Is This (Torture as Entertainment) What We Have Come To?

A New York Times article by Samuel G. Freedman (republished in my local newspaper Feb. 23, 2013 under the headline “Through a theological lens”) discusses the film “Zero Dark Thirty” and its implications for the subject of torture.

The movie is about the investigation leading up to the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound and depicts scenes of people being tortured for information leading to that.

The article quotes Princeton theologian George Hunsinger asking “What does it say about American culture that torture has become a form of entertainment for us?” Hunsinger rightly, I believe, concludes that “Torture has been normalized since Sept. 11 in a way that’s unimaginable.”

According to the article, a Pew Research Center poll found that between 2004 and 2011 a majority of Americans came to favor use of torture against suspected terrorists.

Evangelical ethicist David Gushee says “Our culture has almost lost the ability to have a genuinely moral conversation.” What me means, and I agree, is that pragmatism has swept away almost all sense of ethical absolutes.

I won’t be viewing “Zero Dark Thirty.” Nor do I rent movies I know show scenes of torture. It’s amazing how often, however, such scenes appear in “family films” rated PG-13.

One movie I will recommend that contains a rather gruesome torture scene is one most people seem to have forgotten: The Siege (1998). It shows one of the problems with torture. An innocent man is tortured to death.

Many experts have argued that torture doesn’t work because under torture suspects will say whatever they think their tormenters want to hear. Another problem, of course, is that nobody knows with certainty whether the person being tortured has the information desired. Finally, it’s a slippery slope. If torturing the suspect doesn’t work, why not torture his family in front of him? Once pragmatism replaces absolutes there’s no place to stop.

But those are pragmatic arguments against torture. From a Christian point of view, if not just a civilized one, torture is wrong because it violates the dignity of a person created in God’s image and likeness.

I would like to suggest that torture in movies (and some TV shows) has become a new form of pornography. It’s widespread use demonstrates that many viewers want it. They must get some kind of enjoyment out of watching another person’s pain.

This is a subject for sermons. I wish Christian pastors of all traditions would speak out about it and urge their congregations to 1) avoid movies that depict torture scenes, and 2) write e-mails to movie makers and theaters urging them to cease portraying torture. Maybe a boycott is in order?

  • B Kelly

    The first question I ask in these discussions is, “What do you mean by torture?” It’s seems like everybody knows what torture is, and yet I find that explanations vary widely. So what do you mean by “torture”?

    • rogereolson

      Now that question seems like sophistry to me. It’s like asking “What is pornography?” The supreme court justice said it: “I may not be able to define it but I know it when I see it.” I can’t imagine that we really need to go into details about what constitutes torture. But, okay, since you insist– At the very least torture is using physical pain to attempt to force a subject to divulge information. It has been banned by the civilized world for a very long time. When we use it we automatically give our enemies permission to use it on our people. But the main thing wrong with it is it is inhumane, barbaric, uncivilized and unethical.

  • Nick

    You raise decent points. But do you believe that Americans are not being tortured? Do you believe that terrorist will just give us information when we ask? Torture is also not “entertaining” people do not enjoy watching it. At least normal people do not enjoy watching but it is the world we live in. By not watching movies because of scenes that you disagree with what message are you really saying? You are avoiding movies that depict the truth, the harsh world we live in. Living in a bubble is the best way to have your points and opinions become irrelevant and outdated.

    • rogereolson

      Oh, please. So because illicit sex including orgies is “the truth” we should all watch movies that depict it? Your logic is flawed.

      • http://kre-do.tumblr.com/ kredo

        The argument that showing torture depicts truth is especially terrible in the case of Zero Dark Thirty: The movie is seriously misleading about how “valuable” torture was in catching bin Laden.

        The film is pitched as a journalistic telling of recent history, but it claims — “falsely — that waterboarding and other forms of coercive interrogation tactics were crucial, even indispensable in finding bin Laden.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/10/zero-dark-thirty-torture-awards)

        To present as fact a fictionalized version of the assassination of bin Laden in which torture is the key to getting the bad guy is, unquestionably, to glorify torture — NOT to present truth.

    • Dean

      The fact that Americans are being tortured does not justify our use of torture. In fact, for years, this country and other liberal democracies used the inverse of your argument to affirm a policy against torture, which is if we were to use torture, then when our soldiers get captured they would be more likely to be subjected to torture, and guess what, we would have no moral authority to speak out against it in that event would we?

