Sunday, March 9, 2008

Hollywood, the Ticking Time Bomb, and the Banality of Torture

Graphic via the Human Rights First Primetime Torture project. Scott Horton has a worthwhile essay on the topic: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the (Ticking) Time Bomb. One thing the graphic makes clear is that the use of torture on prime time television as a plot device or perhaps as part of the scenery has served to make torture banal - it is now just more background noise as we go about our everyday routines.

Horton of course spends some time on the problem inherent in the ticking time bomb scenario that is central to such TV series as 24 - it's so unrealistic that it doesn't even serve as a useful fiction (save as the sort of abstraction that allows legal scholars and political philosophers - think folks like Alan Dershowitz - to spend whole careers engaged in mental masturbation). It also goes without saying that torture does not provide accurate information, as a general rule, although of course in the make-believe worlds created on the Hollywood studio lots that particular reality tends to never even occur to the script writers.

From Banality of Evil Revisited: The Normalization of the "War on Terror":
The concept of "banality of evil" of course comes from Hannah Arendt's writings - originally appearing in her classic work, Eichmann in Jerusalem. Bethania Assy notes in an essay on Arendt's term "banality of evil" that the key appears to be a lack of thinking, a noticeable shallowness - not just at an individual level but at a societal level. The sorts of evils that we can attribute to the Nazi Holocaust, to the bombings and sanctions against Iraq, the torture and extraordinary renditions, etc. are ones in which are treated with a sort of shallowness. They are normal, merely part of the background. One doesn't think much about them, but rather just accepts them and moves on to the next reality TV show.
Not only has torture become normalized, but the likability of its fictional perpetrators on prime time television has made it seem noble. With very few exceptions, the torturers on prime time shows such as 24 are attractive individuals to whom their primary audience can relate, with the victims portrayed in manners that dehumanize them. Not only are these fictional torturers ones to be admired, but also to be imitated; and if you spend just a bit of time over at the Human Rights First website that I linked to initially, one will find that just as with any other form of media violence, fictitious torture events are stored in memory and - to the extent that they are rehearsed - strengthened to the extent that some of these viewers go on to become real-life torturers in their own right.

So, we're bombarded by scenes of torture committed by likable characters based on an extremely unlikely premise in a manner that appears realistic and reinforcing. On the other hand, the counterpoint - torture as an evil and ineffective practice - gets almost no air time. When I ask myself why more folks haven't spoken out against torture and demand that those responsible in our government for green-lighting the abhorrent practice, and done so in an organized manner, all I have to do is realize just how banal torture has become. Hell, by the time the Abu Ghraib pictures first began surfacing in 2004, Hollywood had already had a good couple years of time in which to normalize it. Those of us struggling for the human rights of those victimized by torture have our work cut out for us in the present cultural Zeitgeist.

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