a sci-fi show. There are at least two episodes where the Fringe gang uses a device that reanimates a recently deceased enemy so they can get the necessary information to stop an impending attack. Is a scenario like this torture? And what about when one of the Observers attempts to read Walter's mind causing him a great deal of pain? This seems to be torture, but would the shows viewers think that governments should torture because Fringe depicted a character reading another character's mind?

Finally, Ntrails makes a fantastic point. Typically, torture is not depicted as a critical story piece in Fringe. Torture occasionally makes appearances, but many of the shows fans can't even remember when and how often they were used. What does that say about the "legitimizing" force of depiction of torture in Fringe?

Really? I'm the OP. I just binge watched all of Fringe and it's jam packed full of torture. The very fact that you don't remember it is perhaps part of the point I was making. It's very much just the done thing. Torture doesn't have to be conducted in a dungeon with hot irons. It's any situation where you cause serious distress to a helpless person you control. I would argue that fans not being able to remember torture scenes is my point precisely. Oh, it's so blase and mundane that you don't even remember? Oh the government's torturing people you say? So what? I see that shit every day. It's not that bad... etc.

I'm interested now. Not enough to rewatch the entire show front to back, but how about you give some examples of the protagonists using torture (like episode numbers)? When the bad guys use torture in a tv show or movie, that shouldn't count towards what you are claiming - only when the good guys uses it.

>When the bad guys use torture in a tv show or movie, that shouldn't count towards what you are claiming - only when the good guys uses it.

What an odd view.

Whenever anyone uses torture to successfully extract information - bad guy or good guy - we are getting the not-so-subtle message that "torture works".

Torture doesn't work. And if you're so habituated to the message that "torture is effective" to the point that you don't even notice torture, well...

When a bad guy uses torture, we get the message that he's a bad guy. It doesn't really matter if the information the bad guy gets is good or not because the viewer is not sympathetic to the bad guy. Others have made this point upstream, but essentially, you have a great case for torture being legitimized IF the good guys are using it and are portrayed as heroes for doing so.

>When a bad guy uses torture, we get the message that he's a bad guy. It doesn't really matter if the information the bad guy gets is good or not because the viewer is not sympathetic to the bad guy.

But if the bad guy gets good information from torturing the good guy, the viewer thinks "hey, he's an asshole, but torture sure is a thing that works! Maybe the good guy should use it on him!"

>you have a great case for torture being legitimized IF the good guys are using it and are portrayed as heroes for doing so.

You're applying too strict a standard. The article isn't talking about legitimizing torture. It's talking about normalizing it.

In other words, TV isn't necessarily telling us that torture is good. It tells us that it works, and leaves us to fill in the gaps (if it WORKS, we should use it on BAD PEOPLE!)

Urgh. You're making me do homework? Lame. And no. I don't have to show only scenes where the "good guys" are torturing someone. That wasn't my point. I was talking about the normalisation of torture. I wasn't trying to say that all shows had become 24 or something. I never called these shows propaganda (like 24 obviously was). That's HN saying that. I was just saying that they all contribute to the normalisation of torture.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Same_Old_Story - Victims are paralysed with a muscle relaxant and then have their faces peeled off.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Arrival_(Fringe) - Multiple victims are strapped to tables and tortured. Three scenes in all I believe.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Cure_(Fringe) - Woman strapped to a table, she's a test patient being tortured with painful drugs, begging them to stop.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bound_(Fringe) - Olivia strapped to a table and tortured.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_Child_(Fringe) - Woman are paralysed and then slowly killed.

Well that's the first season. I'm off for dinner now. If you want to try something similar for the first season of the X-Files please do!

(Sorry couldn't reply to your reply, I think it's too deeply nested or something)

A point you repeatedly make in your OP is that everyone uses torture -- not just the bad guys -- and that it's just a tool to extract information. So it seems certainly relevant that your selection of examples are all of bad guys committing torture on the "good guys" or otherwise innocent victims.

Fringe, especially in its earlier "monster of the week" seasons, has a very clear distinction between the "good guys" and the "bad guys". Since only the bad guys are committing torture, it seems more plausible that the writers of Fringe think that the audience will view torture as something bad people do. However, it does not support your point that torture is a tool used by everyone.

There's one plot line in season 5 where Peter tortures an Observer. But it was depicted as a moral failing of Peter to commit torture, opposite what you suggest in your OP ("In fact it’s often portrayed as a moral failing to not do anything it takes to get the results you need.").

The entire plot line is very dark as Peter's grief over his daughter takes him down a bad path. It is supposed to be (and was for me) uncomfortable to watch.

Yes. Everyone does! * Even Peter. You've just said as much. And it is shown as a tool. I just pulled those examples from the first season using the plot synopse to try and trigger my memory. I obviously didn't have time to go and rewatch 130 hours of television to satisfy a HN commenter who was trying to make a rhetorical point. Many of the characters are ambiguous and are eventually revealed to be acting in the best interests of the "their universe". If you really want to disprove this do your own research. Go through and categorise every instance of pain inflicted on a person in a helpless situation. Are there more or less of these scenes than in the X-Files? Are they betrayed as something only a truly evil sadist would perform or are they more of a tool of the trade? Why do you think the sci-fi FBI genre has shifted?

* Apart from dear Astrid of course, statement may contain some hyperbole.

> If you really want to disprove this do your own research.

You're the one that made a claim, it is not unreasonable to expect that you can back this up with examples. So far the examples you've provided don't show that everyone resorts to torture. And instances in your examples come from the bad guys doing something clearly, well, bad. Again, if the image of torture is a bad thing in your mind then all violence should be absent from every media because it normalizes all violence.

> If you really want to disprove this do your own research. Go through and categorise every instance of pain inflicted on a person in a helpless situation. Are there more or less of these scenes than in the X-Files?

And here you're extending the definition of torture to contain every act of violence against a helpless person. Given it's duration, I suspect that X-Files would have more instances of this. Using your model, disprove me.

An argument should be credible by itself, not only in the context of counterarguments. A statement without its own proof is quite useless; it is not unreasonable for someone to ask for the evidence you used to get to your conclusion. If that data is "I have a gut feeling from watching two shows and thinking about it," then so be it. Just say that.

Hand-wavy grandstands are fine, but don't pass something off as deeper than that if it isn't.

I'm currently binge watching Fringe on Netflix; currently in the final season. So it is still fresh in mind; but I have yet to see all of season 5.

In your article you specifically state, "Torture is used by all parties. Everyone resorts to torture, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys."

You then use X-Files and Fringe as the main points of contrast. This is blatantly wrong. All of the examples you have pointed out above, as well as all of the instances of torture I recall from the show, were from the "bad guys".

I would disagree with this being a form of normalization of torture, but rather a statement against torture. The bad guys use torture because they are bad; ergo this is a quiet form of protest from the shows producers against things going on today; Guantanamo, water boarding, etc...

If you're concerned about the normalization of something, wouldn't the numerous murders and killings in self-defense be more troubling than a handful of episodes featuring serial-killers/amoral corporate types/amoral scientists ignoring the plight of their victims?

Murder and killing is pretty good at making people dead. Torture is rather less effective for making them talk (truthfully/usefully).

And the relevance of that? Its presence in the show (by aychedee's logic) is still resulting in its normalization. If it's bad to normalize torture, it's at least as bad to normalize murder and generalized violence.

[meta: I think the nesting is some sort of delay system to prevent a rapid back-and-fore argument. If you click "link" however it appears you can bypass the lack of a reply option.]

Clicking "link" is no faster than reloading, as far as I can tell.

Clicking link is immediate, and the delay for an active "reply" link can be minutes. The longest I've seen (and recall the time on) was at least 5 minutes, possibly pushing 10. In an active conversation that's a long time.

Are you sure "link" is immediate?

So far, though this message isn't deep enough (or the thread isn't active enough?) to have a reply delay. I've replied to "0 minute" messages via link that didn't have the normal reply option.

Yes. But I also found clicking on "link" doesn't always pop up the reply button, either.

Is there a nesting limit too?

That's the only limit I was aware of originally.

I watched that episode last night. It wasn't propaganda. It was meant to be chilling. The difference between the way Peter and Olivia handled the death of their child is supposed to be stark. What's even more critical is that the 'torture' fails.

The final act, him cutting open and killing the observer is still shocking, and it isn't glorified or seen as right. It's clearly the first steps down a darker path.

I believe I made it through the first three seasons, and I also don't remember any traditional torture. The article makes it sound like it happened every episode. 24 would have been a much better example.

It would also be devastating to his case, since a lot of people went off 24 around the time the show was becoming the torture express (and then subsequently started appearing in US presidential debates WTF).

I've watched the first four seasons of Fringe and I don't think the protagonists ever tortured anyone.

  Any television series in a modern setting in 
  which characters that are portrayed as "good guys" 
  use torture to achieve their goals is despicable
Yes. Absolutely.

I must admit, though... when compared to the cartoonish patriotic jingo-fied violence of the 1980s, where Rambo and the A-Team defeated countless enemies in settings that always felt like a walk in the park... perhaps the torture thing is the lesser of the two evils?