      What’s odd in our society today, as Dr. Olson has picked up on, is this race to the bottom. It used to be that the United States, at least in theory, if not always in practice, was the defender of the ideals of the modern liberal democracy, which I believe are fundamentally based on the dignity of the individual, being made in the image of God, and therefore having infinite worth. I’m not saying in practice this is easy to do, but I think it has guided this country well and has served as an inspiration for people all around the world who suffer under tyranny and dictatorship. But fast forward to 9/11, and you have the Bush Administration eroding those ideals (and Obama continuing the exact same policies) to the point where we have trouble even paying lip service to them anymore.

      Then we wonder why kids are killing other kids on the street and mass murders are happening with increasing frequency. I find it hard to believe there is not a causal link here, and unlike the fundies, I think it has very little to do with taking prayer or God out of the schools and has everything to do with the character of the god that this country thinks it worships. It’s a deity that condones violence against “the other”, exclusion and dare I say, demonization of whole populations based on some group characteristic, support for foreign wars irrespective of monetary consequences or blow back or civilian deaths (as long as they’re not American civilians) in the name of patriotism, blesses assassination of “terrorists”, even American citizens, without due process in the name of expediency, I can go on and on, it’s a celebration of violence on a national level, how can that not impact how we view ourselves as a society? It’s almost poetic justice in my opinion, we are so accustomed to killing others abroad, are we surprised that we’re now killing ourselves at home? And yeah, we don’t really seem to care about stopping either, in fact there is one party that seems to thinks greater violence is the only solution to violence. This god that I think a lot of American Christians worship is nothing like the Jesus in the gospels, he sounds a lot like another character in a different book of the Bible though.

      I think American Christians desperately need to rediscover our pacifist roots, I’m not saying we all need to become pacifists, but preaching the message that Jesus died for us while we were still his enemies while shooting an AR-15 just doesn’t sound like an effective ministry in my opinion.

      • rogereolson

        I like your phrase “race to the bottom.” It well describes the situation.

    • Dean

      Nick, “torture porn” is a whole genre of movies right now, in case you haven’t noticed. It started with the movie Saw, which spawned numerous sequels. There are millions of people in this country who enjoy watching torture as entertainment, maybe you are the one who needs to wake up to reality!

  • http://mikesnow.org Michael Snow

    In our silence, today, in our churches, we have come a long way. I wonder what Spurgeon would say about torture in our day–he was crystal clear about the blood lust of his own day. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

    • Mike Anderson

      I can heartily recommend your book, “Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way,” as I have elsewhere. Good to see you here!

  • Laurel

    For me, seeing the terrible reality of what torture is and what it really looks like, made me more against it than ever. I don’t believe this particular movie glorified torture, I believe the movie was trying to show how horrible it is. It showed the tremendous toll that doing the torture took on the people who were doing it and how it changed them; as well, of course, what it was like for the victim. The torture scenes were not “entertainment” at all, I think they were for people’s education. This was not a movie where you came away thinking torture and revenge were good, that’s for sure.

    • rogereolson

      Except, according to reviews, the torture was a necessary evil (for finding and killing bin Laden). Why is it necessary to depict it so graphically? And why do so many movies do that now? What does it do to, say, a 13 year old adolescent’s mind to see that over and over again in movies? There are some realities too awful to depict in graphic detail. We have become jaded by movie and TV realism. Children are kidnapped, tortured, raped and murdered–in reality. Will we see that in that graphically depicted in TV shows and movies next? It is a slippery slope we are on. There are some minds that are inflamed by such graphically violent images which is one good reason they used to be avoided. The events can be related indirectly without all the blood and gore and screaming and etc.

  • Mitchell
  • Desdemona

    Yes, absolutely, but why is this so shocking when murder has been a form of entertainment for years? Isn’t is just as disturbing that people get enjoyment out of watching people get killed? I’ve often wondered why people of faith across the political spectrum don’t unite in a campaign against violence and sexualization of girls in our media.

    • rogereolson

      Um, yes, agreed, but why only of sexualization of girls in the media? Did you see The Reader? And I could mention many other movies and TV shows that glorify young male sexualization–including “situation comedies” that revolve around gratuitous sex with young males present, listening and talking about it.

  • James Petticrew

    Roger I haven’t seen this film but read an in-depth review which seemed to suggest that the main message of the film was in fact that that torture was degrading and ultimately ineffective

    • rogereolson

      Apparently people are taking different messages from it. My question is, whatever the intended message, why does it have to be portrayed in such graphic detail in so many movies (especially since 2001)? My wife will not watch torture scenes. I can’t tell you how many movies we’ve had to stop or walk out of in the last decade–where there was no reason to suspect torture would be depicted in them.

      • E.G.

        I find such scenes repugnant as well, and do my level best to avoid them.

        However, I would argue that it would be possible to to use the art form that is cinematography to depict, and condemn, torture.

