When Torture Became Conventional

Last fall, The Walking Dead had its inevitable torture episode. It wasn’t surprising from a show that is so gleefully violent and revels in the dark recesses of the human psyche. As the story arc progressed, it became only a matter of time before one human would torture another. There was always something truly inevitable about it.

Copyright belongs to AMC
Copyright belongs to AMC

What was shocking, then was not the torture, but how conventional it was. Not in its depiction precisely, for it was inventive in a few significant ways, but as the subject for a visual drama. Our sitting in our living rooms, watching a male character brutalized to give up information about loved ones to a maniacal embodiment of evil; a female character victimized sexually and psychologically; these scenes were revolting, well shot, and evocative.

And yet, so normal for the 21st Century. Not shocking. No stirred up negative emotions about the nature of torture; but complex ones: visions of ticking clocks and terrorism. Visions of our post-9/11, amoral American vision of safety and conviction. In this era, torture itself has become conventional. Not so much in real life. Just in film.

The director of Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow, recently defended her film’s use of torture as a plot device, arguing that it was required of her. That the narrative demanded it, even if it didn’t match the actual events upon which the movie was based. It wasn’t just creative licence, but imperative to the narrative that she do this. This argument has been critiqued in many places, most damningly by pointing out that the unreliability of intelligence derived through torture would be a pretty good plot device.

ZeroDarkThirty2012PosterThis is also the real criticism of real torture–that we are less likely to get what we want and more likely to be put on the wrong track, getting what we don’t want. This could have actually worked in the filmmakers’ favor, casting more excitement into the chasing of leads and casting more doubt on the conviction the protagonist displays in trying to track bin Laden. It would have served both the narrative of the film and demonstrated more honesty.

We know fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. When we do this, we do so knowing the purpose of our disbelief. We don’t have flying cars, but science fiction allows us to believe it is possible. We don’t live with wizards and barbarians battling dragons, but fantasy fiction allows us to see the possibility. But these stories work precisely because we know the difference between what is real and what could be. Yet with torture, we don’t have that same certainty. Our experts know that torture doesn’t work like it does in the movies, but our politicians and pundits are convinced otherwise. This isn’t a subject of suspension of disbelief for many viewers, perhaps most, but the validation of existing belief. It therefor functions as a rewriting of reality. And that is dishonest.

I write this as someone who does want to make the social and political critique of torture, but is here making the literary critique. For us, having torture as the norm is just bad art. It is a failure of the imagination and of the responsibility of storytellers to reveal through the fantastic (or comedic or surreal or tragic) things as they actually are. 

It took more than ten years since its conclusion for the Great War to be critiqued in a safely public way. Prior to the publication of Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms in 1929, books and films were focused on the valor of war and on the patriotic bonding of men in war. Yet it was nearly 15 years after those actually fighting in World War I began criticizing the war as ugly and pointless, as they did throughout the war’s duration. Despite the cruel transformation of modern warfare and the truly great poetry that arose during the the war, history has been harsh on the Great War, but for ten years after its conclusion, the greater public was given a different view of reality from their media.

I’m waiting for our ten years to be up so we might get our great critique on this warfare. Perhaps it’ll have a simple title: The Interrogator. It’ll star George Clooney or Matt Damon and be a true David and Goliath story in which one intrepid interrogator battles the machine–going after big government and its use of torture. He pushes, not for the old way as an old man, but the way of gathering intelligence that is reliable; intelligence that we can trust; intelligence received through moral means. This fight will put him up against all the doubters, all the neophytes who had no experience in the trade and yet believe it with all their heart. Neophytes trained and serving under Republican and Democratic administrations. There will be suspense, action, intrigue, and moral complexity.

That would be a good movie. That would be an exciting movie. That is a movie that truly defies convention. And that is the root of art.

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