The 1980s seemed to want to tell us that war was a melodramatic, often bloodless struggle between the white-hatted good guys and the black-hatted bad guys.

If there's a small silver lining to today's torture-promoting crap, at least it's that war is portrayed a bit closer to being the horrible, bloody, morally-confused hell where the "good guys" often look and act an awful lot like the "bad guys."

Doesn't take away from your point at all. Totally agree that when torture is portrayed as anything less than evil, there is a very serious problem.

"I must admit, though... when compared to the cartoonish patriotic jingo-fied violence of the 1980s, where Rambo and the A-Team defeated countless enemies in settings that always felt like a walk in the park... perhaps the torture thing is the lesser of the two evils?"

At least the heroes in those implausible stories behaved like heroes, rather than villains who you only identify with out of some jingoistic team spirit.

> torture is portrayed

I think the root of the problem is more about torture being portrayed at all.

Even if you portray it a the evilest thing, you are still playing with the spectator's bowels and disgust thresholds in ways that cannot bring anything good.

There is room for torture depiction is some niche genres, like horror or sadism (e.g. Salo) but I can't understand how it should come to mainstream media as TV series and take such a big room.

Just like sex and pron: it is ok, but please let it be marginal.

That's a really unfortunate opinion regarding the role of art. I don't want a world where art is expected to stay away from uncomfortable topics.

Art (and I'm including popular entertainment) plays a very important role in how we think about and understand topics.

We disagree on most levels.

Entertainment is to art what a tabloid is to Iliad.

Torture is not a topic. Examples of topics: war, love, jealousy, courage, friendship, etc.

Torture is not uncomfortable per se, it is hot in US because of recent events and revelations. Inflicting pain to someone in order to get what one want is just the most common thing in the world. What is weird is to make a show with this pain, it reminds me of witch burning: you'd bring kids and would get angry if a good guy killed her already.

However I agree that it is stupid to expect art to stay away from anything: this beast has its own reasons and goes were it pleases.

This is great! What else isn't a topic?

"Any television series in a modern setting in which characters that are portrayed as "good guys" use torture to achieve their goals is despicable propaganda."

I'm stunned by how torture has became common in TV shows, at least since "24". But is it propaganda? to me, it was more a way to please the audience.

"But is it propaganda? to me, it was more a way to please the audience."

That, or it's purely coincidental that "24" debuted following disclosure of Bush's torture programs, and "Person of Interest" debuted ahead of common knowledge of the extent of mass surveillance.

It may not be propaganda officially ordered and authored by some Ministry of Information, but it's the same thing no matter how many layers of abstraction it goes through: a way to shape the narrative and facts that inform the common person and allow them to form an understanding of an issue.

"24" premiered in November 2001, and capitalized on the anti-terrorist sentiment in America after the September 11, 2011 attacks. The groundwork for Bush's "torture programs" were laid in late 2002, and came to public attention in June 2004, when the Abu Ghraib scandal broke.

The interpretation that better reconciles the timeline is that both the show and the torture program are attempts to capitalize on the same public sentiment that led to this song: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Courtesy_of_the_Red,_White_and_... (select lyrics: "Cause we'll put a boot in your ass; It's the American way"), peaking at #1 on Billboard's list of Hot Country Songs.

"24" only really turned into torture fetish material a few seasons in, though.

Yes. During season one, torture was a rare occurrence and was depicted in a rather morally ambiguous fashion. During the middle few seasons, heroic acts of torture featured on nearly every episode.

Remember also that producers of these shows often do have contact with members of the intelligence and defense communities who serve as official or unofficial advisors, at least so long as the depictions are acceptable to the establishment. Through these advisors, entertainment producers learn about secret programs long before the public. Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty is a particularly prominent recent example of how this works, and why it is a bad thing that results in "entertainment" which is very much a form of propaganda.

Season 2 of "24", which was full of torture scenes, aired a month after the famous "Torture Memos" were distributed, and long before the program was actually implemented. Of course it was written and filmed months before it aired. Your narrative is totally implausible.

Your premise that Season 2 was "full of torture scenes" (it was nothing compared to Season 4) is false. And anyway, the producers of shows like this (i.e. those with messaging deemed advantageously pro-establishment) are rewarded by said establishment by being connected in and obtain insider information.

I don't know whether Season 2 or Season 4 had more torture scenes, but there were enough in Season 2 (see: http://24.wikia.com/wiki/Interrogation) to make it unlikely that the show's general use of torture was not caused by any sort of information leaked by the "establishment." It simply predates the Bush torture program.

I'm not sure what point you're trying to make. Are you saying that the producers were rewarded after the fact, for the pro-torture message? And that encouraged them to make Season 4 even more torture filled? What sort of "insider information" did they get?

> Yes. During season one, torture was a rare occurrence and was depicted in a rather morally ambiguous fashion.

Portraying torture as merely "morally ambiguous" is arguably fairly strong pro-torture propaganda by the standards of anything but later editions of 24.

Fair point.

I don't know what happened in later seasons, I only watched the first few. There was torture in the show from Season 1. Jack violently interrogates two people in the first season, later executing one of them at the end of the season. Season 2 opens with a torture scene: http://24.wikia.com/wiki/Interrogation, one of many such scenes in that season.

I don't know how many people here really remember the mood back then. I was just starting college at Georgia Tech when Season 2 of "24" came on. It was hugely popular in my dorm. And the overall sentiment was pretty violent. In the run-up to the Iraq war the next year, it was less controversial to say that we should turn the middle east into a "glass parking lot" than to argue against going to war. And this is of course among people who were relatively liberal compared to the region as a whole.

They also have a torture page (edit: oops, I see now that it is just a redirect to Interrogation):


And an amputation page:


(but a couple of those incidents don't involve torture; I remember being extremely put off by the scene in day 8 (I guess I switched it off before the scene was complete).

Now I wonder how mainstream 24 really is, given how over the top it seems.

It won 20 Emmy's and was pretty well-rated in its time.

I could/should have said something like "I wonder how prevalent approval for those depictions really is".

IIRC, season 4 was the torture season. It actually laid it on so thick, it became cartoon funny. Pretty sure that season caused some controversy and after that they toned it down a bit.

The show debuting right after the disclosure of torture programs is easily explainable. Writers frequently grab at whatever tasty bits of news or culture come along to provide themes and scenes for their works.

> "Person of Interest" debuted ahead of common knowledge of the extent of mass surveillance

By the way, I've got to hand it to Person of Interest for creating a show about technology and the singularity that isn't completely ridiculous with its use of computers and jargon. They're also not really pro-surveillance. To quote Finch:

"...the machine is... wonderful and terrible..."

It's also a show where bad guys (the government) are using torture, and it's horrific. On last night's episode they mutilated a main character just to make a point.

In a sense, I think PoI is somehow the spiritual successor of the X Files in a sense that it alternates between "monster of the week" (in this case: criminal of the week) and the big storyline which is about a corrupt and power-hungry government at every level from local city politicians all the way up to vast and limitless government agencies, and about everyone's love-hate-and-exploitation relationship with a superior intelligence (which was the aliens in X-Files).

It's a show that makes some powerful and ballsy statements, while at the same time keeping up the light entertainment of what's ostensibly a vigilante show.

I was surprised actually watching the show how ineffective the torture was. Once I started watching for it - in every single case using torture actually did get information out of the victim, but the information either came to late or was a red herring. I don't think they were trying to subtly undermine the justification for torture, but in that fictional world at least it was inevitably ultimately futile

> or was a red herring

As often in real life. There's this report from late 2006 (though I haven't checked any other sources)...

"Last week Omar Nasiri, a Moroccan who spent seven years infiltrating al-Qaeda as a double agent working for the French and British intelligence services, told the BBC’s Newsnight programme that al-Qaeda deliberately fed false information to the US government in order to encourage it to invade Iraq. According to Nasiri (a pseudonym), Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, who ran al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and was captured in the US invasion of that country five years ago, told his US interrogators that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with the terrorist organisation to plan attacks with chemical and biological weapons. [...] American forces had scooped up Ibn Sheikh al-Libi in Afghanistan in November, 2001, and sent him off to Egypt to be tortured (because the US itself doesn’t do torture) in the presence of American interrogators. And Libi told his lie about Saddam Hussein’s complicity with al-Qaeda, which Colin Powell seized on as justification for the US attack on Iraq."


Whatever it all is, I have to admit it scares the crap out of me how much "victory at all costs" seems to be the moral and cultural norm these days when most people aren't even soldiers.

I lean towards propaganda, because it affects other types of shows as well, sometimes in subtle ways.

Cop shows are all about flailing around for a few minutes, followed by a hacker/database identifying the subject and dispatch of the SWAT team. If the computers are down, the good guy beats up the suspect. If the show is on CBS, they do some sort of amazing thing using their MS Surface while driving a Chevy-something. (Bad guys like Fords and Chryslers)

Talk to a real cop. Whiz bang technology is the exception, not the rule. Successful detectives usually use their connections with the community to put two and two together.

> Bad guys like Fords and Chryslers

I never suspected that I'm bad to the bone.

