For almost a decade, American news readers have been presented with a litany of complaints from Old Europe regarding how the barbaric United States has surrendered its moral authority by introducing torture into the minds of suspected terrorists during interrogations. Even sleep deprivation and the playing of loud pop music have caused conniptions with these tender folk.
So how are we to greet the French "reality show" suggesting people would be willing to apply fatal jolts of electricity just to get on television? Should we despair at the willingness of human guinea pigs to commit torture on others? Or should we condemn the producers for exploiting an old social-science experiment using maximum sensationalism in front of a studio audience?
In Paris, documentary makers invented a game show called "Zone Xtreme." Recruiters found 80 contestants to participate in this game show. Each of them sat across from a man whose job was to answer a series of questions while strapped into an electrifiable chair. In a game of word associations, the man was told that any wrong answers would merit punishment in the form of electric shocks of 20 to 460 volts, zapped by a console operated by the contestant.
As the actor gave incorrect answers, the show's star, a well-known TV weatherwoman on France 2, exhorted contestants to keep administering the electric shocks and not to bend to the actor's screams of protest. (He would say things like "Get me out of here, please! I don't want to play anymore!") The studio audience also cheered on the torture, yelling for "punishment." The actor would finally stop answering, dying or going unconscious from the shocks.
What the contestants were not told was that this was all fake -- the man was an actor, and there were no electric shocks being administered.
The filmmakers then produced a TV documentary called "The Game of Death" to expose how more than 80 percent of their contestants were goaded to the grisly end of the electrocution exercise. Only 16 people walked away from the game.
Christophe Nick, the maker of the documentary, said he was "amazed" that so many participants obeyed the lethal orders of the game-show host. "They are not equipped to disobey," he told the wire service Agence France-Presse. "They don't want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don't manage to."