Thoughts on torture

Saw the new movie Prisoners the other day.  It’s really very good, exceptionally well acted and quite well written, if, you know, also kind of preposterous.  Two married couples, the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello), and the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), best friends, are enjoying Thanksgiving together when they notice their seven-year-old daughters are missing. Their older kids remember the girls playing by a dilapidated van parked in the neighborhood; cops are called, the van is discovered, driven by a mentally handicapped guy named Alex Jones (Paul Dano).  But, so, the Paul Dano character doesn’t seem to know anything, or even have the mental capacity to understand the questions he’s being asked, so the cops have to let him go.

And Hugh Jackman goes crazy.  His character, Keller Dover, is pretty tightly wound anyway.  He’s a carpenter, a hunter, a gun owner–has a concealed carry permit, movie starts with him and his son shooting a deer.  And he’s a religious man; prays openly several times in the movie.  A good family man, you sense.

But his little girl’s been kidnapped. And he loses it.  Kidnaps the Paul Dano character, and begins torturing him.  Finally builds a tiny closet for him, with off-and-on scalding water.  And keeps him there for days.

And the other couple, the Birches, they know about it.  And they’re appalled, and they’re horrified, and they know it’s wrong and say so.  But they can’t quite bring themselves to make him stop, call the cops or something.  Terrence Howard’s brilliant in this movie, as a deeply conflicted guy who nonetheless, out of desperation, chooses not to act, thereby violating his own deeply rooted religious and moral convictions.  I mean, his daughter’s gone too.  And Viola Davis is equally superb, as her character goes along with these dreadful decisions made by these two men.  They’re moral cowards, really, all of them are, but we also get why.

And it works. Torture works. Eventually, this poor sad guy, Alex Jones, who barely even understands the questions they’re asking him, he says something that cracks the case open. And Hugh Jackman grabs his gun, and goes to where he now knows his daughter is being held.

Now, in the interest of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t say more.  Jake Gyllenhaal, as Detective Loki (seriously, the cop’s a Norse God?) continues to work the case, and eventually solves it, despite screwing up pretty badly a couple of times. As I said, I rather liked the movie; mostly because these are all terrific actors and they carry the film.  But torture works.  That’s my takeaway.  Torture works.

But then, it often works in Hollywood.  Zero Dark Thirty? I know Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal insist they’re opposed to torture–still, I saw their film.  Torture works.  Through torture, a key piece of intel, leading eventually to bin Laden’s capture, is discovered.  It’s not the only intel they have, and it’s not the key to anything, but it starts Jessica Chastain down the path that eventually leads to Osama bin Laden’s execution.  Torture works.

24? One of the most popular shows in the history of television, right?  Jack Bauer tortured someone nearly every week, and it pretty much always worked.  What about Homeland? Crazy Carrie Mathison (played by presumably not-crazy Claire Danes) is the show’s heroine, and she orders torture, and again, it kind of works. Provides key information, leading to . . . well, something.  Info, if not actionable intel.

Now, all these characters are conflicted by it.  Hugh Jackman’s character is wracked with guilt over what he has to do to poor Paul Dano.  He prays about it, repeatedly.  And I know, that could be read as another example of Hollywood mocking religion; another hypocritical Christian.  But as a Christian, I don’t see it that way.  I think all Christians are, to some degree, hypocrites.  We have to be, given the impossible precepts and example provided us in the Sermon on the Mount. Love our enemies, turn the other cheek? The point of that Sermon is aspirational–it’s what we should work towards, knowing we’ll never achieve it. Which is why we also believe in God’s grace.

But when characters torture other characters, in movies or on TV (or in theatre), they’re always deeply conflicted about it.  And that elevates them.  They’re not torturing monsters.  They feel bad about it.  They’re facing a moral dilemma.  They have to decide; does this end justify these means?  And the thing they’re working for (capturing terrorists, rescuing kidnapped daughters, killing Osama bin Laden, saving the world) is always something noble and grand.  So torture isn’t exactly a good thing.  And it hurts me as much (or more) as it hurts you.  But sometimes you just have to.

BS.  Nonsense.  Balderdash.  Here’s Ali Soufan, former FBI agent and the one man who came closest to figuring out and stopping 9/11:

Time and time again, people with actual experience with interrogating terror suspects and actual experience and knowledge about the effectiveness of torture techniques have come out to explain that they are ineffective and that their use threatens national security more than it helps.

This from the Army Field Manual:

“Torture is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

I could multiply these quotations a hundred times over.  Torture simply doesn’t work. Nor is it ennobling. Ask Lynndie England: the torturers at Abu Graib were driven by, mostly, boredom.  They were inadequately supervised, had a job they hated, and took it out on the prisoners under their care.

I know that some members of the intelligence community dispute this.  I know that Dick Cheney insists that valuable intelligence was discovered through ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’  He’s cited the example of captured Al Quada operative, Abu Zubaydah (who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder), and was (according to the International Red Cross) subjected to

Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to extreme temperatures, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds at extremely damaging decibel levels, and religious and sexual humiliation.

All this was entirely unnecessary.  The man broke 30 seconds into his first waterboarding session (though he continued to be subjected to it).  He did what everyone does when they’re tortured.  He told his torturers whatever he thought they wanted.  He’d worked as a travel agent, and so he told about plots to attack the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the New York subway system.  As a result, the US spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.  Ron Suskind’s great book, The One Percent Doctrine details his interrogation.  When he was simply questioned by sympathetic listeners, he gave up actual, actionable intelligence. When they started torturing him, his stories got wilder, and nonsensical.

Torture doesn’t work.  Not in real life.  In movies and on TV, they use it, because it’s dramatically tense and gives actors a chance to suffer photogenically.  But we could write better, truer stories.

So I’ve got a play in rehearsal right now.  Nothing Personal, it’s called, and it’s about the assault on civil liberties.  And it includes a torture scene.  And audiences and critics will decide if it’s a very good play.  (I’m proud of it, but then I’m proud of all my children).  But I can say this with some pride, I think: in my play about torture, torture doesn’t work.  Because it doesn’t.  And I wish Hollywood would figure that out.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on torture

  1. Jonathan Langford

    I suspect part of the problem is that the moral dilemma, and thus the dramatic impact, seems stronger if torture works. If torture is not only wrong but actually stupid, then you don’t really have the makings of a moral/ethical conflict. Or at least you have to work harder for it.


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