John McCarthy: Television is making torture acceptable

Bond's ability to joke while his genitals are beaten makes a mockery of the degradation felt by real victims

Share

The blows were excruciating, and the anticipation of them almost as bad. For several weeks while held hostage in Lebanon in the late 1980s, I and my fellow captive Brian Keenan were at the mercy of a guard who took a twisted delight in inflicting pain.

Sometimes he would burst into our cell, screaming and striking out with the butt of his rifle. The only sensible response was to roll up into a foetal position until his fury was spent. At other times he would enter silently. Stand over us - or even on us - pushing the barrel of his gun against our temples.

It took a long time for our bodies to recover from these batterings and for our minds to be clear of the sickening dread the man inspired. But in comparison with the horrors inflicted on many clients of the British charity the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, of which I am a patron, the damage was slight.

It has been 16 years since I regained my freedom, but I still find it difficult, if not impossible, to witness on screen images of the deliberate infliction of pain by one individual on another.

Today, however, such images are increasingly difficult to avoid - for extremes of violence involving torture have become prized ammunition in the battle of the box office and the television ratings war. And with this relish for depicting the darker side of human nature have come a number of lies that must be countered, if we are to continue to live in a world where the rule of law, and respect for other human beings, remain paramount.

It is becoming increasingly clear that what we enjoy as entertainment shapes the world in which we live. As the American Psychiatric Association said recently, in calling for a reduction in television violence: "The debate is over. Over the last three decades, the one overriding finding in research on the mass media is that exposure to media portrayals of violence increases aggressive behaviour in children."

There is research too showing that the lessons learned are copied over into adulthood, while adults exposed to violent entertainment can become desensitised and begin to identify with the aggressors, and the aggressors' solutions to problems.

The biggest lie that has gained currency through television is that torture is an acceptable weapon for the "good guys" to use if the stakes are high enough. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures, so the logic goes, a line of reasoning that is particularly pernicious given the excesses that have marked the "war on terror". It is a lie that underpins Fox Television's thriller 24, which features the ruthless agent Jack Bauer in a series that Time magazine recently dubbed "a weekly rationalisation of the 'ticking bomb' defence of torture".

The "ticking bomb" scenario, in which torture is justified if there is a limited period in which to prise from a suspect information that would avert a catastrophe, is the argument of choice for torture apologists everywhere. Certainly the co-creator of 24, Joel Surnow, makes no bones about where he stands in the debate, telling The Independent recently: "If there's a bomb about to hit a major US city, and you have a person with information... if you don't torture that person, that would be one of the most immoral acts you could imagine."

Torture is never justified. It maims or kills the individual, while eroding the moral and legal principles on which a just society is based, and corrupting those branches of the state which sanction and inflict it.

The second lie that surrounds its fictional depiction is that torture works, despite the long held recognition - dating back to at least the time of Aristotle - that a victim will often say anything to stop the pain.

Late last year, the US Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan met the producers of 24 to suggest they tone down the content. He was concerned not just at the impact the torture was having on the reputation of the US, but on how it was influencing the behaviour of troops in the field. One former US Army interrogator has publicly admitted that he and his colleagues in Iraq copied behaviour and techniques seen on TV when questioning prisoners.

The entertainment industry is also guilty of minimising the true horrors of torture by failing to show the very profound impact it has on its victims' lives. James Bond's ability to joke while his genitals are beaten in Casino Royale, for instance, makes a mockery of the pain, humiliation and degradation felt by the real victims of sexual violence helped by the MF.

The point might seem academic, until it is remembered that the Bush administration has consistently tried to maintain that a variety of coercive techniques used in the "war on terror" - including sleep deprivation, forcing people to stand for long periods of time in contorted positions, and being subjected to noise bombardment - don't actually amount to torture, a stance that flies in the face of findings by the UN Committee Against Torture.

As a human rights organisation, the MF defers to no one in its support for freedom of expression. The numerous writers, journalists and other public figures among our clients who have fallen foul of repressive governments would demand nothing less. But when freedom of expression leads, either directly or indirectly, to an incitement to violence, a responsible society has the right to say that there are other principles too that it is equally important to maintain. One cannot be at the expense of another.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Apprentice

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Team Leader

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Voices in Danger: How can we prevent journalists from being sexually assaulted in conflict zones?

Heather Blake
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would ramp up Britain's spending on science

Paul Nurse
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence