Query on fictional torture

In patriotic fiction before 9/11, Americans were always torture victims, never torturers. Not true now. Sad.

I believe that the following statement is true, and am looking for counterexamples:

In any TV show, movie, or novel written from a conventionally patriotic viewpoint before 9/11/01, if there’s a torture scence involving an American, the American is always the victim, never the torturer.

If that was true, of course it now isn’t. In the same vein, even during the Cold War the use of torture never became a partisan issue. The change is sad and disgusting. 

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

47 thoughts on “Query on fictional torture”

  1. In Guarding Tess (1994) an American secret service agent, the story’s protagonist, tortures the villain. The torture scene is presented as a shocking but necessary act and, while this is open to interpretation, I think the audience is expected to approve.

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by a conventionally patriotic point of view, but I expect Lee Greenwood fans would enjoy he movie just about as much as everyone else did.

  2. I can think of one obvious pre-9/11 example: the TV series 24, in which Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer routinely tortured suspects or potential informants to obtain information. He did whatever was necessary. Broken bones, burned flesh, electrical shocks — all were essential tools in Bauer’s armamentarium, frequently used and without delay.

    It was amazing how well those tools worked! A knife through the wrist was all that it took for the bad guy to divulge the location of the bomb, immediately. No wonder Jack could solve the case and save the day within 24 hours! Only a Real Man like Jack had the guts and ruthlessness for the job.

    If I recall correctly, Cheney et al cited Jack Bauer’s success rate to explain, even justify, the necessity of the “dark side”.

    Not to mention, of course, the “tune-em-up” mentality (ie, beat the prisoner during interrogation) depicted on cop shows like Law and Order.

    1. 24 premiered November 6, 2001. Probably had been in planning pre-9/11, but the show itself began two months after.

    2. I don’t know enough about the TV business to know how much of the first season of 24 could properly be said to predate 9/11. Arriving as it just a few months after 9/11, it’d be interesting to know when the torture scenes were written.

      1. Or, indeed, filmed!

        Certainly, 24 is often held up as capturing (and feeding!) the post-9/11 feeling of paranoia, anger, and willingness to transgress moral boundaries in pursuit of Safety. But it is worth pointing out, as people have done here in this thread, that some or even much of this (in the first season, at least) may have been fortuitous resonances in a product that had already largely been shaped, rather than echoes deliberately constructed in response to the national mood following 9/11.

    3. “24” works as a post-9/11 example because torture did not become a major component of the storylines until the second season. regardless of how much of the first season of the show could be considered driven by 9/11 the seond season would have been entirely post-9/11.

      1. Exactly. Jack Bauer does threaten to torture one guy (a foreigner? Can’t remember, but allied with foreigners) horribly in the first season (filmed before 9/11). But: (1) It’s only a threat (which works) and we have no way of knowing whether he would actually have followed through with it; (2) the guy he’s threatening is with a group that’s holding his wife and daughter; (3) Bauer is presented as being pretty unhinged at the time, partly because of (2) and partly because he hasn’t slept for 30 or so hours, so it’s not clear whether the show intends to endorse the threat or use it to make the hero seem not all there.

        In later seasons, Bauer tortures about a dozen people before breakfast and it always works. The video “Primetime Torture” by the group Human Rights First is excellent on how Hollywood went crazy regarding torture after 9/11.

        1. Exactly. In season 1 there’s really only that one torture scene, and he’s at his most desperate. There are other scenes where he’s yelling and threatening, but he’s unhinged in those scenes. There’s really only one where he’s doing the whole methodical “This is my torture technique and it will work” thing.

          In season 2, OTOH, there’s a whole lot more “Here are standard instruments and techniques” normalization of torture, the sort of stuff that we imagine happens at CIA black sites. But even in season 2, a lot of the torture is done by villains. Indeed, while US tanks were rolling into Baghdad, Jack Bauer was being tortured by mercenaries working for an oil company that had orchestrated a WMD hoax to start a war in the Middle East.

