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
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The Independent Online

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.

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