Face It, We Loved Watching Torture
TV, movies and video games made heroes of torturers
Our pop-culture heroes have tortured a lot of folks in the last decade.
After 9/11, America’s leaders told us the war on terror would be different. A war that wouldn’t just take place on the battlefield, but in the back alleys, markets and bars of foreign lands. A war that required us to check some of our morals and ethics at the door.
The heroes of TV, movies and video games stepped up. They got dirty. Jack Bauer did what he had to do. Rick Grimes held prisoners without trial. Batman tortured Joker. They got results.
It was all a fantasy. One inspired by the CIA and popularized by Hollywood.
Thanks to the Dec. 9 release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the Agency’s torture program, we now know how wrong the fantasy was.
The 1998 film The Siege depicts the aftermath of Islamist terror attacks on New York City. Bruce Willis’ Maj. Gen. William Devereaux seals off Brooklyn and institutes martial law in his bid to capture the terrorists.
His troops round up Americans of Middle East descent and force them into internment camps. Soldiers march through the city.
When confronted with an uncooperative prisoner, Deveraux decides he’ll torture him to make the him talk. Denzel Washington’s FBI agent Hubbard passionately argues against torture.
“What if what they really want is for us to herd children into stadiums like we’re doing … put soldiers on the street … bend the law? Shred the constitution just a little bit?” he says.
“Because if we torture him, general … then everything that we have bled and fought and died for is over. And they’ve won. They’ve already won.”
The movie is a nightmare scenario. One that now seems prescient.
A few years later the media landscape changed to reflect the new reality—Americans were ready to accept torture as long as it kept them safe. Or seemed like it kept them safe.
Zero Dark Thirty is the ultimate reflection of that thinking—a late, desperate attempt at legitimizing torture.
The 2012 film opens with torture. CIA agent Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, watches as Jason Clarke’s Agent Dan works over a captured Al Qaeda operative. Dan forces the prisoner to stand for hours. He strips him naked, places a collar on his neck and walks him like a dog.
Maya watches hours of interrogations on tiny monitors. Prisoner after prisoner coughs up useful information after the spooks waterboard them.
One of the driving messages of the film is that torture works. It saves lives. Halfway through the movie, the politics change and the CIA loses its authority to torture. This doesn’t sit well with the heroes.
“We lost the ability to put him to bed when we lost the detainee program,” an operative complains. He’s trying to convince representatives of Pres. Barack Obama’s administration that Osama Bin Laden is hiding in a compound in Pakistan.
The movie implies that craven politicians and a weak-willed American public stood in the way of finding Bin Laden. According to film, losing torture set the Agency back half a decade.
The impression of torture being key to capturing Bin Laden was so strong that Michael Morell—then acting director of the CIA—denounced the idea.
“Zero Dark Thirty creates the strong impression that the enhanced interrogation techniques … were the key to finding Bin Laden,” Morell wrote in a message to Agency employees. “That impression is false.”
It was a blockbuster. The story American audiences wanted to believe. We wanted to think torture was useful. Righteous, even. We wanted to believe the CIA needed torture.
The Senate report reveals Zero Dark Thirty for what it really is—an unpleasant lie American told itself in the waning days of the war on terror, years after other media had begun dispelling the torture myth.
Bigelow’s propaganda piece is the most egregious example of a pro-torture message in pop culture, but it’s far from the only one. Millions of American’s watched Kiefer Sutherland tear through terrorists on Fox’s 24, which debuted in 2001, took a break starting in 2010 and returned this year.
Everyone tortures in 24. Heroes and villains alike.
Sutherland’s super-spy Jack Bauer isn’t above choking women or pumping poison into his brother to get information. For Bauer, torture works. He always saves the day, even if he loses his family and his humanity in the process.
24 has steadfastly celebrated torture throughout its on-and-off nine seasons. But as 24 was gearing up for its seventh season in mid-2008, America was changing. By then the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had killed far more Americans than the terrorists did on 9/11. In a few months, Obama would officially ban torture in the CIA.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which hit theaters in July 2008, establishes early on that torture is what villains do. Joker videotapes himself torturing one of Batman’s more dedicated fans.
Later, Batman interrogates Joker … and goes too far. Bats slams Joker’s face into a table, crushes his hand and tosses him around the cell. He blocks the door with a chair so Inspector Gordon and the cops can’t stop him.
This is part of Joker’s plan. He wants Batman to lose control—to murder, maim and destroy in the name of safety. Joker knows that pushing Batman across that line will do more harm to Gotham than any robbery or terror plot.
Depictions of torture in video games are stranger and more nuanced and varied than in other media.
