If the revelations at the heart of the Senate Intelligence Committee torture report released earlier this month seemed too fantastical and too imaginative to register as taking place in the real world, there’s a good reason for that. Many of them were actually inspired by the realm of fiction. While we’ve long known that the television show “24”, in which a heroic counter terrorism agent uses any means necessary to save the country from an orgy of ticking time bombs, was popular with a certain strain of the national security minded, the details of the report have given us a horrifying glimpse of just what that sort of conflation between reality and fantasy have wrought. Look upon Jack Bauer’s deeds and despair. They don’t look so glamorous anymore.
Writing about the 24 phenomenon a couple years back for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick quoted from a pair of books, Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side and Philippe Sands’ The Torture Team, that pointed out how Bauer’s exploits literally played a role in the formulation and implementation of the so-called enhanced interrogation techniques whose sordid details we’ve recently learned. Diane Beaver, a staff judge advocate general who approved such techniques as water-boarding and sexual humiliation, admitted to Sands that Bauer was a bountiful source of inspiration. Similarly, “Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security chief, once gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show “reflects real life.” Everyone else from John Yoo to Antonin Scalia have praised the cunning and heroism of Bauer.
This lionization of the soldier or policeman who operates outside of the rules, is, of course an exceptionally common trope in television and film. The dirty cop isn’t just an aberration in our entertainment, he’s the norm. After all, there’s nothing all that entertaining about watching a detective follow through on a search warrant and peacefully detain a suspect after a boring confrontation.
The archetype is an appealing one, even for those who might blanch at such a figure in real life. But falling for it also proposes a hypocritical conundrum that I’ve often wrestled with myself over the years as a progressive who’s highly suspicious of the overreach of law enforcement and the security state apparatus: How can I applaud the extra-legal abuse of suspects on film when I would be furious if such an incident took place in my city? I’ve often joked that, despite my affinity for Law and Order’s brawny and violent Eliot Stabler, the real heroes of that show were always the internal investigations unit that showed up from time to time to put him in a bureaucratic sling. Somehow I don’t think an entire series dedicated to the “rat squad” would generate the same ratings.
But there’s a workaround for this disconnect in how we perceive abuse, even torture, in fiction and in the real world. On film, we’re privy to the insights of the omniscient narrator. We don’t have to wring our hands over the uncertainty of guilt and the skipping over of procedural propriety, because we’ve actually seen the terrorist planting the bomb. We know that he knows where the passcode to set off the nuclear device is, so, we rationalize, it’s ok that he takes a few on the jaw. Maybe he spends a little time locked away in a box, sure, but it’s all for the cause that we know for a fact is just, and good. We have faith, in other words, that one wrong does, in fact, fix another as the ledger sheet of atrocity is balanced.
In reality, there’s no such thing as an omniscient narrator. Not for most of us anyway.
While torture and abuse from figures of authority can be applauded on screen, it’s not so cut and dry when it comes to opinions on it in America. Nonetheless, polling shows, Americans’ support for torture has been on a steady climb over the past decade.
Back in 2004, when the Pew Research Center first began polling on the subject, 53% of Americans said that “the use of torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists could be only rarely or never justified.” By 2011 that number had swung to the other side, with 53% saying torture could “often or sometimes be justified.”
Perhaps more tellingly, Pew found, an overwhelming majority of Republicans, at 71% said torture could sometimes be justified compared to 45% of Democrats. A Washington Post/ABC poll this week also showed a sharp divide. “Views on the CIA’s tactics break down sharply along ideological lines. Liberal Democrats are most disgusted with the agency’s actions, while conservative Republicans are most likely to defend it.”
Support for the techniques employed by the CIA is abundant among the right-leaning media and public officials. “CIA torture report released. Good. I’m ok torturing terrorists & I want terrorists to know we’ll do anything to them,” tweeted former Republican congressman Joe Walsh. “Those who served us in aftermath of 9/11 deserve our thanks not one-sided partisan Senate report that now places American lives in danger,” added Marco Rubio. And then there was the widely mocked, but nonetheless telling Fox news segment which we were reassured that torture is ok, because America is awesome. Scalia, the Jack Bauer fanboy, has continued his crusade for justifying torture as well, saying in an obtusely hair-splitting interview last week that torture is only unconstitutional when it applies to prisoners, not suspects.
The backlash to the backlash has been joined in earnest by a host of Republican lawmakers, many of whom, like Tom Coburn, Saxby Chambliss, and Rubio, were more incensed by the release of the report than the actual torturing itself. “I cannot think of a greater disservice to our men and women serving in the military and in our intelligence field than to hand terror groups like ISIL another recruiting tool and excuse to target them,” John Cornyn said in statement last week. “Due to the political calculations of some, the American people and our allies across the globe are less safe today than they were before.”
The problem with assertions like these, and the type that you commonly see posted on internet comment sections about the just cause of torturing terrorists, is that, unlike on 24, we don’t actually know who the terrorists are with any degree of certainty. As the SIC report revealed, we often detained and abused men who were falsely fingered, or who had no significant connection to any sort of terrorist plot, at least 26 of whom were put through a living nightmare based on, well, certainty. Mistakes like these are a terrible consequence of gut-based foreign policy since there are no camera edits to tell us which are the bad guys who really have it coming, and which are the ones simply caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s probably not surprising then, that, like Republicans, the very religious (who share a strong overlap in any case according to Gallup data), tend to be more supportive of the use of torture. According to the 2009 Pew poll, 54% of those who attended religious services at least weekly said torture can often or sometimes be justified, while only 32% of those who seldom or never attended services said the same. That number rose to 62% among some groups, like white evangelical Protestants.
Relatedly, other polls have found that Republicans tend to be more trusting of law enforcement. A recent Gallup poll found that 69% of Republicans had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in police compared to 52% of Democrats. Law enforcement and the international security apparatus are right and just because they operate in our name, and we are right and just.
There’s a reason for this discrepancy, and no, it’s not that Republicans love the country and freedom, and Democrats want to hand it out to Muslim Socialists and criminals. It’s because in order to sell yourself on the idea of torture being acceptable, or to turn away from obvious law enforcement abuses, you have to already have given your life over to the reality of fiction. You have to believe in the concept of an overarching authority that has the balancing of good and evil in mind. (What’s the bible, by the way, if not the original torture porn thriller?)
The absence of an all-seeing camera angle isn’t a problem for the religious, and the religiously Republican, because every interaction in the world is already filtered through the steady, reassuring POV of the big omniscient narrator in the sky.