The Corner

Will There Be Outrage?

I haven’t read the IG report yet, I’ve just seen a few write ups and excerpts around here and other places. Without getting into the substance of the controversy, I’m doubting that there will be a lot of popular outrage over any of the allegations of abuse. Right or wrong, I think the average American assumes that some rough stuff goes on behind the scenes and that’s okay. One reason for that assumption is that Hollywood tells us so every day.

I’ve long been fascinated with the disconnect between what pundits, politicians and various activist groups complain about and the status of interrogation techniques in the popular culture (here’s a column I did on the subject in 2005). In countless films and TV shows the good guys — not the bad guys — do things to get important information that makes all some [see update] of the harsh methods and allegedly criminal techniques in the IG report seem like an extra scoop of ice cream and a Swedish massage. In NYPD Blue, The Wire, The Unit, 24 and on and on, suspects are beaten, threatened, terrified. In some instances they are simply straight-up tortured. In movies, too, this stuff is commonplace. 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. In Guarding Tess, Nick Cage blows off a wimpy little man’s toes until he talks. In The Untouchables Sean Connery conducts a mock execution.

Now, I know I will get a lot of “it’s just a movie” or “TV shows aren’t real” email from people. At least I have every other time I’ve made this point. So let me concede a point I’ve never disputed while making one these folks don’t seem to grasp. If such practices, in the contexts depicted, were as obviously and clearly evil as many on the left claim, Hollywood could never get away with having the good guys employ them. Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy movies would never torture wholly innocent and underserving victims for the same reasons he wouldn’t beat his kids or hurl racial epithets at black people. But given sufficient time to lay out the context and inform the viewers of the stakes, as well as Ford’s motives, the audience not only understands but applauds his actions. Of course it’s just a movie. But the movie is tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments. Think of these scenes as elaborate hypothetical situations in the debate about torture and interrogation that are acted out and played before focus groups of normal Americans.

If Harrison Ford was an unrepetent racist and anti-Semite in Patriot Games and audience-focus groups still loved him, reasonable people would agree that said something troubling about American audiences.

And if, as a matter of principle and sincere conviction, you think it is always evil and outrageous for interrogators to beat, slap, terrify or abuse suspects, no matter what the stakes or the context, then you should be deeply, deeply offended by these films and TV shows. And you might even have the better argument. My only point here is that, as a general proposition, the American people don’t agree with you.

Update: From a reader:

The IG report details someone beaten to death with a metal flashlight

in the course of an interrogation, and that this is under further

investigation. I don’t recall this in any of the various televised

depictions of somewhat-justified torture that I’ve seen. There are

whole categories of torture that are in the report and redacted that

we presumably don’t know about yet. Whole sections whose headings are

too sensitive to reveal. There are about a dozen of these. I don’t

recall any instance in shows I’ve seen where forced nudity, extended

sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, and forcing someone to live in

their own excrement are justified. These are all detailed in this

report; many were deemed legal by the DOJ’s OLC; in many instances

agents stepped beyond those lines.

There are definitely many scenes in entertainment where coercive

physical violence is tolerated. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen

psychological torture employed to the extent detailed here. In

fairness, I’ve only seen a few episodes of 24 so maybe Jack Bauer’s

all about telling people he’ll take off their diapers and let them

escape from their own s**t if they answer his questions.

Me: Some of this is fair, some of it is tendentious. But the upshot is I shouldn’t have said “all” of the methods, but merely “some.” I’ve changed the post above to reflect that. As for comparable stuff in movies, we could play this game all day. But I’ve got a deadline. More later. Though the wait won’t be as long as it was for the guy who had to sit in the chair being electrocuted in Taken  or the Klansmen’s torture session in Mississippi Burning.

Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review and the author of Suicide of the West, holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute.

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