Jonah Goldberg at The Corner:
I’ve long been fascinated with the disconnect between what pundits, politicians and various activist groups complain about and the status of interrogation techniques in the popular culture (here’s a column I did on the subject in 2005). In countless films and TV shows the good guys — not the bad guys — do things to get important information that makes all some [see update] of the harsh methods and allegedly criminal techniques in the IG report seem like an extra scoop of ice cream and a Swedish massage. In NYPD Blue, The Wire, The Unit, 24 and on and on, suspects are beaten, threatened, terrified. In some instances they are simply straight-up tortured. In movies, too, this stuff is commonplace. In Patriot Games, Harrison Ford shot a man in the kneecap to get the information he needed in a timely manner. In Rules of Engagement, Samuel L. Jackson shot a POW in the head to get another man to talk. In Guarding Tess, Nick Cage blows off a wimpy little man’s toes until he talks. In The Untouchables Sean Connery conducts a mock execution.
Now, I know I will get a lot of “it’s just a movie” or “TV shows aren’t real” email from people. At least I have every other time I’ve made this point. So let me concede a point I’ve never disputed while making one these folks don’t seem to grasp. If such practices, in the contexts depicted, were as obviously and clearly evil as many on the left claim, Hollywood could never get away with having the good guys employ them. Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy movies would never torture wholly innocent and underserving victims for the same reasons he wouldn’t beat his kids or hurl racial epithets at black people. But given sufficient time to lay out the context and inform the viewers of the stakes, as well as Ford’s motives, the audience not only understands but applauds his actions. Of course it’s just a movie. But the movie is tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments. Think of these scenes as elaborate hypothetical situations in the debate about torture and interrogation that are acted out and played before focus groups of normal Americans.
If Harrison Ford was an unrepetent racist and anti-Semite in Patriot Games and audience-focus groups still loved him, reasonable people would agree that said something troubling about American audiences.
And if, as a matter of principle and sincere conviction, you think it is always evil and outrageous for interrogators to beat, slap, terrify or abuse suspects, no matter what the stakes or the context, then you should be deeply, deeply offended by these films and TV shows. And you might even have the better argument. My only point here is that, as a general proposition, the American people don’t agree with you.
Goldberg gets some e-mails and posts again:
I think revulsion to all violence is honorable, even if I don’t always share it. But I also think that such revulsion can push people to positions that produce the likelihood of greater violence. Unilateral disarmament or appeasement in the face of evil may be noble in its intentions, but it often leads to even greater evils.
Here’s one way to look at it that my illuminate my position for both readers. I favor the death penalty when it is warranted, just and arrived at through due process of law. I do not find this belief inconsistent with my views on individualism or anything of the sort. I could be wrong, but I’ve yet to be persuaded. But I also believe that the death penalty when not warranted or just or arrived at legally is one of the most horrific crimes imaginable (far worse than torture, by the way). In short, I believe in making distinctions based upon the facts and circumstances as best I can. If there’s a better way to do it, let me know.
Some bloggers are arguing against Jonah.
James Antle in The American Spectator:
I understand what Jonah Goldberg is getting at here — that despite the controversies about torture allegations, popular culture suggests that most Americans don’t instinctively mind rough stuff being done to bad guys. But there are some important qualifications here. In a TV show or movie, the audience “knows” to a moral certainty that the person being dealt with harshly is guilty. And the audience usually “knows” that the torture is preventing some forseeable evil. Neither of those things are always known in the real world.
Scenes where the good guys break the rules are cathartic because we know they have the right guy and the stakes are that high and yeah, Jack just kneecapped the dude but we saw the dude blow up a bus of nuns, so — okay. We want that in movies because reality isn’t so certain and it’s fun to watch bad guys blow up real good.
Look, even in real life I’m not against a little roughing up of the worst of the worst. Bread and water, limited sleep, a little slapping around, hot and cold running dysentery. And when we have a real asshole we know without a doubt is guilty, I’m not going to lose sleep if we go full Jack Bauer on him. But those cases are so rare that no, it doesn’t justify systematic, sanctioned torture.
(Side note: If they want to shake up Season 8 of 24, have Jack torture someone who is categorically innocent and have to deal with the consequences beyond a whispered, “Dammit.”)
See, I can enjoy the fantasy of fiction or even approve of the very rare use of extreme methods in the very rare instances of absolute certainty. But that doesn’t make it right. Hell, I watch Doctor Who despite its regular neo-Marxist and anti-gun message. I watch porn with a whole bunch of bells and whistles — and let’s be honest, humiliating stuff — and I don’t want any of that in my bedroom for real. (Mostly.)
So no, Jonah, there’s no connection. It is just entertainment.
Pisatel at Thoughts On Russia:
Why it’s almost as if people viewing a film root for its protagonist, and will excuse any evil behavior on his or her part because they identify with them on a logic-free emotional level! Shocking! But this is utterly meaningless, as it totally depends on whatever point of view a director wants to highlight. What if Braveheart, instead of being filmed from a historically false perspective of the Scots as utterly passive and pacified farmers, was filmed from the point of view of an English peasant from north of York who had his family slaughtered by a marauding bunch of Highlanders. If the script writing and filming were done competently, we could absolutely imagine a movie in which this English peasant (now a sheriff, constable, or even just a footsoldier) exacts justified revenge on the barbaric Scots on behalf of his murdered sons and daughters. To see just how silly this perspective switching can be, one should view the Russian film Admiral’ which somehow manages to turn a bloodthirsty wannabe despot (Denikin) into a highly sympathetic pseudo-liberal who selflessly wages a crusade against communism.
