The New Yorker reported this week that the dean of West Point took it upon himself to help put an end to abusive - i.e. torturous - interrogation techniques. He and some leading interrogation experts and instructors flew to La-La Land to talk to the producers of Fox's hit show, "24." Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan told the show's creative team that his students were learning terrible lessons about the utility of brutal violence in interrogations. "The kids see it," Finnegan complained to the article's author, "and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about "24"?'"
It didn't take long for the predictable mockery to start. "This controversy is perhaps the most off-the-wall example of the Œpower of television' we've ever heard," chortled the editors of Broadcasting & Cable.
Jumping in from the other side were human rights organizations critical of Hollywood's increasing fondness for torture. The numbers seem to back them up. From 1996 to 2001, there were 102 torture scenes on TV, the Parents Television Council estimates. From 2002 to 2005, there were 624, and the torturers were increasingly heroes rather than villains.
This is a bit of a reversal from the pre-9/11 kulturkampf. Complaints about the coarsening of the culture used to come mostly from the right. Bob Dole even staked much of his 1996 presidential bid on the promise to eradicate the "nightmares of depravity" parading across the nation's screens.
In response to such criticism, Hollywood liberals threw up clouds of rhetorical fog. One retort was that movies and TV shows can't really influence people that much. This strikes me as a bizarre position for an industry that makes so much money from advertising and product placements and whose self-described artists see themselves as "raising awareness" about everything from AIDS to the snail darter.
Another response - favored by former Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti - was populist dudgeon. "Who are you to tell America what's good for them?" they'd squeal, making fun of the prudes and scolds. We saw some of this after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." "You've never seen a breast before?" they'd titter.
Yet the most effective response from Hollywood was to raise the specter of censorship. "Censorship" is arguably the second-most-powerful scare word in the nation today, after "racism."