Philip Hensher: Hollywood is helping us learn to love torture

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The Independent Online

Today is the United Nations International Day in support of Victims of Torture. It marks the 20th anniversary of the coming into force of the United Nations Convention against Torture. To date, some 142 countries have ratified the convention, and more have signed without yet ratifying.

It looks like exceptional progress, and in some ways it is. I wonder, though, whether the founders of the convention would have anticipated the degree to which, 20 years on, torture for both political and, frankly, recreational purposes is present in the mind of advanced Western societies. There seems no escape from it.

Recently, we have seen a burst of absolutely horrific films resting on the idea of torture for pleasure. In Eli Roth's Hostel films, in the recent Vacancy, Captivity and Saw, victims are entrapped and slowly abused to death in the most disgusting and visceral ways. I won't specify exactly how. In my view, narratives of abuse corrupt the speculative imagination just as effectively as the exact depiction of it on the cinema screen, and I don't care to put some of these acts into any reader's head.

Once, such films would have been regarded as a very unusual interest, but not any more. Film-makers of immense talent have taken to indulging their audience with images of deliberate torture for pleasure. More worryingly, mainstream films have started to change their attitude towards torture; regarding it not as an act of pure evil by the politically or sexually perverted, but as a well-disguised act of benevolence towards the victim.

In V for Vendetta, the heroine is imprisoned and tortured by, it turns out, her protector and benefactor. She needed it, we are informed, to strengthen her resolve. The sexual edge to the torture scene in Casino Royale is powerfully evident in the novel, but what the film added to it was a sense that Bond would not discover the awesome extent of his masculinity without the help of Le Chiffre's carpet-beater. Torture may not look very nice, these films said, but it is a necessary rite of passage. They were not going to ask whether an existence which could not be attained without someone turning themselves into a torturer could ever be worth living.

As John McCarthy recently pointed out in this newspaper, perhaps the most consistent attempt to normalise torture as a necessary part of our lives is the American series 24. It is absolutely consistent. Torture should be the West's response to the threat of terrorism, and there are few episodes without some scene of torture. When "Amnesty Global" shows up to object to a suspect being kneecapped by the authorities, the characters go freelance. To be fair to the writers, they often show information gathered by this means to be too late, unreliable or tainted in some way. But they have no hesitation in presenting torture as a legitimate response to suspicion.

The scenario so convincingly presented by 24 has gone into political debate without any delay. It is usually known as the "ticking bomb" argument. For instance, an American judge called Richard Posner has said: "If torture is the only means of obtaining the information necessary to prevent the detonation of a nuclear bomb in Times Square, torture should be used." He added that "no one who doubts that this is the case should be in a position of responsibility."

That seems as if it ought to be an eccentric position, but Dick Cheney was once asked, "Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?" He agreed. "A dunk in water", incidentally, refers to "water-boarding", a cruel and agonising method of torture practised by America in its jails.

The assumption here is always the same. A person who isn't supplying the responses expected or required is always in possession of the information. Only torture could possibly extract that information. Torture will always extract absolutely accurate information, and nothing more. The subject of the torture will always make a rapid and complete return to cheerful good health. And the information which the authorities want to extract by torture always refers to a bomb which is going to go off in a matter of hours.

Every single one of these assumptions is wrong, but the interesting one is that torture, once engaged upon, will lead to the prevention of an imminent terrorist attack. It seems to me quite likely that torture, once engaged upon, will lead to the admission of anything at all, just so long as they stop pulling your fingernails out. This is, frankly, not an argument. It is the setting out of a scenario, and nothing more than that.

What has made all this seem normal and even sensible, when we discover that our allies have engaged in acts of repulsive torture, is the wave of entirely fantastic films which show us torture as recreation, as an essential part of our way of life, as a necessary means to an end. Of course, we can avoid torture pornography if we choose, but what we can't avoid is a public existence and a regime of law which seems determined to draw not on realities, but on the avid and brutal fantasies of Hollywood.

Proponents of Hollywood-type torture out of necessity never seem too keen to carry it out themselves, I've noticed, limiting their support to remarks that if we are to defend our way of life, torture may become necessary. What they fail to consider is that civilisation is at once compromised if, in defence of other freedoms, it decides to regress, to accept the possibility of torture as it is seen in the movies.