No, you only thing you can infer, is that _not_ driving Fords and Chryslers means you are _not_ a bad guy.

>I'm stunned by how torture has became common in TV shows, at least since "24". But is it propaganda? to me, it was more a way to please the audience.

Violence in its ultimate form. A viewer who associates him/herself with the protagonist gets the feeling of being a righteous God exerting the punishment. An irresistible catnip for "good people with values".

"24" and "Boardwalk Empire" are 2 series I stopped watching due to torture scenes.

In "24" it was some scene where Jack Bauer had to shoot and kill one of his own guys in order to not blow his cover. I tapped out.

In "Boardwalk" I lasted all the way to some scene where some poor sap got buried up to his neck on a beach and then they took a shovel to his head. That was it for me, no thanks.

I'm really disturbed by the idea that "add torture" is a formula for "pleasing the audience". That gets into the chicken-and-egg question of where culture comes from. Granted, if you ignore the either-or question and just accept that both the chicken and the egg are causative...

It makes me think of something I recently read:


No torture in this one, but... well.

It's not very good propaganda if the audience doesn't enjoy it.

I'm definitely inclined to say propaganda. If it were just on its own, then I'd give the benefit of the doubt and say entertainment. However, it just happens to coincide with the revelations of America's use of torture in Iraq, etc., and the media's use of euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques", etc, at least when discussing America. (It's still torture if it's Iran or China). I know, citation needed, but I'm lazy right now.

For those of us who are interested but don't quite remember every TNG episode episode, it was "Chain of Command" from season 6: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chain_of_Command_(Star_Trek:_Th...

> Madred attempts another tactic to break Picard's will: he shows his captive four bright lights, and demands that Picard answer that there are five, inflicting intense pain on Picard if he does not agree.

This in turn seems to be directly inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Winston is being tortured, O'Brien puts up four fingers and insists (under torture) that Winston sees five.

Here's a troubling insight on the relationship of physical and mental torture from Ian Buruma's recent review (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jan/09/china-r...) of a book on Maoist China:

In most accounts, the distress caused by endless indoctrination, public denunciation, and self-criticism was worse than physical torture. Physical pain still allows the victim to retreat into himself. After days, months, years of mental torture there is no longer a self to retreat into. Besides self-abasement, victims were made to show their sincerity by persecuting others, sometimes friends or relatives. In many cases, suicide was the only way out. But ideally, if a person had finally reached the stage when his confessions were totally convincing, there was no longer any gap between acting and natural behavior, between faked and true thoughts. The process ended, in the phrase of a Chinese former victim, with “the physical and mental liquidation of oneself by oneself.”

Thank you.

I was utterly baffled by the top comment's focus on Star Trek (I figured out what "TNG" meant) when there was no mention whatsoever in the article.

Slate's got a good discussion of the piece:


The TNG episode is a direct reference to Orwell's "1984" (but with lights instead of fingers)


I also remember the Babylon 5 fourth season episode “Intersections in Real Time” as being particularly good.

For me, that is one of the best episodes of the best TV show ever made.

I say that because its not just the episodes its self, which is brilliant, its the fact that by the time you get to that episode it really means something. There is a hell of a lot riding on the torture of Sheridan. The TNG episode, while in itself brilliant, sort comes out of no where.

(Yes, Babylon 5 is my Linux/Mac. Of course there is opinion to the contrary, but Im openly deaf to them.)

I think I loved that treatment even more than Star Trek's. (The Inquisitor episode was interesting too...) In more recent shows (not that I've seen that many) my favorite treatment of torture is probably Theon's in Game of Thrones. There's no higher purpose to it, it's just sadistic pleasure taken from the torturing. The methods are more brutal too -- it's not some magic machine that just stimulates pain centers of the brain, there's pain plus body parts being lost permanently. I think by engaging the victim's imagination of what will come next the torture may be more effective...

What a great show, and so relevant to this day and age. In terms of cultural commentary, it's every bit the equal of Roddenberry's best.

Probably one of my favorite quotes of all time is from that episode:

You just have to say "no, I won't" one more time than they can say "yes, you will".

Funny, I just watched that last week. It really does feel like an episode of the Twilight Zone they way the paced it.

On the subject of SF portrayals of futuristic torture, there's an episode late in Babylon 5 where torture is being used for a more realistic purpose than is usual on American TV -- to elicit utterly and completely false confession and to name names. It's an intense, highly focused, episode and incredibly well done. One of my favourite hours of SF TV ever.

On the other hand Burn Notice is pretty good with torture.

I think Burn Notice's treatment of the subject is good precisely because it doesn't glorify torture. An interrogation on Burn Notice is more likely to involve psychological manipulation instead of torture.

They continually point out that trickery gets you farther than torture.

I thought BSG's treatment of insurgency and torture—especially given that it was contemporaneous with the second Iraq War—was very well done.

Why do you think it's propaganda?

Timing, channel, and political back drop.

I don't think it's propaganda. It's a result of the same feedback loop that gives you the morality of soap operas, the absurdity of reality television, the voyeurism of talk shows, historically the extremity of circuses and freak shows: the need to be more attention-grabbing, more extreme, more must-see shocking than the next guy.

It's hardly news that watching that kind of stuff gives you opinions that make you a worse person.

The way I see it, fiction has a dark side and a light side. The dark side normalizes and revels in darkness, to shock and allure the audience. The light side is shocked at the darkness and stands against it, to educate and enlighten the audience.

Torture-as-a-tool became normalized in US media at about the time the US administration approved its use as a military tool. Until then this view of torture was taboo. So if the lifting of the taboo wasn't propaganda in the strict sense (recommended/directed by the authorities), it can be considered a type of voluntary propaganda in support of the decision making of the authorities (lessening opposition to the behavior of the authorities by explaining the same type of behavior from a sympathetic perspective).

Good point, but I'd like to add some more context.

The average American male has access to all the porn he wants, UFC fights, FPSs, and so on. How is a network broadcaster going to shock and allure him in a way that will clear the censors? The list of options is short and torture is on it.

Then we should take it off the list.

No, it's incredibly entertaining.

It's an interesting viewpoint but I respectfully disagree.

Fiction can only reflect or distort truth, because reality is neither positive and negative nor dark and light, the audience can only choose truth vs. fiction. Objective vs. subjective.

But really we're talking about memory. Lasting effects either conscious or below. The way to remember things is elaboration and repetition. In that way, distortion of truth can only exist when there's limited information, but far more effective is repetition over time AND limited information. You'll only remember the fake stuff.

Moral values are useless to us if we can't use them to decide things about hypothetical situations. In fact, the only way to build and solidify morality (which is memory) is elaboration, more novel experiences and information.

So with that context: Fiction isn't the problem, a stagnant homogenous diet of it is.

I agree that it's not really intentional propaganda but more so a case of need to stimulate more than that which has come before. And maybe it's a short-cut for writers. We see it so frequently because it's a cheap way to build drama or disgust or reasons for revenge or suspense, etc. Doesn't require a difficult set (almost always happens in a simple room), easy to simulate and probably not especially hard to act (writhe around, please).

I think the article gets the causality backwards in saying that shows like this "are re-educating and changing attitudes towards this act." Major-network televisions shows are reactive. They're the product of focus groups and market surveys. They are much more likely to reflect trends in culture than to create those trends. They opportunistically take advantage of social trends that already exist.

This is clear if you look at how television lags society as a whole when it comes to other social trends. By the time CBS aired a show with two major gay characters (Will & Grace in 1998), more than a third of Americans already supported gay marriage. This year, "Modern Family" will feature a gay marriage proposal, now that 55% of Americans support marriage equality. Going back further, the networks didn't air an interracial kiss until Star Trek in 1968, a year after the Supreme Court (itself an extremely reactive institution), struck down bans on interracial marriage. As of 2010, more than 1 in 6 new marriages was interracial, but you'd hardly perceive that watching network TV, where interracial relationships are still highly unusual. The Brady Bunch, which ran from 1969-1974, pioneered portraying a blended family on TV, with two previously-divorced parents, but by 1969 divorce was already mainstream and divorce rates were comparable to what they are today (they peaked ~1980). In 1960, when TV was still idealizing stay-at-home mom June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver, a third of the labor force was women.

Given the track-record of television when it comes to other social trends, I think it's incorrect to say that television is "changing attitudes" towards torture. More likely is that it's reflecting attitudes in society more condoning of torture than they have been in the past.

I think you are right about television being largely reactive, but I do wonder about feedback loops.

CSI is set in Las Vegas. They show multiple murders on a typical night shift, yet in reality there is "only" a murder every 2 or 3 days. Of course it makes sense that they would actually show things happening, but I wonder how that feeds into people's perceptions of the world (The "CSI effect" is apparently a real thing, so people have taken some lessons from it, right?).

Do you think we could get pink alleys in toys department without some positive force feedback loop going wild?

Influence goes both ways. Viewers influence decissions about tv content but that content influences viewers. If the loop is not broken somewhere it will spiral outof control.

More likely is that it's reflecting attitudes in society more condoning of torture than they have been in the past.

