Life has not imitated art.
According to the Senate intelligence committee’s stomach-churning report, CIA operatives engaged, repeatedly, in horrifying treatment of human beings. The most grotesque practices included “rectal feeding” and ice-bathing, as well as the brutal detainment of dozens who turned out to be wrongfully held.
But even among those detainees who were actual Bad Guys — for whom a strict utilitarian might argue that whatever-it-takes interrogation is justified — torture generally did not produce actionable intelligence either. Major breakthroughs came from other sources, or from detainees who cooperated before their torture had begun; intelligence obtained through torture often proved fabricated and faulty. The Senate report’s top conclusion: The use of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.”
The idea that torture is both terrible and yet not terribly effective at producing useful intelligence is something we’ve known for a while — for centuries, one might even argue.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the teleplay. Watch almost any popular American TV drama about spies, detectives and other affiliates of the long arm (or fist) of the law, and you might learn that torture is grisly and ghastly, sure. But you’d never know it was so frequently fruitless.
I’m not the first to notice this peculiarity. A decade ago, the post-9/11 TV thriller “24” spawned an entire subgenre of arts criticism about whether the show was “normalizing” torture. The Parents Television Council tallied 67 torture scenes in the show’s first five seasons.
But “24” is hardly alone in repeatedly showing the Good Guys, morally conflicted though they may be, repeatedly using violence and coercion to save the baby, thwart the assassination or defuse the ticking time bomb — always because torture was the only effective means available.
With comparatively little commentary, lots of ongoing shows — such as “Homeland,” “The Blacklist” and “Chicago P.D.” — continue to lean heavily on violent coercion for both stylistic and narrative reasons. It’s an easy way to add some sensorial spice (particularly amid inert dialogue). More important, it’s an expedient tool for first ramping up suspense, then immediately dissipating that suspense in time for the credits. Rarely do torture plot lines involve the false leads and innocent victims that “enhanced interrogation” ensnares in real life; that might lead to messier denouements. Pretty much the only times torture isn’t effective on TV — that is, when the one being tortured bravely guards his or her secrets despite unspeakable pain — are when it’s the good guys getting tortured. (#SaveAuggie!)
Yes, I know the “What X Gets Wrong About Y” form of fact-checking cultural criticism can be tiresome. Hollywood dramas are intended to be escapist fiction, not nitpicked, peer-reviewed white papers. But this is not like “Interstellar” giving you a flawed astrophysics lesson, or “Grey’s Anatomy” providing an inflated sense of how often you can find doctors in flagrante in a supply closet. In those cases, factual inaccuracies may niggle, but they are unlikely to distort public policy decisions.
The repeated use of torture on TV — almost always by protagonists whose unimpeachable judgment leads them to “enhance” their interrogation only when absolutely necessary and only when dealing with obviously guilty people — is surely less innocuous. No wonder multiple surveys have found that large numbers of Americans believe torture is justifiable at least some of the time. And no wonder grand juries often give cops the benefit of the doubt when they maim or kill someone; Americans’ prior exposure to such scenarios teaches that officers would never use lethal force unless it was truly necessary.
Repeated exposure to such story lines can affect not just public attitudes but also the behaviors of people who face decisions about whether to use coercion in their daily lives. As the New Yorker reported in 2007, Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, then dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, met with the creative team behind “24” because he felt the show “had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers.” As he told the reporter, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24” ’?”
I realize TV shows have enough challenges just staying afloat, and ideally getting renewed, without solving all the world’s ills. Demands that they meet diversity goals and tick other morality boxes probably seem unfair — and often infeasible. But rarely is a TV cliche both so frequently invoked and also so strongly against public interest. Torture tropes, like all those fictional ticking time bombs, are truly a matter of life and death.
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