Jonah Goldberg

And that's where Hollywood comes in. Politically, the entertainment community is fairly two-dimensional in its liberalism. But artistically - and to its credit - Hollywood seems to grasp that life can be morally complicated. After all, tactics that qualify as torture for the "anti" crowd show up in film and television every day. On "NYPD Blue," Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, smacked around criminals all the time. In "Guarding Tess," Nicholas Cage shot the toe off a man who wouldn't tell him what he wanted to know - and told him he'd keep shooting piggies until he heard what he wanted.

In "Patriot Games," Harrison Ford shot a man in the kneecap to get the information he needed in a timely manner. In "Rules of Engagement," Samuel L. Jackson shot a POW in the head to get another man to talk.

And the audience is expected to cheer, or at least sympathize with, all of it. Now, I know many will say, "It's only a movie" or "It's only a TV show." But that will not do. Hollywood plays a role in shaping culture, but it also reflects it. It both affirms and reflects our basic moral sense (which is one reason why it dismays some of us from time to time).

It is hardly imaginable that Hollywood would - or could - make long-running TV shows or successful movies in which the protagonist is a soaked-to-the-bone racist. Why? Because audiences would reject the premise, and so would filmmakers. But, last I checked, there were no howls of outrage when a racist mayor in "Mississippi Burning" was brutalized and threatened with castration in order to give up information. Heck, the movie was nominated for six Oscars, including best picture.

The issue here is context. Coercion of the sort we're discussing is used by good guys and bad guys alike - in films and in real life. Just as with guns and fistfights, the morality of violence depends in large part on the motives behind it. (That's got to be one of the main reasons so many on the left oppose the war: They distrust President Bush's motives. Very few of Bush's critics are true pacifists.)

American audiences - another word for the American public - understand this. A recent poll by AP-Ipsos showed that about 61 percent of Americans believed torture can be justified in some cases. Interestingly, roughly half of the residents of that self-described "moral superpower" Canada agreed, as did a majority of French citizens and a huge majority of South Koreans.

My guess is that when presented in cinematic form, even larger numbers of people recognize that sometimes good people must do bad things. I'm not suggesting, of course, that the majority is always right. But it should at least suggest to those preening in their righteousness that people of goodwill can disagree.

Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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