Also, it could be depicting instances of torture more explicitly, without necessarily condoning them. At least in the "24" case, the "good guy" isn't a boy scout but a morally-ambiguous, gritty, hardened "any means necessary" warrior. As such, it's perhaps more realistic to depict him doing "bad guy" stuff to get things done.

It's reflective of a culture of cynicism. The hero cannot win without compromising his/her own morality and so must chose to sacrifice it to defeat the antagonist. The is perceived to be more "modern" and "realistic" way of story-telling. See Man of Steel as one of the prime examples of a cynical culture destroying one of our most optimistic characters.

A similar issue came up when 24 was popular:



"Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?" Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges. "Say that criminal law is against him? 'You have the right to a jury trial?' Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so.


Jack Bauer has the luxury of being right or mostly right when he tortures people.

In the movies, the good guys know with near-perfect certainty that the bad guy knows where the bomb is, and there is only just enough time to get the information - thus, torture. If real-world torture worked under similar certainty, few people would be against it.

If one person tortures one other person and as a result found the bomb, he probably wouldn't get a very hard sentence. But in reality (as I understand it, I'm not exactly a subject matter expert), you'd be trying a guy who tortured 50 guys, 49 of which didn't know anything (or didn't break) or fed you disinformation, and then one guy who told you something actionable, that you plausibly could (but perhaps not) have learnt through other channels.

24 is a much better example than Fringe. If Fringe depicts torture as a tool, it also depicts time travel as a tool and wacky science as a tool, but I don't see the author taking umbrage.

Fringe, like 24, is a work of fiction. The problem is not the series' content. The real problem is letting politicians and media use a work of fiction as an actual situation. Using "Jack Bauer" in the debate about torture is like using Planet of the Apes in the debate about space exploration.

I'm the author... I pretty much figured that 24 was generally acknowledged to be torture full. I wrote that piece after spending the holidays binge watching X-Files and Fringe. Such similar subject matter but such hugely different treatments.

The problem with your hand-waving away of the issue is that torture is something that we as humans have a long, close history of, and time-travel is just a fantasy. To represent these as being essentially the same level of concept is utterly disingenuous.

But unlike time travel and alternate dimensions, torture is a thing we have in our world of real things.

But the rest of your comment is completely correct.

Interestingly, the creator of 24 (Joel Surnow) gave a much more nuanced treatment of torture in his earlier "La Femme Nikita". The protagonist agency regularly used torture to hunt down terrorists, but the people practicing it are portrayed as far less sympathetic than Jack Bauer.

In 24 at first they tried to attach consequences in the form of the physical and emotional degradation of Jack Bauer, but after a few seasons of successes and redemption, it made no impact anymore. I can't recall instances of the good guys in Fringe using torture directly. I'm sure they are there, and I've just become numb to them.

By season 6 of 24 they nuked a city in USA just to get Bauer to go back to work.

That's not even the most unbelievable thing in the show. I mean, an entire season is supposed to take place over a 24 hour period, making each episode a running hour of time. You expect us to believe that Jack Bauer can drive across LA 3 times an hour!? BULLSHIT!

I was mostly disappointed he never got hungry. You'd think he'd at least be eating a clif bar or a sandwich every few episodes.

I think he ate once when he was getting debriefed

yeah, you gotta figure superAgentJackBauer has a caloric burn rate of at least 5000 calories.

Yeah, but by then, 24 had become a cartoon. I watched it as though it was a slapstick comedy. As a big dumb cartoon, 24 made sense to me. If I took it seriously, it just made me angry. I came to absolutely love it as an outrageous joke.

In the 5th season, Peter tortures an observer. But this is displayed in a dark light, and the torture fails. It's not glorified. It's in fact the dark side, a counter-balance to Olivia's mourning.

Basically, it's portrayed as a horrific, shocking action, made all the more horrible because of who's doing it. It's the first steps down a darker road for Peter.

So, yeah, not at all propaganda supporting torture.

Didn't pressure make Keifer do little PSA's during the commercials of the last season or two of 24, saying that 'this is just a TV show torture shouldn't really ever be used'?

You could say the same about "The Blacklist" right now; the FBI in that show uses violence at the drop of a hat. (And they're portrayed as the heroes even though it doesn't work for them at all --- the whole premise of the show is that it's brought them so little that they don't even know the identities of the Kingpins of Evil on the titular list.)

An interesting point in American fiction in particular, is that, generally it always has the lesson: "violence works" or "violence is the solution". Applying violence to a problem is a pretty common way of solving it. And, of course, a big enough nuclear bomb will fix any problem...

A line like Doctor Who's "everyone lives!" is very difficult to find in an american show.

(It's not that I have a problem with american fiction, I just find it curious)

Relevant quote from the current Doctor Who show-runner, Steven Moffat:

“Heroes are important. Heroes tell us who we want to be but when they made this particular hero they didn’t give him a gun, they gave him a screwdriver to fix things. They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-Wing, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help and they didn’t give him a superpower or a heat-ray, they gave him an extra heart. And that’s extraordinary. There will never come a time when we don’t need a hero like The Doctor.”

The Doctor is a wonderful call back to a science fiction time when humans could be rational. Sometimes violence was needed, but always when all other options have been exhausted. Since then, science fiction tends to dwell in the darker and dystopian aspects of humanity.

Maybe Doctor Who's explosive popularity in the States will have a moderating effect? I mean, my 11-year-old son is part of a generation whose favorite fictional character uses a screwdriver and has two hearts.

SONIC screwdriver! ;)

Have you ever lived in America?

This idea that violence can be used to solve stuff is not limited to fiction, people use it in their everyday lives in America.

I'm always fascinated by how quickly situations in America will degrade to physical violence, or the threat thereof.

America's vices of choice are greed and violence.

England's are sex and drugs.

You may be a little off. Americans like porn and weed as much as anyone. And who regularly vies with Germany for having the most violent football (soccer) brawlers seemingly as a matter of national pride?

> An interesting point in American fiction in particular, is that, generally it always has the lesson: "violence works" or "violence is the solution".

I think that taking that as a "lesson" is a mistake. Its true that American fiction is pretty prone to relying on physical violence as the central form of conflict, but I don't think that's so much a lesson as a lack of creativity.

I'm using "lesson" as "underlaying value of the story", not necessarily that I agree with that or it is used in a conscious way, but it's the way it is presented... "someone has problem, someone uses violence, the problem is fixed and everyone is happy!"

(Again, I don't think is a huge deal and I am not implying that people can't distinguish fiction of real life or something)

Every story is a lesson.

There is an awful lot of programming/etc that doesn't ever really even touch on violence (while still being fictional). A good portion of adolescent dramas do 'violence is bad' episodes (where some character feels bad for punching someone or something).

Action/adventure stuff definitely reaches for the gun pretty quickly.

Are you saying American fiction overplays how effective violence is compared to other options?

Because it's clear (and you may be acknowledging) that violence is the best option in at least some circumstances. Otherwise, prisons, soldiers, and police officers wouldn't be necessary.

Yes, my perception is that, in general, in American fiction, the way to go is with a violent solution! (Again, that's makes great spectacular movies, don't get me wrong, and it's a general thing compared with movies from elsewhere, not something that happens all the time)

For example, if you want to stop a meteorite hitting Earth, do not use rockets attached to its surface, explode a huge nuclear bomb!

If you have to start the nucleus rotation, do not make any chemical reaction or engineering project, just explode a huge nuclear bomb!

If you are a multibillionaire that wants to solve crime, just personally punch criminals in the face!

And we're talking about fiction, not real life. I'm ok with spectacular, but I can't help noticing it :-P

Violence is harming a person or living thing.

Blowing inanimate things up is just physics.

Eh, true. But on a basic level, with empathy turned down (and it is, after all it's just a show and no one is really getting hurt), it's basically the same thing. "Other people" can just be meat that's in the way.

Well, that whats you have been taught to believe, sure.

See, how do you know you dont think that because of decades of the media tell you to think that? Not just that but American culture is gun culture rooted in the Wild West way of things. Look at how the gun nuts can even consider life without guns. Something weird, amusing and scary to many civilized countries.

There are significantly less prisons, soldiers and police officers in countries which to a lesser degree favor violence as a solution.

Those two comments don't disagree. "overplay" and "works in some situations" are concepts that agree quite readily.

And the other site is that sex is evil. Even little breast used to be more difficult to display in a movie than a decapitation. Oral in a woman? Better torture someone.

People who coined the term enhanced interrogation should be subjected to the said interrogation. Joking aside, I agree with the overall point the author is making. There is a torture creep in the culture and people are getting insensitive to what it means. Because it feels good to catch the bad guy and do unspeakable things unto him and get the location of the ticking time bomb. What most people don't realize is that torture doesn't work. The person being tortured will give what ever information the torturer is looking for to stop the pain. However, that is an inconvenient fact that people tend to ignore.

Sometimes the subject does have the sought-after information, and the interrogator knows the subject has it, and people will die if that information is not extracted. Sometimes asking nicely doesn't work, and neither does saying "Tell me! or I'll say 'Tell me!' again!"

