- Feb 6, 2009Normalising Pathology
The public is being exposed to a pathological world view where
torture 'works', where murder is 'entertaining' and the suffering of
others is no more than fashionable titillation.
In their zeal to legalize torture and trounce the Bill of Rights, the
Bush team crafted a media campaign to sell the "War on Terror" as a
righteous quest retribution for 9/11, inciting fear of future carnage
to justify violating the Geneva protocols and the U.S. Army Field
Manual. While the Bush torture policy made stunning progress through
the courts and the legislature, with the Patriot Act and the Military
Commissions Act of 2006, there followed an increase in the
normalization of torture images in popular culture, a growing
acceptance of violence as effective, routine.
When photographs of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib appeared in 2004,
Bush's approval ratings sank, yet torture themes multiplied in film
and TV. From 2002 through 2005, the Parents Television Council
counted 624 torture scenes in prime time, a six-fold increase. UCLA's
Television Violence Monitoring Project reports "torture on TV shows
is significantly higher than it was five years ago and the characters
who torture have changed. It used to be that only villains on
television tortured. Today, "good guy" and heroic American characters
torture -- and this torture is depicted as necessary, effective and
Human Rights First has just released a short film entitled "Primetime
Torture" that examines how torture and interrogation scenes are
portrayed in television programming. A retired military leader
interviewed for the film says, "The portrayal of torture in popular
culture is having a significant impact on how interrogations are
conducted in the field. U.S. soldiers are imitating the techniques
they have seen on television -- because they think such tactics work."
Lately it seems that three out of five offerings at the local
Cineplex are tales of clever and nimble torturers and serial killers.
This mass marketing of the murderer, sadist and child molester endows
the deviant with a fictitious intelligence, the pretense of a rich
and complex "inner life", a particularly annoying Hollywood buzzword.
Such characters aren't presented as perverts, rather, they're complex
geniuses, creative and tormented, ever misunderstood. It must come
from the suits, who study box office returns for the "Texas Chainsaw
Massacre" franchise. Whereas actresses frequently complain that the
only roles available are for killers or tarts, actors bemoan the
dearth of "serious" movies amid piles of scripts about guys shooting
off guns. They'll play the killer if they have to, it's work.
Showtime has launched a hit series called "Dexter, "America's
Favorite Serial Killer; He's Got A Way with Murder" The star, Michael
C. Hall, has become a pin-up icon in men's magazines, where he speaks
rapturously in interviews about the joys of portraying "a serial
killer with a conscience", in that he only kills bad people, or
anyone he finds irritating. There's a Dexter screensaver, board game
and Facebook site, where you can "Dexterize" your friend's profile.
In the Bush years torture images migrated from Hollywood to fashion
and advertising. Last season a TV commercial featuring lesbian-
bondage-torture imagery got heavy rotation on prime time. A sleek and
luscious model is strapped to a restraining chair, encircled by
another model wielding a hair dryer like a weapon, whilst
growling, "In" A new color print ad in women's magazines shows a
ferocious swat team breaking into a bathroom, hoisting bottles of
toilet bowl cleaner like clubs. I guess it's supposed to make you
In 2007 a fashion blog proclaimed; "Torture is the New Black", when
John Galliano's 2007 runway show male models wore hoods, nooses,
handcuffs, and had their bodies painted with gashes, cuts and
cigarette burns. Then Italian Vogue ran 30 pages of color photographs
by Steven Meisel, depicting models elegantly clad in Dolce & Gabbana,
Prada and more, being interrogated and beaten by policemen with
clubs, knives, guns and attack dogs. Many fashion writers
embraced "Torture Chic". Joanna Bourke, a professor at Birkbeck
College, observed that the images served "the interests of the
politics of torture and abuse. There is a vicarious satisfaction in
viewing these depictions of cruelty in the interests of national
Human Rights First offers a list of recommendations to "creators of
popular culture who are writing scenes about interrogation.' These
U.S. interrogators say that not only is torture illegal and immoral,
it is also ineffective as an interrogation tactic - because it is
unreliable. Moreover, evidence gained through torture is inadmissible
in court - and therefore unusable for prosecuting alleged terrorists
Torture, as it is performed by American characters on television,
regularly produces reliable information - and quite quickly. When
writing about interrogation, writers might consider creating scenes
that more accurately mirror reality: showing that torture often
incapacitates suspects (or kills them); that innocent people are
often mistakenly tortured; or that victims of torture provide false
information. On television today, torture has few consequences for
the torturer and the tortured ... it would be difficult, if not
impossible, for those who torture or are tortured to resume normal
life quickly as they do on television.
Remember that American popular culture is exported widely around the
world...With the abuses at Abu Grahib and Guantanamo fresh in
people's minds, exporting the glorification of torture by American
military and police personnel further tarnishes America's image in
Fans of "Dexter" and "24" have become artificially desensitized to
torture, having never experienced it themselves, or seen a friend or
relative whipped, burned, frozen or starved.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once wrote; "The central conservative truth
is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a
society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a
culture and save it from itself." In his 1993 essay "Defining
Deviancy Down" he observed Americans "must be wary of normalizing
social pathology that leads to trauma ... we are getting used to a
lot of behavior that isn't good for us."
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