One mission in 2009’s Call of Duty: World at War opens on an interrogation scene. A questioner extinguishes a lit cigarette in the eye of a captured soldier.
Call of Duty: Black Ops from 2011 starts another mission with a game of Russian roulette. The North Vietnamese tormentors beat the G.I.s who don’t comply. Villain Jonathan Irons, portrayed by Kevin Spacey, wreaks havoc on captured heroes in the new Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
The entire framing device of Call of Duty: Black Ops is one long torture sequence in which the player explains his previous missions to shadowy torturers. In 2013’s Black Ops 2, that same character feeds glass to an uncooperative prisoner to loosen his tongue.
In Bioware’s 2007 science fiction epic Mass Effect, the player controls Commander Shepard—essentially Jack Bauer in space. Shepherd is trying to stop a horrifying machine race from destroying the universe
At one point in the story, players have the option of torturing information out of a prisoner. Later, a minor character questions the method’s effectiveness.
“You don’t even get good information that way,” he says. “After a point, victims admit to anything to make the pain stop.”
The Last of Us tells the story of Joel and Ellie as they wander an America devastated by ravenous zombies. Late in the game, band of cannibals kidnaps Ellie. Joel captures two men from the group. He tortures them, smashing one’s kneecaps. They talk. Then Joel kills them both.
Most of these games fit the CIA’s old narrative—that torture gets results. At least Mass Effect questions the assertion.
Grand Theft Auto V has the most subversive take on torture.
Grand Theft Auto is crude and ultraviolent … it’s also brilliant satire. GTA V’s torture mission is horrible, yes, but only because it makes unpleasant assertions about American power.
The sequence is called “By the Book” and it’s part of the main story. Players who want to finish the game can’t skip it.
The player takes control of two characters. One is Trevor, an admitted and unrepentant psychopath. The other is the world-weary semi-retired bank robber Michael.
The FBI strong-arms the two into extracting information from a man. Trevor tortures the poor victim—called Mr. K by the agents—to gain intelligence. The agents in charge then relay that information to Michael, who cruises around town with a sniper rifle waiting to learn who he’s supposed to kill.
The player picks the implements Trevor uses to force Mr. K to talk. Trevor can pull out a tooth, electrocute the man and—of course—waterboard him. He enjoys every minute of it. It’s uncomfortable to watch.
Which is strange. The game is already hyper-violent. Players will have gone through several hours of blood, gore and destruction just to reach this point.
But even in context, Grand Theft Auto V’s torture sequences is disturbing.
Steve—the FBI agent—stays in the room with Trevor. He encourages him to hurt Mr. K. Steve implies he’s done this before. He intimates he’s sold blocks of torture time with Mr. K to wealthy sadists.
The camera lingers on Mr. K as Trevor rips the teeth from his head. It takes a long time. The prisoner begs to know what the FBI wants to know. He’s willing to talk, but the Agent’s questions are vague.
“Ask him about Tahir Jaevin,” Steve says midway through his destruction of Mr. K.
“Why didn’t you ask me?” Mr. K says. “I know Tahir. I did his home theater.” He then gives up everything he knows about Tahir’s location. The FBI wants to know more. The player must waterboard, electrocute and crush Mr. K to keep the story moving.
He’s always willing to talk, but Steve only asks questions after Trevor hurts Mr. K.
He gives the player a description of Tahir. Michael finds someone matching the description and assassinates him. It’s never clear whether the player killed the right man. It doesn’t even seem to matter to the FBI.
The murder done, Steve tells Trevor to kill Mr. K and leaves the room. Trevor has other ideas. He frees Mr. K and drives him to the airport. Trevor doesn’t like the feds telling him what to do.
“The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing,” Trevor says while driving Mr. K. “We need it to get information, to assert ourselves. Did we get any information out of you?”
“I would have told you everything,” Mr K. replies through a mouth of broken teeth.
“Exactly,” Trevor replies. “Torture’s for the torturer. Or the guy giving orders to the torturer. You torture for the good times. We should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”
Trevor enjoys the pain he inflicts and he’s honest about it, which—in the twisted world of Grand Theft Auto—makes him a better person than the agents of the FBI.
We loved watching torture. We loved watching it because terrorists attacked America on 9/11 … and we wanted someone else to hurt as much as we did that day and for months afterward. Even if that someone was fictional.
The men and women who promised to keep us safe said they could find the bad guys. They said they had to torture to do it. Writers and filmmakers dutifully turned them into heroes. It took a few years for other writers and filmmakers to begin revealing the heroes for what they really are.