Another inconvenient fact is sometimes it does work, and is an alternative to actual harm.

ETA: I'm surprised at how many here adhere to the notion "you can't ever know if the subject knows". We justifiably incarcerate people in peacetime, and kill people in war, on less information. As another poster noted: if the subject possesses a computer clearly connected with the issue, admits it's his, admits he knows the password, refuses to give the password, reveals the password under enhanced interrogation (with no physical harm done), and the password decrypts life-saving information, far better that than letting innocents die (or killing him putatively after the fact) because "torture isn't nice". Unwavering equalization of torture with crime (and invariant punishment thereof) is just as absurd as invariably criminalizing use of deadly force in defense of self or others. I get that sometimes/often/usually it doesn't work, but this broad insistence it is always criminal is absurd.

This is a popular fallacy for supporting torture, but there are a couple things wrong with it.

Firstly, the most likely outcome of torture is false information and multiple sources from the CIA to the FBI and various levels of rank[1] have said that one of the most problematic issues with torture based intel is the extreme amount of time it takes to verify anything because most of it is made up. So in a ticking time bomb scenario, torturing someone you think has information may make you FEEL better, but it is a waste of time (which, by default, is in short supply).

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly amongst this crowd, the logic doesn't work. Statistically speaking, ticking time bomb situations do not actually occur in real life and basing institutionalized acceptance of torture on a fantasy what if scenario is intellectual fraud. Georgetown law's David Luban has an excellent 2005 essay "Liberalism Torture and the Ticking Bomb"[2] that takes a deep dive into the psychology behind this argument as well as the real-world applications. It's linked further down in these comments by @elipsey[3].

[1] http://skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/4498/does-tortur...

[2] http://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?ar...

[3] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7017729

To be honest, I'm not comfortable with the 'torture is bad because it is ineffective' argument, because it sidesteps the larger moral issue.

For the sake of argument: if it turns out that slicing off a man's left hand will always yield 100% verifiable information, should we still be doing it? My answer to that is still going to be no. The effectiveness of torture is besides the point.

> To be honest, I'm not comfortable with the 'torture is bad because it is ineffective' argument, because it sidesteps the larger moral issue.

I, on the other hand, favor it because it sidesteps the moral issue and presents what is, in fact, a strong and compelling argument against torture that does not rely on first principles that are demonstrably not held by those who would advocate for torture in the first place.

The fact that torture is wasteful even if you ignore any moral considerations is a lot more powerful of an argument against it than one which requires the audience to accept that "torture is wrong" is true as a matter of moral first principles, no matter how much one might wish that the rest of the population would accept that moral principle.

If torture were effective, it would allow the debate to be framed as a tradeoff. If slicing off the man's left hand would allow you to save X lives with 100% certainty, pretty much everyone has a value of X for which they would justify the action -- for most people that value would be quite low.

The problem with these tradeoffs is that there's no clear cut moral high ground on which choice is correct -- it's a murky area. So it's a much more compelling argument if you can make the case that the tradeoff doesn't exist at all b/c torture is ineffective.

> The effectiveness of torture is besides the point.

Except it's not. Those that are willing to turn to torture don't have a moral issue with it, it would not be just another tool if they did. The effectiveness of the tool is an argument people like that are interested in. In just the same way as those that do have moral issues with torture don't care if it was very effective, your arguments need to be tailored to the audience. Given a varied audience, you hit all the points.

Torture doesn't work for extracting information, it's effectiveness is basically useless. That is, if you are torturing to get information in the first place.

Note that much of the information you cite is old, from technologically backwards times. E.g., the CIA's 1963 interrogation manual:

   Intense pain is quite likely to produce false
   confessions, concocted as a means of escaping
   from distress. A time-consuming delay results,
   while investigation is conducted and the admissions
   are proven untrue. During this respite the interrogatee
   can pull himself together. He may even use the time to
   think up new, more complex ‘admissions’ that take still
   longer to disprove.
A story told by the interrogatee that took a few days to check out then quite possibly could be checked out in a few minutes now, because of our vastly better computer, database, and communications technology.

I think there is a chance there may be a window where torture works reasonably well. You start out where it doesn't work well, for the reason given in the 1963 CIA manual.

Then, as technology gets better, so that you have the databases and data mining applications and communications technology to check out the interrogatee's story in close to real time, torture becomes effective.

Later, as the technology gets even better, and the databases get bigger (ironically, partly due to things like the NSA surveillance), you reach a point where the interrogations are pointless because you aren't getting anything from the interrogatee that you couldn't have gotten quicker with clever queries to the databases you already have.

> Then, as technology gets better, so that you have the databases and data mining applications and communications technology to check out the interrogatee's story in close to real time, torture becomes effective.

This assumes that being able to prove the torture victims story quicker increases the chance of getting a truthful admission.

For starters that presumes that the torture victim knows what you want, which is not a given.

Secondly it presumes that the torture victim will give up the information if only you can keep the pressure up long enough. If it was "that simple" a solution to the problem in the CIA manual would be to simply recommend to continue the torture regardless of admissions, until one of them is proven true, while insisting to the victim that you believe he is lying.


"He asked them where the bomb was. The terrorists-highly dedicated and steeled to resist interrogation-remained silent. [He] asked the question again, advising them that if they did not tell him what he wanted to know, he would kill them. They were unmoved. So [he] took his pistol from his gun belt, pointed it at the forehead of one of them, and shot him dead. The other two, he said, talked immediately; the bomb, which had been placed in a crowded railway station and set to explode during the evening rush hour, was found and defused, and countless lives were saved."

Interestingly, I can find no evidence that this ever occurred outside of the little anecdote in the aforementioned paper, which cites a January 2002 article in The Atlantic.

The article again, is purely anecdotal. The interrogator's name of "Thomas" is just an alias, ostensibly used for "safety reasons".

Well, Luban essay cites newspaper sources as well, it's not a problem per se.

It's easy to construct Jack Bauer scenarios in fiction, but they are exceedingly unlikely to come up in real life. Real life is a multithreaded narrative - there's never just ONE lead to follow and you can never be that certain the lead you're looking at is the right one.

What made torture "work" in 24 is that Jack Bauer can't trust anybody else and never has more than one lead to follow at a time. Even though he talks to dozens of people who know parts of the big conspiracy, these people all magically disappear but only do so moments after they tell him one key bit of info that will lead him to the next clue. Sometimes they disappear by escaping custody, sometimes they disappear by being killed by the bad guys (or a traitor among the good guys), and sometimes they kill themselves. Through repetition of this pattern, we come to expect that each person who becomes the focus of Jack's attention will have some key bit of info he just has to get out of them. And he has to get that info from them now because he if he doesn't he'll never see them again.

Real life doesn't work that way.

In real life you have dozens, hundreds, or thousands of possible leads at any given time. Because the bad guys aren't supernaturally good at their job, you can go back and ask followup questions. You can check one guy's testimony against the next guy's. And some of the people you think seem like pretty good leads don't know anything useful. Torturing those people will generate false leads which lead you to torture more people who generate more false leads until your entire organization is in the business of serially torturing innocent people until they tell you whatever you seem to want to hear rather than the business of finding out the actual truth.

Each person you torture into generating false leads makes it more likely people will die because it ties up your organizational resources. It also is likely to generate massive blowback - some of the people you torture become or inspire new enemies, whereas people you are nice to might become friends and voluntarily help the investigation.

Indeed, we should not underestimate the effect of police/agencies behaviour on regular citizen. It is something that shocked me when talking to friends freshly immigrated from countries like South America to London.

They have a general mistrust of cops, the more cop they see the less safe they feel. On the other hand, my wife and I, coming from other European countries are very happy to see cops around.

That said, since Tony Blair's "we can hold you in custody for a month without rights", or the we just shoot random people in the back after 7/7 bombing, our attitude is slowly changing. I'm not sure I would volunteer information to the police related to any hot topic without studying the risks first.

You have no idea what it is like in life. You have a guess but it is entirly wrong. But I do. Simply put I've been there, and no there not hundreds of leads. The people you 'torture' are not random guys, They were linked to the case in question. And the information they give is always always somthing you know and something new, They of course don't know which is which. Otherwise the information is usless and you will need endless amount of time and money to sort it.

Again. Your ideas about real life are entirely wrong.

Where is this "there" that you've been? Are you saying that you, personally, have used torture to resolve a ticking time bomb scenario? Can you be more specific?

Why would it matter that the info they give is "something you know and something new"? How would that stop the "something new" part from being something that was invented to get you to stop torturing them? Of course the most realistic lies will include elements of truth and reference other stuff you think you already know.

And why would merely being "linked to the case in question" mean you can KNOW they have info they aren't willing to volunteer that would help at all, much less that would crack the case? (Sometimes a taxi driver is just a taxi driver.)

We all have witnessed how effective torture was in Guantanamo, with so many prisoners being tortured and released after they have been found not guilty.

"They were linked to the case in question."

Not everyone "linked to the case" is a criminal, terrorist, despicable sub-human scum, or what-have-you.

