Reading several articles in WaPo and various blogposts by various people in the last few days inspires me to this post. I wish to deal with an unpleasant reality, that apparently over recent years torture has become more acceptable to the American people according to published polls. Ironically it appears that the biggest jump in this respectability came in the first year or two of Obama's presidency, with it being more or less a draw, while after 2010 or so, while the gap has never been huge, those approving of torture under at least some conditions has consistenly outnumbered those who do not. What is going on here?
While I am sure it is not all there is to it, and I hope the recent release of the Senate report, perhaps combined with widespread outrage over police brutality, might shift the balance back somewhat, a major input to how we got to this position of such widespread approval despite President Reagan signing anti-torture treaties, has been TV. Many think it was 9/11 that led to the shift, and clearly that led to the increase in the actual use of torture. But it looks as if the public approval of torture, or an increase in that approval, came quite a bit later.
That TV may have played a major role was highlighted in an excellent WaPo column on Friday by Catherine Rampell. She noted several shows that may have played a role in this, starting with "24" but including "Homeland" "The Blacklist,"and others. She brings out in light of the recent report that these shows have spread two serious falsehoods about American intel/military people and their use of torture. One of these is that those that are tortured are terrorists, and the second is that torture works, those so viciously interrogated do provide useful information against their fellow terrorists. These two myths have been shown so frequently over such a long time on these shows that it is no wonder so many have come to believe them.
The Senate Intelligence Committee report makes it clear that both of these are profoundly wrong. Out of the 119 people who suffered from "EIT," in the report, it turns out that 26 were completelyl innocent, several of these actually (previously) useful informants for the US. Secondly, case by case, the report demolishes the claims that useful facts were drawn from those so interrogated. Jose Rodriguez and Dick Cheney (who has not read the report by his own admission) might continue to claim otherwise, but it is now clear both that the CIA lied to Congress and others about the efficacy of torture, but even those really in the know really know it does not work, with current CIA Director, John Brennan, just now admitting that he cannot name a single clear case where torture provided anything useful. Those getting their information on this from TV shows are completely deluded.
I would also note that not just John McCain, himself a super hawk who was tortured extensively in Vietnam, but military personnel who have fought abroad, are far more against torture than the US population, with two articles in the Post today confirming this latter fact. They know what is involved and how readily those being tortured will lie to save themselves. Quite aside from the morality, those who know the most, are the most opposed to this atrocity. I only hope that many Americans come to realize that reality is not what they have been seeing on all these TV shows regarding this matter.
You make the excellent point that the most politically potent arguments are often dramatic, fictional portrayals of circumstances and character.
There's a deep root for the fictional portrayal, though, in everyday experience of coercion and expedience. Both the 9/11 policies and fiction are exploiting the emotional relief that accompanies the resolution of conflicting priorities and moral ambiguities. Ordinary life and work confronts a never-ending stream of impedimenta, constraint, compromise and falling short. Frustration and impotence are common experiences, which can be erased in heroic fiction.
It is interesting to me that the country is now confronting the moral lessons from what might be considered the other side of dramatic crises, in a seemingly endless parade of instances of deadly police error. And, the conclusion, each time, from the deliberations of grand juries and police review boards, is that the police are never responsible, never accountable, when they make a mistake, and someone dies. Just as no one who tortures is ever held responsible and accountable for the crime.
The policeman, responding to an ersatz emergency and caught up in the adrenalin-pumping drama, who kills an innocent person, is held to be innocent. The essential responsibility -- the obligation to discriminate between the ordinary grey world where we must use deliberate reason and act proportionately and the bright colors of the fictional world where the hero acts decisively with sure intention -- this essential responsibility is ignored.
Most people are followers, not executives or leaders -- they do not design the systems within which they work and live. And, much of the elite do not live and work within the constraints of the systems they design for others.
Fictional portrayal in so-called police procedurals, like Law and Order has been eroding support for civil liberties for many years, by portraying judicial exclusion of evidence tainted by faulty procedure as turning on mere technicalities. It is a symptom of system decay.
The use of torture raises similar issues of elite incompetence in outlining systems that are effective in accomplishing their objectives. Frustration with system corruption and decay makes expedience attractive.
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