          Season 4 is where it really went off the rails and became No Big Deal.

    4. “If I recall correctly, Cheney et al cited Jack Bauer’s success rate to explain, even justify, the necessity of the “dark side”.”

      Incorrect, and much worse – Antonin Scalia did, in an opinion.

  3. I have no pre-2001 examples to offer, but I remember being unpleasantly struck by this issue while watching Inglorious Basterds (2009). By then, presenting American soldiers as gleeful sadists didn’t seem to bother many people: “But the victims were Nazis!”. That reaction, as much as the depiction itself, certainly bothered me.

  4. One of the most famous scenes in American movie history involves an American as torturer. This is the scene where Detective “Dirty Harry” Callahan shoots the character Scorpio, who has kidnapped a child, in the leg. Callahan demands that Scorpio tell him where the girl is and when he refuses, Callahan stands on the wounded leg to torture Scorpio into revealing the girl’s location.

    This scene has given rise to an extensive body of writing in the field of moral philosophy as both an example of the “trolley problem” and as a genuine moral dilemma is a situation from which one cannot emerge innocent no matter what one does. It has been taught in many police academies.

    As I say, it’s really constructed as a “trolley problem” and there’s really no way to win. One can smugly keep a sense of moral superiority but only at the cost of an innocent child’s life. But embracing torture is, as we’ve seen here and in Latin America, choosing to open Pandora’s box and unleash terrible forces that always corrode the very fabric of liberal society, so the cost of saving the child’s life might be terrible indeed.

    1. Mitch beat me to it. What a fantastic bit of cinematography by Bruce Surtees! The helicopter pull away shot, with the wind from the blades ruffling the actors’ clothes and then the blurring/fogging of the lens as the scene goes from light to murk to utter darkness, suggesting agonizing pain and/or complete loss of moral direction in the central character.


      Clint Eastwood was maligned by all “right-thinking” people (e.g., Pauline Kael) for that movie, but he and Don Siegel were in touch with the times and their detractors were not.

      Not strictly relevant to Mark’s query because even though the torturer was American so was the victim. But I think it captured, in an era of rising crime and fear, what many people considered justifiable and is that sense parallel to how people felt about terrorism after 9/11.

  5. I don’t know about soldiers, or even national-security figures, but I have the sense that televised dramas featuring American cops (or feds, but fighting Crime rather than Terror) brutally interrogating suspects (especially but not only in contrived “ticking time bomb” situations) were not really rare before 9/11 – sometimes presented as a reprehensible act, sometimes presented neutrally as something that <i<just happens, and sometimes presented as a noble act.

  6. The cop-show question is an interesting one, but my query is about Americans v. foreigners.

    1. Oops! Sorry about that. Although, as an entirely off-topic aside, I feel that you missed the more nuanced implications of the “Dirty Harry” problem in your previous discussion of the phrase “what are you prepared to do?” Police work frequently involves difficult moral questions. That said, my apologies for my atrophying reading comprehension.

    2. Actually, your question didn’t specify. And I think you’d need a broader exception, as it’s quite common in American film or the most unsympathetic baddies to be Foreigners, which will surely be true in cop dramas (it’s murder rather than torture, but there’s the famous “Diplomatic Immunity” scene in one of the Lethal Weapon films, as an example I can think of offhand).

    3. Mark’s “patriotic” reference does imply American v. foreigner, and that is how I took it. In any case, they are two slightly different questions. It has occurred to me that traditional westerns sometimes included one particular, almost stylized, form of torture: one good guy pins the bad guy’s arms behind his back, and the other good guy punches him until he talks.

      1. I took it to be a variant on “jingoistic”, or “conformist” – as in, Dirty Harry beating up lowlife hippies is about reinforcing the narrative that defines the national character as much as Jack Bauer beating up Islamist radicals is.

  7. Stipulating that Arnold Schwartzenneger isn’t a traditional American image …

    In the film Commando, Matrix holds Sully over the edge of a cliff to get him to tell the whereabouts of Jenny. When Sully doesn’t know, Matrix says
    “Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last?”

