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Torture and TV

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, February 4, 2010 16:15 EDT
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In the meandering thread about Inglourious Basterds below, I made a comment about how much TV and movies dictate what our reality is, in America at least (this was in service of pointing out that Tarantino’s project is to poke a stick at that, in part). I was reminded of how true that is while reading this commonsensical post from Matt about how much more effective rights-respecting interrogation techniques are on suspected terrorists than the “beat the shit out of them and give them no rights” method preferred by conservatives. The last episode of the Rachel Maddow show touched on similar points—conservatives are squawking about how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was read his Miranda rights, as if this somehow signals insufferable pussydom on America’s part that will make him shut up forever. But what’s actually happened is that normal, rights-respecting interrogation techniques have convinced the would-be terrorist to cooperate, in part because his family got involved, which Matt points out was unlikely to happen if you tortured the guy.

Commenter DTM jumped in and made a standard, but relevant point:

This is one of the most annoying things about ticking time bomb arguments in favor of torture: they simply assume that torture is the most effective interrogation technique, when in fact in the real world we know that torture is not only a crappy interrogation technique, but it actually prevents us from using the good interrogation techniques.

The question is where do they get this idea? Part of it is just the conservative sadism—they have an enemy they feel free to exert their aggression on, and they don’t want anything to get in the way. But I think part of it is they really do assume torture is the best technique for interrogation. And I blame TV.

It’s a shockingly common convention on TV shows to inject torture of some sort in to the story, and this was true even before the 9/11 attacks. And usually it works on TV. I dare say that a week rarely goes by in my TV-watching when I don’t see some scene of interrogation where the interrogator resorts to violence, and the person being interrogated gives in, if not immediately, then eventually. Most cop shows employ this convention—we’re making our way through “The Shield”, and this happens all the time on the show. I love “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and we’re in the process of rewatching that now, but that show takes it as a given that torture works, as well. The only time I can recall torture failing, it was part of establishing that the character Giles is a tough guy under the librarian exterior, and not one to crack under pressure. And this is all before you even start to talk about “24″. I’m sure you all can think about 15 different examples off the top of your head, too. It’s such a problem that TV Tropes has an entry for it.

This sort of thing has an effect on people, whether we like it or not, especially in the yawning absence of alternative information that’s more accurate. People can scoff and roll their eyes at a romantic comedy’s conventions, because most people have dated and know how different real life is from the movies. But most people have no relationship to interrogation, outside of what they see on TV. Then you have Republican politicians out there reaffirming the TV tropes about torture, and that gives these ideas even more cachet.

It’s really hard to know what to do about this dilemma. TV writers aren’t going to just drop torture as a plot device, because even though it’s a cliche now, it’s an easy way to raise the stakes while moving the plot forward. Republican politicians aren’t going to drop it, either, because they will never let go of anything they see as a way to bait Democrats. The counter-arguments are complicated and rely on an understanding of human nature most people don’t have, because it’s clouded by TV tropes that inform their views of how people really behave. It’s a real conundrum.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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