Music and television shows are probably the most pervasive art media in our culture. And while I think anyone finding emotional guidance in Britney Spears songs is apt to be let down eventually, it's television that concerns me at the moment. TV shows tell us a lot of pretty stupid things about the world - about what will make us happy, about how relationships work, about what space aliens spend their time doing. But I think one of the most dangerous lies on television is its habitual portrayal of the utility of torture. Anyone who watches dramas predicated on international conflicts or violent crime (the spy show, the army show, the FBI show, the cop show) is familiar with this: the ticking bomb. The loved one in deadly peril. The villain or terrorist withholding vital information. Enter the hero of the moment: someone grimly determined, even desperate. He doesn't like what he's about to do, but this is his last lead, and innocent lives are at stake. The bad guy is uncooperative. A few punches don't loosen him up, so then the gloves come off. This isn't the good guy's usual line of work, so the tools are simple: a knife, a pair of pliers, a cigarette lighter. We don't have to watch anything too graphic - blood in the corner of the screen and some screaming. Within twenty seconds, the bad guy caves, starts spouting information: places, times, names. This is the last we see of him. We only watch the good guy run off and save the day, just in the nick of time. How many times have you seen that story?
We are lucky to live in a country where the government tends to only practice torture on foreign nationals, on foreign soil. We don't have much personal experience with it. We haven't spoken with its victims, we're not concerned that when our college buddies are arrested at some protest, they'll be released with electrical burns, if at all. And so, over time, it is not so hard to sympathize with the guy on TV - what would you do, after all, if it was a choice between inflicting a little pain and letting a nuclear bomb go off in Times Square? And as soon as this becomes the question, we have swallowed the lie. We have accepted the (criminally false) premise that torture produces accurate, actionable intelligence, rather than a confession to anything and everything that might make it stop (I am a terrorist. My mother is a terrorist. My cat is a terrorist). We have accepted that the good guy and the bad guy are labeled in advance based on political affiliation, and that these designations are not altered by individual choices and behavior.
It's not Hollywood's fault that the executive branch has spent much of the last eight years waging systematic war on the basic tenets of civilization (transparency, accountability, rule of law, respect for human rights). We learned phrases like "enhanced interrogation" and "extraordinary rendition" from the news, not Jack Bauer. But he might be part of the reason that I've had to debate whether torture is always wrong with otherwise decent and reasonable adults, and part of the reason why the news doesn't prompt more outrage. Our "liberal media" have, I think, contributed a fair amount to this country in terms of promoting civil rights (how many times have we seen black or female presidents on TV? Often enough for it to feel familiar by 2008? Yeah, 24 may have done its part there too). But there is something worse than irresponsible about the number of "heroes" who are willing to get their hands dirty for the greater good at prime time. It's worth remembering that life imitates art sometimes, too.