Robert Hanks: Do bankers and torturers deserve our sympathy?

The Week in Radio
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The Independent Culture

In these topsy-turvy, anxious times, we at least have the comfort of being able to gloat over the misfortunes of estate agents and bankers. But then along comes Alvin Hall, in Alvin Hall's Street Walk (Radio 4, Thursday), trying to enlist sympathy for the workers of Wall Street: is he trying to ruin our fun?

To be fair, Hall wasn't trying to make out that chairmen, CEOs and hedge-fund managers deserve our pity and financial contributions – in fact, he ended with a slightly pious punch line about the demise of the culture of excessive bonuses. Instead, he talked to the lower-level workers and ancillaries about the knock-on effect of financial crisis: the guy who worked in training at Lehman Brothers, who had had to come to terms first with being made redundant, weeks before the crash came, and then with not getting the promised severance package; the psychiatrist whose banker clients are complaining of anxiety and guilt (they didn't trust their instincts; they let greed get the better of them); the headhunter seeing smart, well-qualified people floundering in the search for jobs that aren't there any more; the man from a Harlem children's charity expecting fewer contributions from wealthy patrons.

The aim was to animate the banking crisis, to illustrate how the ripples of abstract financial events swamp real lives, change real feelings. Message received, but I didn't feel my heartstrings being tugged, even a little bit. For that to work, the show would have needed to make you feel surprised; but Hall's mellow, cheery tones had the effect of draining all the shock out of even the most melodramatic revelation. This felt less like an exposé of the dark heart of Wall Street than a mildly tedious compendium of neighbourhood gossip.

Sympathies were confused rather more shockingly and effectively in The Torturer's Tale (Radio 4, Monday). Jolyon Jenkins set out to interview torturers, presumably hoping to unearth some more or less personal revelations about the experience of inflicting pain professionally. Those who spoke to him did so in guarded, ambiguous terms – after meeting a Greek who did his torturing under the regime of the Colonels, Jenkins confers with his interpreter: how hard a job had she had? Very hard, she says, because the man had used such vague language when he talked about his experience. Others would talk about torture only in abstract terms. An American who interrogated prisoners during the Vietnam War wouldn't admit to having passed electricity through other men's testicles, mentioning that there is no statute of limitations on war crimes, but was prepared to discuss it in the third person, as something others may have done. There was some interesting, if repellent, discussion of technique. The essential element is the escalation of fear and pain – pulling out fingernails was dismissed as a technique, because once you've done one, there's nowhere else to go, and eventually you run out of fingers.

Nobody expressed guilt, not directly: they claimed that they had stood up and refused to torture, in the end at least; or they offered weak justifications ("The African race is very, very stubborn," said a man from the Congo); or they spoke in clipped, quasi-scientific tones. And this effortful silence was, cumulatively, as revealing and disturbing as any shriek or whimper. Anybody, as Jenkins said, can become a torturer: but nobody who does it can remain whole. I suppose that's a positive message.