The Evolution of Torture in the Movies

The public’s changing attitude toward torture over the years is reflected in the movies, and the conclusion, sad to say, seems to be one of increasing acceptance.  For a long time, when depicted in film, torture was portrayed as something evil, something done by Nazis, for instance.  An example of this is the movie Foreign Correspondent (1940).

But eventually, torture came to be seen as justified in certain cases.  One of the earliest movies to represent torture as something good is Dirty Harry (1971).  Early in that movie, the “Scorpio Killer” has buried a little girl alive with only enough oxygen to last her a few hours, and then demands ransom for her release.  Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) is a police detective who agrees to deliver the money.  When he does, the serial killer announces that he intends to let the little girl die.  When Harry catches up with him, he tortures the killer until he tells him where the girl has been buried.

Even if we disapprove of torture in real life, we cannot help but approve of Dirty Harry’s actions while watching the movie.  And this for five reasons:  (1) We are certain the man is guilty.  Dirty Harry knows, as do we, that the man he is torturing is the Scorpio Killer.  (2) The punishment fits the crime. The Scorpio Killer is evil, and clearly deserves the pain Harry inflicts on him. (3) There is a time element.  In just a few hours, the girl will die, so the information must be extracted from him immediately.  (4) The situation is ad hoc.  Although early in the movie a doctor jokes about Harry beating a confession out of a suspect, it is our sense that he does not routinely torture criminals.  (5) The torture is effective.  We find out later that the girl was already dead, but Harry does get the information concerning where she is buried.

Perhaps the greatest example of justifiable torture is in Dr. Strangelove (1964). Because no actual torture takes place, but is only feared, and because this film is satirical, it does not come readily to mind as a torture-justifying movie as does Dirty Harry.  But even so, it makes a case for torture that cannot be exceeded.  General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has decided to launch a sneak attack on the Soviet Union, which will start World War III.  Worse still, the Russians have just activated a doomsday device that will destroy all life on this planet if ever they are attacked with nuclear weapons.  Ripper does not know this, but when his air force base surrenders to the army, he rightly fears he will be tortured for the recall code, which will allow the president to order the bombers to return home.  Again, we have the five elements:  We know Ripper is guilty.  He would deserve what he gets.  There is a time element of about 15 minutes before the planes invade Russian air space.  The army does not routinely torture people.  And finally, it is because Ripper knows that the torture would be effective that he commits suicide.  Anyone who can contemplate the scenario thus outlined and still say it would be wrong to torture Ripper may count himself as being morally pure on this issue.

More recently, we have had the television show 24.  The principal difference between this series and the two movies above is that Jack Bauer usually manages to find someone to torture before and after lunch.  That is to say, torture is not ad hoc for him, but rather seems to be part of his job description.  Still, the other four elements are typically present, and they seem to suffice for showing that torture is good.  The fact that torture no longer has to be ad hoc to be acceptable indicates a growing acceptance of torture on part of the public.

Now, I can enjoy a fascist fantasy just like anyone else, but some people have the unfortunate tendency to confuse art with life, justifying torture by what they see in the movies or on television.  The five ideal elements that justify torture in the movies or on television, however, are not likely to be found when people are tortured in real life.  Sometimes the innocent are tortured right along with the guilty.  Or, if guilty, we must wonder if their guilt is always sufficient to justify the torment they must endure. The presence of a time element is more likely to be an exception rather than the rule.  Nor is the torture exceptional, but is carried out on a regular basis.

Now, what do we say about the kind of man who would make torture his life’s work, a man who gets up every morning, goes to his dungeon, makes a few notes on his clipboard, and then proceeds to inflict pain?  The answer is simple.  He likes it.  He enjoys causing pain, or he would not do it day after day.  And such a sadistic monster will not be squeamish about the guilt or innocence of his victims.  In fact, he may even prefer the innocent, for unlike the guilty, they can never give him the information he requires, and thus he gets to keep them longer.

As for the effectiveness of torture, that is debated by the experts.  From a moral point of view, it would simplify things greatly if it turned out that torture was worthless, and that the information sought could more easily be obtained through other means.  But since this goes contrary to common sense (I would certainly talk if I were tortured!), it might be best to concede that torture is useful, and then fall back on the principle that the ends do not justify the means.  To borrow a line from another movie, Touch of Evil (1958), “police work is always easier in a police state.”

The euphemism “harsh interrogation techniques” is used by those who would defend torture under another name.  And, it must be admitted, there is a difference between waterboarding, sleep deprivation, and exposure to uncomfortable temperatures on the one hand, and the kind of torture that mutilates its victims on the other.  Regarding these harsh interrogation techniques, the point is often made that Navy Seals and other soldiers who volunteer for special forces are subjected to the same sort of thing to toughen them up.  And if our soldiers can endure such treatment, the argument goes, there is no reason to spare the terrorists from the same.

However, when our own soldiers are waterboarded and the like, they know that they are among friends, as it were.  They know that things will not be allowed to get out of hand, and the length of time they will have to endure the treatment will be relatively short.  Many others have been through it before, and they may even look forward to the experience, as it will give them bragging rights later on.  The enemy has no such reassurances.  He knows he is in the hands of those who hate him, and there is no telling how far things will go, or for how long.

This psychological difference is not unimportant.  Imagine a man with a knife, telling a woman to undress, after which he ties her hands and feet to the bedposts.  If the man is her boyfriend, and they are playing a game, it may be the best sex she’s ever had.  But if the man is a stranger, who, for all she knows, may mutilate or kill her when he is through raping her, it will be a night of terror so awful that even if she survives physically, she will suffer from the trauma for the rest of her life.

In a recent movie about torture,  Zero Dark Thirty (2012), torture is also represented as justified, only now, another one of the five ideal elements has been dropped.  Just as torture in this movie is routine rather than ad hoc, so too is there no time element, no “ticking time bomb” about to explode any minute.   The man being tortured is definitely guilty, and the torture proves to be effective in getting the information.  There is some doubt as to whether he deserves the punishment he receives, but let us stipulate that he does.

If this movie shows any reticence about torture, it consists in the fact that the protagonist, Maya, does not actually torture anyone herself, and she does not like it.

In conclusion, over the years we have seen torture in the movies go from something done only by evil people, to something done by the good guys, but only if the five ideal elements are to present, to the dropping of first one and then another of these ideal elements.  The net effect seems to be that there is a growing acceptance of torture on the part of the public.  This is an ominous trend.

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