That is not a popular idea in many areas of the military or law enforcement.

And in your world how do you prove you do not know something ? I guess ... more torture ?

Maybe the fact that you did such things leads you to require to rationalize them. Just about everybody has reasons and is convinced they're correct, that is true even for Charles Manson.

A poem by Erich Fried comes to mind... "don't doubt those who say they're afraid, but be afraid of those who say they know no doubt" -- I guess doubly so if they put torture in quotes.

I'm very curious to hear more. Contrary to this article, I don't see any evidence of "pro-torture propaganda", because everyone in this thread and almost every source I find is anti-torture.

The only interesting source arguing for the effectiveness of torture was this: http://wikileaks.org/wiki/Torture%2C_interrogation_and_intel...

It seems like torture would work, not in a "ticking time-bomb: scenario, but in a situation where you had a long time to corroborate intelligence gathered from torture with other sources. Interrogate the captive on stuff you already know about, and if they lie, punish them with worse forms of torture. And if people are prone to losing their minds under torture - you can merely submit them to one session of brutal torture, then leave them for a few weeks or months before resuming normal interrogation - with the threat of more torture if they don't comply.

One specific example of "torture works" would completely overturn everything that is known about the use of torture by the US. You are so very adamant that one would think you have that example ready to go. And yet you curiously stop before giving any examples, even though that invites thinking you might not be truthful. Strange.

Proving one is the intended target of bigotry is usually unhelpful.

ETA: Downvote demonstrates the point.

Bigotry? Bigotry against torturers? Seriously?

Bigotry is defining a group as inherently evil, and rejecting any sensible discussion with a member thereof on the grounds that someone is (or sympathizes with) one. Never mind whether he may have saved lives thru "enhanced interrogation", your curiosity about what he did exists only insofar as his admission thereof justifies your labeling him as evil (no room for good-faith discourse possibly resulting in "hey, maybe you're not so bad after all").

I find it amazing that there is pro-torture propaganda on TV, never mind that in the real world it is the darkest of the dark crimes against humanity. I find it amazing that the psychologists who designed tortures and the people at Guantanamo who carried out torture are walking free. Shouldn't they be on the run from the same kind of borderless manhunt as WWII era war criminals?

You say I'm not leaving room for good faith discourse. I asked for an example of torture saying a life. I asked because, time after time, in all forums, no such example has ever come up.

The real problem is that torture has been allowed to approach too close to where it's considered OK to use.

I don't see anyone claiming that torturers are inherently evil. I see people claiming that act of torture is inherently evil. I'm perfectly open to the idea that someone who has tortured someone else isn't evil, but torture is always an evil act.

Sometimes does work? You mean, like guessing? I mean, "sometimes" throwing a coin to decide if someone is a criminal will work.

The problem with torture (from a point of view of information) is that the information is NOT reliable AT ALL. Someone under torture will often not only imagine facts, it will actually believe that they are true, and will confess false crimes, especially if presented by the torturer. There is a famous case in Spain in 1910 (a movie was made about it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Crime_of_Cuenca) that two men were charged for a murder and tortured until they confess. 12 years later, the "murdered man" reappeared, having spent the time on a nearby town. There are more real life examples showing that people under torture says mainly what the torturer wants, not real life facts. Even in the presented case (the tortured subject truly has some critical information, which is somehow a "tricky case", real life is not that simple), the resulting information can be fake or inaccurate.

Information is more easily obtained in more reliable ways. Aborted terrorist attacks typically aborted in real life because someone will alert the authorities, or someone is being watched, not catching a "bad guy" and torturing it.

No, if the sought information is simple and verifiable, it most definitely works.

If you withholding a password, a torture would likely reveal it. It can be checked on the spot. There's even a relevant xkcd strip.

If you're a merchant hiding gold assets somewhere, a torture might just convince you to point the stash. And on and on, there were countless cases in human history when torture worked, propagating it's ubiquitous use as investigation method.

If the only evidence you have is in a password protected laptop then the case is flimsy yo begin with. You might as well add coin flipping to the case because that's what you are basically doing.

You realize you now reframing the argument to present simple evidence (which is often the most powerful one) as pointless?

There was a kidnapping case in germany where the police was absolutely certain that the suspect was the right one and that the only way to save the kidnapping victim (a bankers eleven year old son) was to torture the suspect. The suspect then admitted the kidnapping, but the victim had been killed shortly after the actual kidnapping.

One of the fundamentals of the german law systems was broken, by a well-meaning person for practically no gain. The kidnapper later sued the police for the torture and won.

Now germany doesn't have a fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine so the conviction for the kidnapping later was based partially on the information gained in that one interrogation, but what if the kidnapper would walk free because of such a breach of law?

[1] http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entf%C3%BChrung_von_Jakob_von_M... (sorry, german only)

> The kidnapper later sued the police for the torture and won. > but what if the kidnapper would walk free because of such a breach of law?

In the U.S., a kidnapper walking free for something like this would result in a nationwide popular movement to insulate police departments from being sued for torturing suspects.

No way, wouldn't ever happen. In the US this is called a coerced confession and it is inadmissible in court as evidence, as the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Mississippi.


The confession would never be allowed, however if there were other evidence to implicate him, such as blood in his house, that would certainly still be admissible in court and enough to convict him. If however, there was no other evidence AT ALL, than he walks free, and he gets to sue to police.

There wouldn't ever be a movement to stop police from torturing suspects. This is generally frowned upon, even if they are guilty.

If by sometimes you mean hypothetically. Still, we don't need to make torture legal.

But I bite. Let's say that thing you describe happens. People who torture should still get hard sentences, say 20 to 25 years. If they are not willing to sacrifice their own life and break the law to get the information, the torture is not justified.

In other words: torture should always be big personal sacrifice for the torturer.

>(with no physical harm done)

You're going to subscribe to the idea mental torture is somehow less than physical torture? Nope, wrong. Ask anyone who has suffered from a mental illness and ask if their illness was less than a physical illness.

One example.


Number 1 - Mock Executions

It's against international law and The U.S. Army Field Manual expressly prohibits soldiers from staging mock executions.

>and the interrogator knows the subject has it

Oh really? How does this interrogator know? With 100% probability?

I'm not familiar with interrogation techniques, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say we study them like we study most things, with DATA and FACTS, not just some comment on the internet saying "they say Tell me! or I'll say 'Tell me!' again!'" because there is a good incentive to get the technique right, and people know more than me.

Rather than legalizing torture as a result of these sorts of fantasies, one might argue that in such extraordinary cases, the interrogator should be willing to suffer the consequences of committing the crime of torture.

This risks giving them some sort of glorified martyr position that people might subsequently aspire to.

As opposed to risking just making it legal so anyone can do it without a second thought?

As opposed to saying "It's never the right thing to do, no matter how certain you are that this case is different".

I agree, but I was addressing the fantasy that there is a different case, which remains pervasive, despite an abundance of strong arguments against it made by other replies offered to parent.

How is the determination made that the subject does have the sough-after information. Because the subject may give what ever information the interrogator is biased to receive.

The following pdf "http://www.cgu.edu/pdffiles/sbos/costanzo_effects_of_interro... makes the case much more eloquently than I can in this comment section. Reading the "Conclusion: Consequences and Alternatives" section is very instructive.

Also the guardian article "http://www.theguardian.com/science/the-lay-scientist/2010/no... is very instructive.

Furthermore, I feel using torture is inherently immoral and we should strive to achieve a better world even when we know that our adversaries are not playing by the rules.

You need to fix your links, remove the quotes at the end of them please.

> Sometimes the subject does have the sought-after information

As far as I know this has never been the case in the history of the use of torture in US interrogations. Before you make statements in favor of torture, you should probably have a specific case in mind or it's just being gratuitously in favor of torture.

> Sometimes the subject does have the sought-after information, and the interrogator knows the subject has it, and people will die if that information is not extracted.

And even then, it is not the most effective method of extracting it.

> Another inconvenient fact is sometimes it does work

Sometimes it might, but there is no set of observable circumstances from which it can be concluded that torture will be expected to work better than other methods, so it is never a reasonable choice even excluding any negative moral considerations (or negative impact of more indirect effects of adopting such methods as policy) applicable to the method.

> and is an alternative to actual harm.

"Enhanced interrogation" is a euphemism for methods that involve actual harm, not an alternative to them.

Well, consensus seems to be that you're wrong, but I think you're obviously right. However, you left off one of the most important conditions: the interrogator has to be able to tell that you've told him the truth. The scenario where torture would best work is when you pick up someone with an encrypted laptop and want the password that they have. In that situation, it will work.

>but I think you're obviously right

Did you read all the research presented in the article and here in the comments and come up with that conclusion, or are you just talking out of your ass?

What if they didn't have the password? This is a real life example. I'm going to use an example. This lady was stopped on an airplane because she was carrying explosives. Her husband packed her bags and she didn't know she was carrying them. What if it was a really important laptop? Would you torture her? Would you risk giving her a lifetime of mental and physical scars because you thought she had a password she didn't even have?

>In that situation, it will work.

You sure about that? Some people would rather be a martyr and die. Examples are all around.