    “That’s right, Matrix, you did.”

    “Well, I lied.” And he drops Sully off the cliff to his death.

    When he gets back to the car, Cindy asks him “what happened to Sully?”

    “Oh, I let him go.”

  8. The Siege (1998) has the torture sequence occurring mostly off screen and implied, but the US troops in NYC are torturing a guy in the film. He is a known “bad guy” but the torture proves useless. I don’t know if it counts under this measurement: “In any TV show, movie, or novel written from a conventionally patriotic viewpoint before 9/11/01”, as what counts as “conventionally patriotic” is probably an arbitrary distinction. One could probably say Denzel’s character was conventionally patriotic at least with the idea that torture was (is) wrong prior to that point even if the overall tone of the film is of more mixed political views.

    I believe a couple of Tom Clancy’s books used at least implied torture by Americans as well pre-9-11 but don’t describe the American’s activities beyond things like “we had to break some fingers”, given that this trend was carried on into the Splinter Cell video games (post-9-11). I would guess those pass the “conventionally patriotic” format given his extreme neo-conservative views.

    Neither example is a skilled artist or excellent work like the Dirty Harry sequence.

    Hollywood has long used the “torture works” trope in cop movies and shows, and in violent caper movies (comes up in Tarantino or Mel Gibson movies quite often). It comes up somewhat less in war or foreign policy themes and there aren’t as many TV shows with those themes anyway.

    1. Re: Tom Clancy, in “Without Remorse” the “good guy” Clark tortures evil dope dealer Billy with a recompression chamber, deliberately giving him the bends.

    2. Also, in The Sum of All Fears, Clark and Dominguez break and move the fingers of a terrorist to extract information.

      In Clancy’s defense, the information provided ultimately proves false.

    3. I believe The Siege was understood at the time to be a critique of how terrorism scares people into giving up civil liberties.

  9. I can suggest where to look, but also where it probably won’t be found — and I think that’s a problem in itself, despite the bi-partisan silence surrounding it. There were a number of movies in the early to mid-1980s that offered various fictionalized approaches to the Central America conflicts raging in the region at the time. I can remember criticism from activists that although documented US support for tortuous regimes that continued even though torture was formally outlawed, it was always some swarthy individual with no clear connection to the US who did the dirty work in the movies, including extrajudicial execution, “disappearances,” and torture. This was the case even when such a movie’s plot was sympathetic to forces sometimes tagged as “anti-American” although that tag is itself disputable.

    The fact that Americans don’t appear as torturers in American movies is as likely an artifact of the carefully concealed hand of some of our more nefarious foreign assistance ventures as much as it reflects any artistic trends.

    I do have to wonder about these sorts of depictions of American as torturers in _foreign_ films, as opposed to Hollywood products. That might be somewhat of a different kettle of fish.

    1. “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” I’d prefer a culture that keeps torture a dirty secret to one that boasts of it.

      1. I prefer a culture that doesn’t torture, in secret or with braggadocio. A society with enough secrecy to conceal its torturers probably has too much secrecy…but I digress. I suppose it’s a half-step in hell towards heaven to not brag about your torturers.

      2. As Dostoevsky wrote in The House of the Dead in regard to another form of torture, flogging of prisoners: “Any society that looks upon such a phenomenon with indifference is already infected to its very foundation.” I’m with Mike, how about we preserve the human dignity of prisoners under our control in accordance with our professed values?

      3. “Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.”

        Another way to put it is that passing the beat cop a twenty will let you get away with stuff.

  10. In my own US Army training in the early 1970s, physical abuse of prisoners was strictly forbidden, and we were carefully instructed that any order to abuse a prisoner was an illegal order, and need not be followed. Training materials prominently featured the argument that if we abused our enemy prisoners., that enemy would be more likely to abuse American captives.(IIRC, the mnemonic jingle for handling prisoners was “Safe, Secure, and Speed to the Rear”) The training materials celebrated American compliance with the Geneva conventions. It was presented as a fact that US forces eschew torture, as policy, and that was presented as a reason for pride, just one way in which we were morally superior to some of our potential enemies.