It is disturbing how often acts of torture are presented in pop culture as morally justifiable. But the fact that they are says a lot less about prevailing moral attitudes than Goldberg seems to think. Movies and television shows, like clever hypothetical questions, are carefully designed to lead viewers to specific moral conclusions. When you are shown unequivocally that the person being tortured is an evil mass murderer and that the person doing the torturing is a pure-hearted hero — and you are then shown that the torture in fact leads to the disclosure of information that saves a bunch of childrens’ lives — it is no wonder that viewers are prepared to morally absolve the torturer. That moral conclusion is being spoon-fed to them in the form of a highly-stacked utilitarian calculus. The thumb is pressing down quite hard on the scale.
If, on the other hand, you were to tell a different story, say one involving a detainee of questionable guilt being brutally beaten to death with a flashlight (as described in the IG report), you would likely elicit a very different emotional response.
First, whether or not the average American is okay with utilizing power drills and electrical prods to interrogate suspected terrorists is sort of beside the point in determining whether or not such techniques are moral. Or effective. In the past, there has been mass support in this country for plenty of government policies that were neither.
Second, I don’t know that rooting for a character in a Tom Clancy good-versus-evil action flick equates to moral approval for everything that character does in the film. Audiences root for the hero because the film has designated that character as the person you’re supposed to root for. When moral questions like torture or state surveillance are presented with a bit more sophistication than that of a flag-waving Clancy film—take the The Dark Knight if you want to stick with blockbusters—audience reaction can be a bit more ambiguous.
Third, from Archie Bunker to Tony Soprano to Omar Little, the entertainment industry is great at eliciting sympathy and approval for flawed, even deviant characters. For example, I’d imagine that like me, a lot of people were rooting for Omar Little to exact his revenge on Avon Barksdale’s crew in The Wire’s first season. That shouldn’t be interpreted as moral approval of vigilante justice in the real world.
But getting directly to Goldberg’s point: Haven’t conservatives been explicitly arguing for years that Hollywood is openly hostile to the values of the average American?
Hollywood gets us to sympathize with and root for all sorts of protagonists who, in the real world, we would regard as moral monsters who should be in prison at the very least, and probably on death row. A quick list off the top of my head: Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega; Mr. White and Mr. Pink; the team of con artists on Hustle; Tony Soprano; Omar Little; Spike from Buffy; Jayne Cobb on Firefly; Leon the Professional; The Punisher; Wikus van de Merwe in District 9; Danny Ocean of the eponymous 12, 11, and 13; the homicidal grad students in The Last Supper. You can probably add a dozen more with a few minutes thought. We had better hope fiction isn’t a reliable guide to our moral intuitions, because with a tub of popcorn and some Milk Duds in hand, we routinely cheer thieves, thugs, and murderous sociopaths provided they’re kind to children and puppies or make a habit of mostly killing or victimizing mean people, or seem like maybe they’re sorry about that whole “lifetime of causing mayhem and suffering,” or frankly just dress stylishly and seem kind of badass. Maybe we don’t regard most of these as “good guys,” exactly, but redemption typically comes cheap, and a characters often do a face-heel turn on a dime.
UPDATE #2: Ryan Sager:
Where did the “positive” portrayal of torture in movies come from? Partly from the omniscience of the audience — we know he has the right guy, so it’s okay for the hero to blow his kneecap off to save his adorable daughter. Partly from the necessities of cinematic storytelling — slower interrogation methods would make for some seriously non-dramatic drama. Movies are about the ticking time bomb, escalating action, crazy choices. Real interrogation situations are almost never the ticking time bomb.
But therein lies the problem: We’ve come to intuitively believe that virtually every torture situation is a ticking time bomb and that torture always works. Because that’s our most salient experience with the issue. We’ve talked before about the availability bias here on Neuroworld, and that’s what’s at work here. When we think about torture, our brains look for what we know about it. What facts are readily available to us. Is it ever necessary? Sure. There’s a nuclear bomb in LA, and Jack Bauer needs to find it! Harrison Ford’s family is in danger, and he needs the guy to talk! Does it work? Sometime you really have to torture them hard, but yeah, most times I can remember the hero gets the information and saves the day. Do innocent people sometimes get harmed by torture? Almost never (maybe that happened on “24″ once? but that’s just because liberals made them do it).
Obviously, we’re not particularly eager to believe our brains work this way, but the availability bias is extremely well established scientifically, and it’s obviously at play in how the American public views torture. Even those of us who oppose torture marinated in the same culture — we have to work just a little harder because of it to ignore these deeply ingrained biases.
Where Jonah’s wrong, I think, is in implying that causation goes one way here. Cinema reflects public attitudes (though, as explained above, that’s not the only reason torture is so common in TV and movies), but it also creates them. Where he’s right is that this pop-culture effect is a very clear indicator that the mass of the American public will never be significantly outraged by what happened under President Bush.