Ban Torture? Not on the Silver Screen

Posted: Dec 09, 2005 12:05 AM

What does Hollywood think about torture?

The answer isn't as obvious as you think. Sure, as a political force, Hollywood is against torture, which ranks somewhere in the parade of horribles ahead of SUV ownership and perhaps even voting Republican. No doubt Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin have delivered many a dinner table stemwinder against the Bush administration's defense of "coercive measures" in extreme circumstances.

And to be fair, the Hollywood crowd isn't alone. Back here in Washington, the issue of torture has largely united liberals and divided conservatives. One of the main disagreements is what people mean by torture. If you mean hot pokers in unwelcome places, pretty much everyone is against it, save perhaps in the famous "ticking time bomb" scenario.

But the meatier part of the argument is in the more nuanced area of "coercive measures," "stress positions," and what one unnamed official once described to the Wall Street Journal as "a little bit of smacky-face." Some, such as Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, want even that stuff banned (but acknowledge that if it comes to a ticking time bomb situation, well, "you do what you have to do," as McCain put it).

Others go even further. Naturally, human rights groups are appalled by the suggestion that harsh treatment is ever justified. Similarly, blogger Andrew Sullivan dismisses the ticking time bomb as a "red herring" and argues that "you cannot raise or lower the moral status of mass murderers with respect to torture. The only salient moral status with respect to torture is that the mass murderers are human beings."

In other words, it doesn't matter what the person you are coercing did or why you are coercing them in the first place. Torturing an evil man to save innocent lives is no less a sin than torturing a noble man in order to snuff out innocent lives, or just for the fun of it. The way Sullivan and those who agree with him see it, torture is torture is torture - and torture is always wrong, even when defined as intimidation and "smacky-face." "Not in my name" is their rallying cry, often with the sort of self-righteousness that suggests that those who disagree must admire cruelty.

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.

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