Waterboarding can cause death by the way.

You're confused. The question is whether torture works. Many people in this thread and elsewhere have claimed that it never does because they wish it were true. I have not seen anyone even claim that torture can be resisted, let alone provide evidence of this claim. Please provide a link. What people argue is that you can't trust the information produced by torture, but this misses the obvious set of cases where trust is not required.

Please note: I am not arguing for the use of torture! You're right that in many cases the victim will not have the sought information. That doesn't mean torture doesn't work.

Sometimes the subject does have the sought-after information, and the interrogator knows the subject has it, and people will die if that information is not extracted.

Given that professional interrogators have come out and said that the 'ticking time bomb' situation does not happen in real life, this argument is pointless. Argue about the kind of tortures that actually happen, don't construct a fantasy scenario to prove a philosophical ideal and then assume that covers the ordinary case.

It's the same way with other things, like the recent privacy revelations regarding the NSA. I'm pretty sure I remember seeing thriller films in the 80s or 90s where the completely over the top, unambiguously evil government plan was spying on citizen's telephone calls. A couple of decades later, that becomes reality, and a huge number of people have no problem with it.

I think part of this is certainly the mystique of the cowboy cop trope [0]. They'll do anything to get their man, even if the man in the next room thinks they've gone to far. and they get results. And your rogue cop has to be bigger and badder than Harry Callahan and whomever came after.

And then a little of art imitating life, "real people are doing water boarding, the audience needs to see something worse than that"

[0] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CowboyCop

Yeah. When a good guy tortures, it shows he's how far he's willing to go to save the day. And when a good guy is tortured, it shows how tough he is when he resists (and he almost always resists).

The TV channels really should buy more Russian TV series and overdub them. The Russians have made tons of movies about the war with fascist Germany (and its aftermath because it did not really end on VE day) and there was a lot of torture used by both the Soviets and the Nazis. But it was often ineffective in that the victims either died without saying anything or they misled their torturers resulting in serious loss to the enemy who believed the info received from torture. And the folks who had real good info knew that they would be tortured, and when they realized that they were about to be captured, they either committed suicide or shouted to their friends to be shot to death.

In other words, anyone who follows the truth of torture use during a historical conflict will realize that it does not work well.

In fact, what worked better was to trick the person into revealing info. These were often set up as complex double and triple bluffs because the folks in charge knew that their prisoner would try to trick them back and therefore they had to outsmart the prisoner. In one case, the Nazis did a complex bluff where they booked up all the port time at three French ports, and all the rail shipping slots between France and Germany. They had two goals. To get a Soviet spy ring to report back with encoded messages containing the names of the three ports so that they could get a foothold in cracking their cipher, and convincing the English (and Soviets) that an invasion was imminent so that they would waste efforts. In fact the plan was to move additional forces to the Eastern front.

In that case the Soviet spies outfoxed the Germans when they learned that all the trains were empty and therefore did not report the port names in code. And this warned the Soviets of a German push coming up in the next few weeks so they were better prepared.

There are a lot of fascinating stories from the Eastern Front waiting for someone to take the trouble to overdub them in English.

This recapitulates many arguments made by Georgetown law's David Luban in the excellent 2005 essay "Liberalism Torture and the Ticking Bomb" which we should all go read right now :)


I initially thought that this essay is taking on the advocacy of torture by liberals as in progressives. But then I did a quick read and found that the author uses liberal as in freely. I will be going through this in detail.

I think you may also like the essay {PDF warning} http://www.cgu.edu/pdffiles/sbos/costanzo_effects_of_interro....

Thank you. It's nice to see an empirical discussion of this subject. I'll have a look at some of the cited sources too.

Empirical information is sorely missing from our discourse to the point that the general public doesn't question any more the pontifications of pundits. Case in point is the recent claim made by Stuart Varney on Fox that since two ships are stuck in sea ice in Antartic means there is no Global Warming. There is that another misnomer. I wish people start referring to GW as Climate change. Any way I am going off on a tangent here.

Very interesting! I would look at the depiction of torture in Fringe in another light though. X-Files was a cult show that ran on Friday nights (first few seasons) with low expectations. Fringe had high-expectations from the start, had J.J Abrams named attached and (this part is a guess) a more expensive cast. It never did very well in the ratings and was on cancellation watch for most of its existence. It actually did follow the "Monster of the Week" formula more often the first couple of seasons but then started emphasizing the overarching plot more often in the later seasons. The threat of cancellation, I think, explains the use of eye-catching tactics like torture, and how they seemed to retcon the previous season, each season and start an entirely different plot. They never expected to keep going and didn't plan very far in advance.

X-Files had very different constraints which were only relaxed as the years went on and their budget increased. You can actually see the point in season 2 where the show is beginning to become popular enough that they start having better make-up and effects.

"It never did very well in the ratings and was on cancellation watch for most of its existence."

I did some research and "Fringe" pulled 3 million viewers. Awful.

"xfiles" pulled 10-30 million viewers. Not 1.0 to 3.0, 10 to 30. Never quite hit 30 but got close, like 27 million.

"Survivor" used to pull nearly as many as xfiles but now only pulls about ten million viewers in the USA (out of 314 million total population, according to google, so about 30 out of every 31 people do not watch Survivor)

The premise of the article is normalization of torture is a great way to become a blinding success like the x-files, because it mentioned the xfiles and that was a highly successful show. However, comparison of the numbers shows normalization of torture is a great way to repel around 97% of the viewers of a successful show, not to become successful.

You can't really compare viewership numbers between the X-Files era and the Finge era. The media landscape is totally different now. 3 million viewers isn't necessarily "awful" when you're competing against just about everything.

You'd need to analyze glorification of torture across "everything" then. Also TV viewership hours, as reported by guys trying to sell commercial airtime, hasn't collapsed by a factor of 10 yet.

Another point of argument is TV is "free" and "omnipresent" so another way to phrase it, is in a country of 314 million people an excellent way to repel over 99% of the population from something widely available and free is to glorify torture.

Lets try a comparison. To remove financial concerns, as a thought experiment a nationwide burger chain could hand out free hamburgers to everyone who wants one. Then you could draw conclusions about levels of vegetarianism/veganism and such that would be untainted by economic concerns. I think this would be insanely popular. So here's a real world experiment in the same tradition, in providing something free to anyone who wants it, and in excess of 99% of the population rejects it, therefore it must somehow in a twisted logic define the values of a culture. Huh?

Their moral compass is right and well spoken, their writing style is pretty good, its just their reasoning and data gathering / reporting is awful. Their conclusion might even accidentally be correct, although not for the reasons they propose. As a philosophy paper they'd get an "A", journalism class would probably give them a "B" or so, but as a hard science lab notebook or paper they'd be skating along the "F" level.

Infotainment/Propaganda, unfortunately. Its too bad, its an interesting topic, and their hearts appear to be in the right place.

I'm the OP. The torture that most jumped out at me was in the first season of Fringe...

"24" is one of the most brilliant (in its use, if not its composition) and effective pieces of modern/contemporary propaganda that I've seen.

I think it played a significant role in U.S. society's development over during the first decade of this century. Hell, I observed this, first hand, in my friends. When your erstwhile quite liberal and at least mildly "flower child" longtime friend -- who "can't" miss an episode of "24" -- starts telling you that maybe torture is necessary...

I hope Kiefer Sutherland has sleepless nights...

Torture is pointless since the counter-interrogation method while being tortured is to never admit to anything. Giving any information just invites more torture because if there is a bit of info then there must be more and they will keep torturing you, at least according to the IRA green book. The French wrote about how useless torture is for intel as well when they decided to use it wholesale in the Algerian war. It produced nothing, yet in 2014 this fallacy is still around and we are still doing it.

The IRA green book may not be a reliable source of information on this. Wouldn't it give the same advice even if giving up information in reality usually made the torture stop? The book's goal there is to get prisoners to not talk, not to help prisoners have the least unpleasant experience in captivity.

I'd expect that the captor's expectation is that prisoners have a non-zero finite amount of useful information, and that in many cases the captor has some idea of how much and what kind of information the prisoner has. If the prisoner does not give up information, wouldn't the incentive for the captors to be to keep torturing because they are sure that there is something to get?

Strategically, it should be best for the prisoner to give up information that matches what the torturers were looking for, so that it is plausible that when the prisoner says he has no more that he is telling the truth.

See here for a mathematical treatment of this: http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jel292/torture.pdf

I can't help recalling Firefly, where (spoilers) only the worst, most sadistic bad guy (Adelai Niska) tortures people[1]. He does so using any method he can, not to get information but just because he loves to do it. It is obviously also a warning to other people not to annoy him, but this is almost a secondary purpose, at best equal with causing immense pain to his enemies.

This is a reasonably accurate depiction of torture, as far as I understand the science of it, and it's one of the few reasons torture might actually be used (i.e. at the orders of a complete psychopath.) - although Mal Reynolds seems unfeasibly good at resisting it (any evidence that this occasionally happens? I'd be interested to hear.)