    There is no hell low enough for W, Cheney, Rumsfeld and General Geoffry D. (“Gitmoize”) Miller.

  11. I want to object to the idea that the police-torture scenario has anything to do with the trolley problem. Torture is worse than death, and the torturer worse than a murderer. The official, self-righteous torturer, going back to Torquemada, is a figure of maximum horror. He ought to be identified, correctly, as a coward and a weakling, and Archie Goodwin’s verdict should be endlessly repeated: “Any self-respecting garbage can would be disgusted to find him inside it.” The only lower form of human life is the torturer-with-his-mouth – a Cheney, a Yoo, or a Scalia – willing to cause someone else to inflict torture while keeping his own hands clean and covering his moral nakedness with a fig-leaf of euphemism.

  12. Capt. Richard Marcinko, former navy seal, founder of team six and red cell, writes of torture in the first person in his fiction books.

  13. Death of a Citizen, by Donald Hamilton, 1960, first of the Matt Helm novels. Helm tortures a foreign spy, female, to death to obtain information on one of his children who has been kidnapped.

    1. Huh. The Dean Martin films are so lighthearted. (also, you get the definite impression the lead actor was pleasantly buzzed and had just been told his lines).

  14. If I recall correctly, Tom Clancy’s book “The Sum of All Fears” has CIA operative John Clark torturing one of the people responsible for nuking the SuperBowl.

  15. I’m nearly certain that there is brutalization of (Japanese and German) prisoners in some WW2-era books, but can’t think of a reference right now–hoping this prompts someone else with a specific reference.

    1. For abuses against Japanese POWs (and dead) the Pacific War, try John Dower, “War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War.”

      In the European Theater, abuses against German POWs seem less prevalent, perhaps because it’s somewhat more difficult to “other” people who appear culturally and racially the same as yourself. It did occur, though. Sorry, don’t have a handy ref.

      Moreover, while detentions of German citizens on US soil did not take on the mass nature of the internment of Japanese-connected people, they did occur. I know a family whose father worked in my dad’s office in the military. He was an American citizen, born of immigrant German parents. His father was interned, along with the entire family, after the start of the war, apparently from obeying orders in the late 1930s to report to the German consulate to register for the German military draft. They were deported at the end of the war, whereupon he and his father were further imprisoned on German soil with hardended Nazis. Quite an experience for a boy 14 yo. Eventually released, his New York English was recognized by some US Army Counterintelligence Corps agents, who upon hearing his story helped start the ball rolling that eventually returned him to his homeland — the United States — where he later proudly served his country in its military as an officer.

      1. In the European Theater, abuses against German POWs seem less prevalent, perhaps because it’s somewhat more difficult to “other” people who appear culturally and racially the same as yourself.

        This was undoubtedly a part of it, but probably not the biggest element. It is very hard to grasp how profoundly American soldiers were affected by the absolute unwillingness of the Japanese (not just military but also civilians, such as on Saipan) to surrender and their concurrent mistreatment of the prisoners they took. The perversion of bushido that the military establishment of 20th century Imperial Japan drowned their society in lies at the root of much of the brutality of WWII in the Asia/Pacific theater, much as the racialized ideology of the Nazis was at the root of the atrocities perpetrated by both sides in the Soviet Union.

        The relatively clean (and I mean relative; war is always dirty, but there is no comparison between the Western Front and the rest of the war, even taking Oradour-sur-Glane and Malmedy into account) fighting between the Germans and the Anglo-American forces in North Africa and Western Europe were very much the exception of that war. A large part of the reason that the Japanese appeared so especially different culturally and racially from their American, British, Indian, and other foes (and if you think it’s just a white/Asian distinction you need to read more about how the Indian Army felt about their Japanese foes) was because of a deliberate choice by their leaders over a fifty year period to make them alien to others.

