Public exposure to scenes of torture on TV is the psychological equivalent of smoking cigarettes or eating mercury-tainted fish. Whether it’s intentional or not, TV torture serves as a method of indoctrination. It disguises an especially degenerate form of brutality as a necessary evil to protect national security. In the process, our collective mental health is undergoing shock treatment.
American “hero” Jack Bauer’s momentary reluctance to torture the alleged terrorists on Fox’s hit TV show “24” is touching. Obviously, the good guy can’t be as bad as the bad guy who inflicts pain unhesitatingly. The show’s breathless viewers patiently endure Bauer’s fleeting scruples to get to the good part—the sado-masochistic thrill of peeping at talented actors who make torture seem very realistic.
Viewers have a great cover-up for getting their jollies in such a degenerate way: A suitcase nuke will detonate in Los Angeles if Jack doesn’t place a clear plastic baggie over the terrorist’s head and start to suffocate him. If viewers were honest with themselves, they would say after the show: “I don’t know why I watch this stuff, but those torture scenes are sure the best parts.” We can anticipate more “best parts” because TV torture’s contamination of the airwaves is up 600 percent since 9/11, according to the Parents’ Television Council.
Hollywood denies it, of course, saying that TV torture is a harmless dramatic device. But when Rush Limbaugh rushes to Hollywood’s defense, proclaiming, “It’s just a TV show—Get a grip,” we know it’s time for a full investigation. Of course, the right wing has for decades been critical of Hollywood movies that have featured the dramatic devices of sex, profanity, and violence. But innocently torturing evil people is apparently family entertainment. According to conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham, it’s also a patriotic way to participate in the war effort. As she told Bill O’Reilly: "The average American out there loves the show 24. OK? They love Jack Bauer. They love 24. In my mind that's close to a national referendum that it's OK to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we're going to get."
Before we rush to yank out some terrorist’s fingernails, can’t we pause for a glance at ourselves? The more acutely we feel our helplessness (i.e. we can’t find that suitcase nuke), the more we’re tempted to resort to some inappropriate or self-defeating expression of power such as torture. William Schulz, former director of Amnesty International, said earlier this month at Harvard University that the feeling since 9/11 of national powerlessness against a shadowy enemy has created a climate for entertaining torture. But we’re not powerless at all. In fact, we’re supposed to be powerful people, mainly because of our noble character. Feelings of helplessness are leftover emotions from childhood, which we’re responsible for overcoming. To resort to torture because of our sense of helplessness is like starting to smoke cigarettes because we can’t resist peer pressure. We’re supposed to be strong enough to resist the temptation to relive old unresolved feelings of helplessness.
Torture as a means to an end is seductive for weak-minded people. Once an up-and-coming torturer breaks the back of his initial repugnance, he finds it easy to be drawn deep into the “gratification” of having that power over others. Part of the appeal involves his identification with the helplessness of the victim, which is unconscious and yet perversely enticing. The same inner dynamic influences pedophiles, who get their kicks, in part, from their identification with the helplessness of their young victims.
Even the U.S. Army is worried about the influence of TV torture. West Point dean, Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, flew to Los Angeles last fall and told “24’s” creative team that his students, avid viewers of the series, were learning terrible fallacies about the utility of torture.
According to Finnegan, it had become increasingly difficult to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. Resistance and misperceptions were being spread by “24,” he suggested, which was exceptionally popular with his students. These are educated college kids, and still they’re perversely affected by this “dramatic device.”
We know that some Americans have tortured, in real life, alleged terrorists in captivity. Torturers can quickly become sadistic, whereby the act of exerting abusive power over others becomes eroticized and addictive. This barbarism, as a kind of emotional and psychological virus, can spread into U.S. society.
Former torturers, having regressed, become abusive and domineering husbands, fathers, and bosses—and breed new generations of angry, negative people.
Those of us who watch the TV version of torture are also unconsciously absorbing emotional toxins. Though we may like to think it’s just entertainment, at an emotional level we take in a resonance with the brutish mentality and experience of the torturer, especially when he’s a “good” guy like Jack. We tend to alternate back and forth from that feeling to one already mentioned, an identification with the helplessness of Jack’s trussed-up punching bag. Both of these emotional experiences are highly negative. Our psyche is easily contaminated by negative influences that are registered unconsciously, just as we are not usually aware when environmental toxins enter our bloodstream.
America hasn’t embraced torture as a device, literary or otherwise, but we’re sure flirting with it. TV torture is part of that flirtation. Our intrigue with the evil of torture exposes a great moral and psychological weakness of ours. This weakness consists of us not quite knowing who we are. We haven’t fully embraced our humanity. This is remedied when each of us, one by one, does our part to become fully human.