[1] You can read about the character here: http://firefly.wikia.com/wiki/Adelai_Niska and you can buy the DVD of the original series here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Firefly-The-Complete-Series-DVD/dp/B... (check out, in similar items, the film Serenity, which rounds off the plotlines from the series nicely.)

Mal throws a henchman through an engine. The next guy talks without much bother.

Killing people is not the same as torture, and is not serving the same purpose.

The Firefly gang fight and kill all the time, the first episode forces a pacifist (Book) to confront his objections to violence in a nontrivial moral situation. What they don't do routinely as a tactic is torture people.

A better counterexample would be Jayne and the fed: "Damn, and I was gonna get me a ear, too..."

He was going for compliance to orders, not for information though.

Mind, the protagonists kill plenty and kill violently in that series, but they're outlaws. Literary convention allows them to do something morally ambiguous.

I see it as a variant of the 'hedonic treadmill'. So many scenes of extreme behavior, by 'bad guys' and 'good guys', have already been done in filmed/televised entertainment, that audiences are habituated to all the usual situations and nastiness. New works must keep going more extreme, in both what happens and what's shown on-screen (as opposed to suggested), to hold attention.

I wrote a blog post about this back in 2005, when Hostel was coming out. It seems that's right about our fascination with torture on TV has started. While I cringe at my writing from 9 years ago, it seems like things have only gotten worse since then.

> With seemingly inevitable theatrical success of 'Hostel' and recent mainstream movies such as 'Passion of the Christ' and 'Sin City' reveling in accurately depicting violence and torture, I started thinking what does that say about our society and what horrors are next in line for the viewers, hungry for more blood and suffering. And then it dawned on me - almost this exact situation was already predicted, in a dystopian 1966 sci-fi story by Robert Silverberg called 'The Pain Peddlers'.

> 'The Pain Peddlers' depicts a scary, bleak and sarcastic view of the future - in the early 00's, television is king. And what brings most money to TV networks is live surgery. In the story, the main character is a TV producer who got a very promising prospect - an old man suffering from gangrene and a family, too broke to take care of the hospital bill. The old man needs to have his leg amputated, and the family agreed to do it on live TV. It's the producer's job to convince the family to have the amputation without anesthesia - for more money, of course. Nothing brings in the viewers quite like real human agony.

> Remembering this story, which I read long time ago, was a very scary experience for me, because... in 1966, when it was written, it was pure fantasy - the notion of something like that actually happening never occurred to Silverberg or his contemporaries. But does it sound that incredible now? With TV viewers getting tired of same-old reality shows and public's growing hunger for violence, how long until a new reality show depicting real surgery appears on, say, HBO? Probably not right away. But I can definitely see something like that happening, not too far away in the future.

I viewed Lethal Weapon as one of the early movies to glorify torture to get what you want out of bad guys. On TV the Shield took it to a much higher level.

I felt The Shield dealt with it very well though, especially the developments in the final episodes. We're supposed to hate all the people in the story that torture, and the 'wrong' of empathizing with them is spelled out in the end (in a much better way, I feel, than The Sopranos did).

In fact, I remember being somewhat shocked by Ryan's follow-up, "The Unit", which seemed much more pro-violence and torture (perhaps through some influence of David Mamet).

At least on the Shield the lead characters are pretty morally ambiguous (at best).

Casual, unthinking propaganda. And worse, unthinking rationalization for real-world torture.

So often you see the "good guys" being badasses by using torture, brutality, or simply ignoring the rights of suspects. And frequently they are rewarded for it, lauded for it, and there aren't any downsides. The good guys never screw up, the suspected bad guys turn out to be the real bad guys, and so on. All of this has become cliche as storytelling elements in police procedurals, but they give people a very dangerous idea about the value of torture and the non-value of the rights of the accused.

It's so bad that the vast majority of people doing it don't even realize what they're doing, don't realize how much they are propagandizing torture and police brutality.

Ah, do you remember the old good times when Terry Gilliam's Brazil came out, and the idea of a SWAT team destroying your house, imprisoning and killing your husband, all due to a bureaucratic mistake, was a bizarre fantasy of a dystopian and dictatorial future?

No. It has always been plausible.

Just perhaps not a SWAT team, specifically.

I've been noticing television and media getting more and more brutal over the years.

Batman and Robin have transformed from tights wearing guy's saying holy rusted metal to driving military hum-Vs with gatling guns.

The joker has transformed from a goofy prankster makeup wearing guy to a all out sociopath who slices happy faces into people with knives.

The first appearance of the Joker (Batman #1 1940) was incredibly scary and grim. He's a murderer, killing 3 or 4 people with poison that make them smile, and the general style is quite dark. [1]

Sure, comic books move to a different ground later, and the Joker in particular moved to be more of a harmless clown until the 70s, when "The Joker's five way revenge" (Batman #251 1973) made him back to a scary killer again.

It depends on taste, but to me the idea of someone using a joke cigar that explodes blow away a whole floor is quite brutal. It is brutal because it takes something "funny/harmless" and moves it to actually killing someone. In one comic he throws a cartoon 10 tons weight to someone. And you can see the blood of the crushed guy on the floor. I find that pretty dark. And I think that the contrast of bright colours, smiles and silly jokes while being a mass murderer is what makes the Joker an special character...

[1] http://comicbookmovie.com/images/users/uploads/27306/JOKER_f...

That's interesting. I guess what I'm noticing is not so much the sinister intentions but the sort of gruesome nature with which it's portrayed these days. The joker has always been a sinister agent of chaos that kills people indiscriminately. But the Heath Ledger joker surgically implanted a bomb inside of a guy. He sliced peoples faces into smiley faces. That's stuff straight out of the movie Saw. The most the Jack Nicholson joker did was squirt poison gas out of the flower on his jacket or explode people. They just die, and that's that, nothing that gruesome.

I am not sure if I would call Jack Nicholson's Joker a goofy prankster. Well he was, but... he was just a different flavor "all out sociopath" than Ledger's Joker. I say this as a huge fan of both Batman (1989) and The Dark Knight (2008).

I am assuming you must have been talking about the Adam West TV series Joker.

I do observe the same trend as you however in general. I think the rise of of video games has a big role. People can play action movies now. If they are going to be reduced to spectators, the movies need to one up the games on other metrics like storyline and acting (rare), or effects and violence (more common).

Real torture has been policy for over a decade; no one has been prosecuted for it, and the evidence was intentionally and unashamedly destroyed.

Why shouldn't television reflect reality? Torture isn't wrong or illegal anymore in the US.

> Why shouldn't television reflect reality?

Because there's a cycle. TV reflects reality, but it also shapes reality. It shapes us.

> the evidence was [...] unashamedly destroyed

And without protest. I believe TV has made our society comfortable with torture, and thus we allow it to happen.

>Because there's a cycle. TV reflects reality, but it also shapes reality. It shapes us.

If you take the cultural studies view that our media is a reflection of our cultural unconscious, rather than a form of corporate speech from power.

>And without protest. I believe TV has made our society comfortable with torture, and thus we allow it to happen.

There was a ton of protest, and it didn't matter. It was the subject of hundreds of articles, and congressional questioning, and it didn't matter.

There's an illusion of control here. If you are arrested, and US intelligence agencies feel that you may be a friend of a friend of a Muslim of interest, you may be tortured - largely dependent on whether anyone knows you were arrested, and on what soil you were arrested on.

We allow it to happen because we love it, are indifferent to the suffering of foreigners and minorities, or are afraid of being tortured ourselves. Same reason they allow it to happen in Egypt, Turkmenistan, or anywhere else. Blaming it on TV is like blaming gun violence on video games.

That being said, when something purports to be a depiction of a historical reality, such as in Zero Dark Thirty, it is a travesty - but it's always a travesty when history is rewritten to glorify the powerful.

The treatment of torture on TV is important for the reasons OP states. I disagree that torture is becoming more prevalent on TV, though perhaps because I watch less of it. Here are the scenes I can remember from childhood onward.

1. Knight Rider - not exactly torture but Michael was in a contest with someone else to tolerate pain, afterwards it was revealed the other person was not connected to the machine.

2. Star Trek - I can remember Kirk in a reclined chair on the Enterprise, looking up at something that was causing great pain.

2. ST:TNG - The Picard scene is memorable because it affected so many people due to the show's popularity.

3. Firefly - This was particularly well done / graphic because I think Nathan Fillion is very good physical actor.

One of the ways torture affects the lives of ordinary americans is through the Taser. Youtube has some eye-opening examples of tasers being used for the wrong reasons. Its a near impossible line to walk between non-lethal force and pain as coercion.

There are all good classic torture scenes, but realize that in none of them is the interrogator looking for information. Each scene was to break the subject, or to cause pain/death. Those instances of torture have no moral component past sadism.

The issue is when you depict torture as a morally good, effective method of protecting people. Thats when people begin to believe that its an agreeable act.

It's worth noting that the Firefly torture scene was not an information-gathering operation. It was torture for the sake of torture.

I haven't watched enough pop culture (basically none of 24, for instance) to know how uncommon that is in comparison with torture for the sake of "Where is the bomb!?", but it is probably significant.

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