        1. Yeah, I definitely did not intend to leave the problem of racism and the Japanese out of the mix, so good to point it out.

          I would argue with your characterization of Japanese military ideology as a recent choice. In fact, if anything, it was Japan’s wholesale adoption of many aspects of Western military culture (Navy from the Brits and Army from the Germans, primarily, which explains some things once thought about a bit) beginning in the late 19th century that helped them surprise the Russians, the British, the Dutch, the Americans…

          What Americans may have found culturally difficult to accept was arguably the persistence of specifically Japanese military traditions, which received a conscious rebirth of emphasis within the military as the Japanese military leadership accrued more and more power. But it was pretty much all there already. Perhaps it was the combination of technical proficiency and cultural alienness that was most disturbing to Americans…who were so quick to have already forgotten their conquests of their own West and the Philippines then still within living human memory if they needed a quick gut-check on barbarianism.

          1. This is an entirely incorrect recounting of the specific cultural practice I referred to. I did not say that the problem was Japanese military culture in general. It was one very specific thing with no historical pedigree in Japanese military culture that created huge problems. And so the “recent choice” had nothing at all to do with their importation of western military methods. And in your quest to lay blame on western racism you are missing my point completely.

            A refusal to surrender and a culture of mistreating prisoners was not a part of traditional bushido. They were entirely a creation of the late 19th century as the new military leaders of Japan built an ideology of superiority to the European powers. And it is this new tradition to which I am referring, not anything else.

            The absolute refusal of Japanese troops to surrender was a shock to American, British and other Allied troops in the early days of the Pacific War. There were many instances of Japanese troops pretending to be dead and then springing to life with a grenade or a pistol in their hand. On top of this, the tendency of Japanese officers to order, and their men to conduct, mass suicide charges was both frightening to the troops on the other side and, as the tactic’s general uselessness became more apparent, increasingly mystifying.

            The flip side was the barbaric treatment by the Japanese of those who surrendered to them. Within a few months, the Bataan Death March was common knowledge among American troops. Before long so too were the conditions in Japanese POW camps.

            Understandably, the combination of refusal to surrender and atrocity towards the surrendered convinced Allied soldiers (this very much included the Indians serving in the British 14th Army and not just white troops) that the Japanese simply did not value human life. With the ability to read the letters they wrote home, we now have a more nuanced view of the beliefs of Japanese troops, but your average Marine or Tommy didn’t have access to this. Based upon the knowledge available to them, they came to the conclusion that they were fighting moral monsters.

            And this only got worse as the war went on. At the Battle of Saipan, the first battlefield with a significant Japanese civilian population, about half of those civilians, 10,000 in number, committed suicide rather than surrender.

            It is impossible to separate the extraordinary brutality of the Pacific/Asia war from this attitude. Yes, there was certainly some underlying racism among the Allied troops and this played a role. But how do you not add a special layer of brutality when fighting a foe that will not let you not kill him? Why would you add any risk to your own life by showing humanity towards an opponent that hasn’t shown a willingness to value either his life or yours?

  16. This goes way back, but I recall a TV series in the 50’s starring Henry Fonda, I think it was called The Deputy. In one episode there was a pretty horrifying scene that made a strong impression on me as a child. Henry Fonda (yes, Henry Fonda!) tortured someone held in his jail for information, using a red hot spur that he wheeled up the victim’s back. (I haven’t googled yet to see if my recollection is accurate.)

  17. I seem to recall that that a Dennis Franz character was in either a time bomb or kidnap situation in which he tortures the bad guy to get the information to save the child/stop the bomb or whatever. But I couldn’t tell you if it was Hill Street (Norman Buntz) or NYDP Blue (Andy Sipowicz) and I obviously don’t remember it very well.

  18. Someone already mentioned The Siege, but I’d also say The Untouchables (the movie).
    Sean Connery’s character performs a mock execution (on an already dead man) to intimidate the Capone bookkeeper. He then threatens the bookkeeper with being next. The man is terrified that he will be executed as well, and so agrees to talk.

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