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

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Games Developer - HTML5

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£26000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Product Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Due to on-going expansion, this leading provid...

Recruitment Genius: Shift Leaders - Front of House Staff - Full Time and Part Time

£6 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a family ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jeremy Corbyn could be about to pull off a shock victory over the mainstream candidates Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall   

Every club should be like Labour – you can’t join as a new member unless you’re already a member

Mark Steel
The biggest task facing Labour is to re-think the party's economic argument, and then engage in battle with George Osborne and his policies  

There's a mainstream alternative to George Osborne's economics

John Healey
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works