Torture Okayed Through Pop Culture

Diverse torture instruments.

Diverse torture instruments.

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.

10 Comments on "Torture Okayed Through Pop Culture"

  1. BuzzCoastin | Jul 20, 2014 at 3:34 pm |

    Sarah Palin is a comic masquerading as a politician

    many of these vengeful, vindictive people
    claim to “believe in” Jesus
    a guy who preached tolerance, forgiveness, kindness
    and turning the other cheek as a defensive tactic
    even rebuking Peter for using a sword to stop his arrest
    they missed His speck vs log in the eye sermon

    • InfvoCuernos | Jul 20, 2014 at 3:35 pm |

      Or the fact that he himself was tortured before being executed.

      • But that was all part of God’s plan so people could focus on him rather than on his teachings because if they focused on his teachings, they might have to get off the couch and do something.

  2. emperorreagan | Jul 20, 2014 at 8:19 pm |

    Frank Miller is really aiming for the low fruit when you’re looking for an unapologetic fascist.

    • Adam's Shadow | Jul 20, 2014 at 9:08 pm |

      Frank’s probably at his computer right now, muttering about Muslims and Obama into his whiskey tumbler.

  3. Most of these movies are just soft core violence porn that any reasonably self aware person would find boring. Usually I’m over it once I see bullet holes and neck wounds, which there are plenty of on prime time tv why waste money on the movies? Everyone is always running around with blood on something. That must be a new rule for entertainment, blood quotas. When the villain that knows the deactivation code to the thermonuclear day care center bomb has his teeth pried out with a bayonet it turns the hero into the Nietzschean superman and offers the opportunity for revenge fantasy. The hero unleashes his righteous fury in the name of the weak benighted imaginary people. Ah-mehreeka. Fuck. Yeah.

    • JoyceFBrigham | Jul 21, 2014 at 9:57 am |

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    • mannyfurious | Jul 21, 2014 at 11:05 am |

      Unfortunately, “reasonably self aware” persons are few and far in between in the U.S. of A.

      I contend that violent movies don’t appeal to the violent side of humans. They appeal to the side that feels powerless and victimized… and America is full of nothing if not people who have gone out of their way to convince themselves they’ve been victimized. Usually by illegal immigrants, Muslims, Socialist Europeans, peaceniks, PETA advocates and welfare recipients. Instead of, you know, by their own idiocy. But who’s paying attention?

  4. mannyfurious | Jul 21, 2014 at 11:20 am |

    We’ve been taught from day one in this country that violence is the only solution to our problems. And it makes sense when you realize our entire society was built upon the legacies of genocide and slavery. Literally. The very land we all live upon was stolen–violently so. Therefore the idea that violence is the way to get what we want is intrinsic to our culture.

    I live in the rural southwest (basically) and about 75-percent of all males own a gun. Even people you’d least expect. When I tell people I don’t own one, they look at me like I’m a loon and ask me whether I want to protect my family from someone who wants to rape them. I usually just tell them if I want to protect my family, I teach them how to diet and exercise so as to stave off obesity, why it’s not ok to smoke and why they should practice defensive driving strategies, because a member of my family is about 5000 times more likely to succumb to any one of those things than to Mad Max-influenced home invaders of some kind.

    They all just roll their eyes and mutter to themselves what a pussy I am.

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