Another excellent Doonesbury…
In class yesterday, we were talking about the Cold War. One of the pieces we read was from Anne Applebaum’s excellent Gulag: A History, about the Soviet prison camps that lasted from the Revolution through the 1970s. The two students who led the discussion decided to show this clip from “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” a 1964 satire starring Peter Sellers and George C. Marshall.
I wondered aloud if the appearance of a satire like this one marked a kind of turning point in people’s willingness to accept the political status quo. Once something is mocked and ridiculed in popular culture, as the Cold War was in “Dr. Strangelove,” does it mean that the end of the mass delusion that could lead us into folly?
Certainly, things only got worse after the movie’s release. Ahead lay an escalation of the war in Vietnam, our disastrous interventions in Brazil, Guatemala and Chile, among other places, and the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy…
Yet… I wonder if moments like this are part of a gradual, but (in retrospect) identifiable awakening.
On the one hand, we still have a pop culture wedded to an anti-human rights rhetoric. A friend sent a recent article published in the Wall Street Journal about the Fox hit “24,” known for its repeated and positive depictions of torture.
According to Human Rights First, there have been 89 instances of torture on the first six seasons of 24. The overwhelming majority of these torture scenes feature Jack Bauer using violent, physically abusive techniques. The use of these torture techniques is always portrayed as heroic and resulting in saving lives.
Rather than tone down the torture that has characterized the first six seasons of 24, Fox executives say that they will focus the next season around a spirited defense of these tactics. A teaser released by FOX shows that the next season will begin with hero Jack Bauer under investigation by a Congressional oversight committee. By the end of the season the teaser suggests that those that sought to put Bauer on trial will have been won over to his position.
Yet the WSJ also notes that as public opinion about the Iraq War turned south, the show’s depiction of torture came to be seen as glorifying the practice in the wake of real-world reports of waterboarding and other interrogation techniques used on detainees.
Ratings dropped by a third over the course of last year’s sixth season. Producers would later experience trouble casting roles, once some of the most desirable in television, because the actors disapproved of the show’s depiction of torture. “The fear and wish-fulfillment the show represented after 9/11 ended up boomeranging against us,” says the show’s head writer, Howard Gordon. “We were suddenly facing a blowback from current events.”
I guess they think a little more torture will goose ratings.
But I think the tide may have definitively turned against them. My evidence? “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” which will be released soon. While it’s no “Dr. Strangelove,” I think its irreverent attitude and implicit skewering of the War on Terror hysteria mark a change in public opinion that (I hope) will deepen as George Bush’s tenure draws to a close…
The Washingtonian featured an interesting interview with Brad Garrett, a former FBI agent responsible for capturing the Pakistani who shot five people, killing two, outside CIA headquarters in 1993.
Four years later, Garrett captured Mir Aimal Kansi in Pakistan and brought him back to the US for trial. Kansi was convicted and executed in 2002.
Reporter Harry Jaffe asked Garrett what he thought about the role of torture in obtaining useful information:
Let’s talk about terrorism and torture. What does your experience tell you about extracting useful information?
It taught me that how you treat people, how you approach people is crucial—it doesn’t make any difference what part of the world you’re in. If you want people to talk to you, if you want them to be truthful, they have to bond with you on some level—feel like they can trust you. Sometimes it takes a lot of time, but that’s how you get people to talk.
What about methods that use coercion and torture?
I think by and large this is not a good idea because first of all it creates mistrust. It demonstrates that this is how you treat people. It always will work against you, because the next person you torture is going to get out, they’re going to tell people what happened to them, and then you’re going to have to deal with a relative or tribal leader or somebody from his or her community.
And long-term it works against you in maintaining and collecting information. You reap what you sow.
His answer mirrors that of other investigators and interrogators who deal with terrorism-related cases. Not only does torture not work, they say; like Garrett, they agree that torture creates more problems than it solves.
Unfortunately, it’s still the case that primetime television shows like 24 depict torture as the only method that results in reliable information. Too many people see these shows and believe them to reflect “reality.” Torture is not only morally abhorrent and illegal — it doesn’t work.
Rosie goes after Elizabeth on this recent “View” episode. Elizabeth seems determined to “naturalize” torture a la Jack Bauer. If the guys are really bad, she says, then torture is A-OK…