Noah Berlatsky analyzes how pop culture (movies, comic books, television) makes torture “ok.” He writes that “Torture, pop culture says, is effective, fun, and even funny.”
Noah Berlatsky writes at Splice Today:
In Frank Miller’s influential 1986 series The Dark Knight Returns, Batman drags an unconscious perpetrator up to a rooftop, and hangs him upside down with his eyes covered. When the bad guy wakes up, Batman begins to question him, and then uncovers the guy’s eyes. Hundreds of feet above the city, the bad guy starts to scream in terror, prompting our hero to ruminate smugly about how much fun he’s having.
Last year, in the film Olympus Has Fallen, the American agent played by Gerard Butler stabbed a North Korean bad guy in the knee to get him to talk. The audience at the preview I attended cheered enthusiastically.
Last weekend at the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association, Sarah Palin declared to an enthusiastic audience that the current administration is too nice to jihadists. “Well, if I were in charge,” she said, “they would know that waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.”
Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic argued that Palin’s enthusiastic embrace of torture is ominous, since it suggests that a significant proportion of the conservative base still approves of it, and that the Republican Party would reinstitute it if they win the White House. I don’t disagree with that assessment. But I think it’s worth realizing, too, that torture as a policy resonates well beyond the Republican base post-9/11. On the contrary, Palin’s rhetoric is broadly in line with a long history of justified violence as entertainment within American culture. In the 1987 film Dragnet, the detectives interrogate a captured felon by smashing his balls in a drawer. Torture, pop culture says, is effective, fun, and even funny.
So why is torture so appealing, not just to conservative NRA members, but to comic-book readers, filmgoers, and entertainment consumers of all stripes? You could say that it’s just because people like violence, but I think it’s a little more complicated. People don’t just like violence. They view violence as an ultimate expression of goodness. When Batman in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns tells a perp, Dirty Harry style:
You’ve got rights, lots of rights. Sometimes I count them just to make me feel crazy… But right now you’ve got a piece of glass shoved in a major artery in your arm, right now you’re bleeding to death. Right now I’m the only one person in the world who can get you to a hospital in time!
…that’s a moral statement. Coddling criminals (or, in Palin’s version, terrorists) is wrong; weakness equates with evil. Force and strength aren’t just a means to goodness; they embody goodness. Violence is an ethical experience.
Read more here.