How mixed up are typical Americans on the issue of torture? Considerably, according to David Danzig, director of Human Rights First, an international watchdog and advocacy group.
In fact, military educators are troubled by the number of recruits who join the armed forces after seeing torture depicted on fictional television shows, he said on Oct. 21 at Fordham.
Danzig was one of several panelists to analyze and shed light on Americans’ unhealthy relationship with torture at the symposium “Torture and American Culture: An Inquiry and Reflection,” sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture.
“Eighteen year olds are going into the Army partially because of what they’ve seen on television and because they want to be Jack Bauer,” Danzig said, referring to the main character on the television show 24. “We’re concerned that they would like to then emulate the techniques that Bauer uses.”
When Human Rights First approached a colonel at West Point to get input on shows such as 24, he said, “This is the biggest problem I have in my classroom right now,” Danzig told the crowd that packed McNally Amphitheatre on the Lincoln Center campus.
Joining him on the day’s first panel, “Popular Culture: Graphic Representations of Torture and Violence,” was Richard Alleva, film critic at Commonweal magazine; Todd Gitlin, Ph.D., media critic, author and journalism professor at Columbia University; and moderator Bill McGarvey, editor-in-chief of the online magazine Busted Halo.
Much of their discussion focused on the impact that 24 has had on American attitudes about the effectiveness of torture. Danzig noted that that in the course of researching the issue, he found the show to be riveting.
“I started living this double life, where during the day, I’d say, ‘Torture is terrible. We’ve got do whatever we can,’ and then at night, I’d go home and watch 24 on DVD and scream, ‘Rip his head off, Jack Bauer!’” Danzig said. “It really kind of troubled me that it was so easy to move between these two worlds.”
Alleva noted that much of the torture we see depicted in popular culture is predicated on what he called the “ticking bomb scenario”— when a hero who will do whatever it takes to win engages in a race against time to save a completely innocent person from the machinations of a completely evil person.
“That’s melodrama in a nutshell, and what’s disturbing is that life is being seen now as a melodrama instead of an enormous tragedy,” he said.
He cautioned, however, that if one were to look subjectively, much of American cinema is filled with positive examples of torture, in movies such as Cry Terror, To Have and Have Not, the Dirty Harryseries, Day of the Jackal, and Man on Fire.
“There have been films throughout Hollywood’s history that have shown torture performed by virtuous people,” Alleva said. “After all, a beating is torture, isn’t it?”
Gitlin tried to frame the issue within a larger context, noting that even our language has become filled with violent imagery, from “drop dead” gorgeous women to “killer” software applications.
“The people who produce these shows are not just culture makers, they are culture breathers, which has become in many of these crucial particulars, a sadomasochistic culture,” he said. “It’s a culture in which attention is successfully gained through the diffusion of images of horrific and unbearable violence.”
Gitlin also criticized Hollywood executives who react with incredulity when their programs are linked to real-life incidents.
“You can’t believe a word these guys say,” Gitlin said.
“It is naïve to the point of disingenuousness to believe that a serious person could be ignorant of him or herself when producing such stories and inventing the likes of Jack Bauer,” he continued. “To think that these are simply cartoon contrivances for collecting attention represents such a depth of stupidity that, if nothing else, these shows ought to be attacked as beneath the worth of human attention.”