        That medium, plus many others, have done the same for war, slavery, and all manner of injustice. In fact, on the topic of war and art, there is this fine painting that depicts it and condemns is such that the UN displays it:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:PicassoGuernica.jpg

        Unfortunately, much of the displays of torture these days are not condemnatory, but rather seem to attempt to redeem the Satanic practice.

        • rogereolson

          I agree that it would be possible, but the extreme lengths and details of the scenes in so many movies make me doubt any good intentions. They seem gratuitous to me.

          • E.G.

            Yes, good point.

    • Dean

      James, I heard a prominent talk show host on a Christian AM station I listen to praise the movie for proving to the world that torture works and predicting that liberals would hate this movie because of that. I’m don’t think that’s what the writer or director intended, but I can see how you can come away with that (and I have seen the film).

  • gingoro

    Roger I agree with you that torture is totally out of bounds. However, I do not think that criminal punishment is torture as some of the lefties do here up north of the border. If torture were to become a real social issue then I would expect the left to pile on as part of their campaign to exonerate criminals at the total expense of victims of crime.
    DaveW

    • rogereolson

      I’ve never heard of a “leftie” (or anyone) who opposes criminal punishment. Could you be more specific? I oppose throwing young men into over populated prisons where everyone knows they will be raped. It’s common knowledge and yet nobody seems concerned about it. A 19 year old male is convicted of check kiting. Off he goes to a facility where he will be in unsupervised contact with older, hardened, career criminals who are known to use rape as a means of intimidation and control. Who is doing anything about this? On TV shows like Law and Order SVU the police and district attorneys use it as a threat to make young men “talk” in interrogation.

      • Rob

        No one is doing anything about it because many of us, including the most “civilized”, secretly (and not so secretly) enjoy the fact that the people we’ve demonized (those convicted of prison-worthy crime) will suffer such a fate. We’ve got a long way to go on this one when we talk with each other in our University offices (my own situation) about how glad we are that the co-worker of our convicted of child sexual assault is going to experience such degradation behind bars. Many of us have come to view it as part of the sentence. This is a tough one, but one that Christians who have truly understood the cross cannot allow to continue. What to do?

  • Tim Reisdorf

    You are correct, Roger, that torture is among the lowest of all low entertainment forms. It is also widely available in print – whether it be Sci-Fi or Military or Political thrillers – and has been for many years before the advent of moving pictures. I must say, that I enjoyed (or at least learned from) “Down Came A Blackbird” in which torture was portrayed – there was a bit of redemption in the story. I’d say that it was worth watching once.

    While many experts have argued that torture doesn’t work, I think that the practical results bear out differently. The military is shrewd enough to realize whether something is generally working or not; they would not use methodology that gave no useful results at least sometimes. Zero Dark Thirty is a case in point, no?

  • Jack Harper

    Roger, I didn’t see the film either, but I think one of the reasons our society contemplates the use of torture is because it has had some success in stopping terrorist attacks. I’m not condoning torture and unfortunately it is used to punish those who may hold a different view then say a third world dictator.Religious people who hold different beliefs then a government have been subjected to torture for centuries, but there is little outcry for that. I agree with you that our society is becoming hardened by the familiarity of torture in movies like SAW I, II, etc.

  • Steve Rogers

    When America’s military power is employed for revenge and imposition of American ways upon others rather than for justice and peacemaking, we have already unhitched from the ethics and morality of Jesus. Guided only by pragmatism and ego, horrible acts of dehumanization and cruelty become acceptable. The problem is not the entertainment industry as it responds to what sells. The problem is the soul of a nation that has lost its way.

    • rogereolson

      I would say both are a problem.

  • J.E. Edwards

    “I would like to suggest that torture in movies (and some TV shows) has become a new form of pornography.”
    Nice perspective. That’s not what movie making is about anyways. Most of us have vivid enough imaginations to fill in the blanks in regards to sexuality and this kind of violence.

  • http://GoodReportMinistries.com Ivan A. Rogers

    “The article quotes Princeton theologian George Hunsinger asking “What does it say about American culture that torture has become a form of entertainment for us?”

    What does it say about preachers who use the treat of a so-called “hell” with its promise of eternal conscious torture as a means of coercing a “confession of faith” from people who sin? In so doing, they imply that God is the worst of the worst torturer of all time. After all, is it not clearly implied in scripture that hell was created by God as a means of pleasuring himself? See Revelation 4:11 KJV – “[For] thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they were and are created.”

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t heard a sermon like that in many years. Are they still preached?

      • Rob

        Sure they are. I just went to see a friend in a production of “Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames” a year ago! Ivan has a great point. If eternal conscious torment is on the table (and it is for MANY Christians, particularly in churches that are explicitly patriotic), it shouldn’t surprise us that Christians would be compelled to defend the “righteousness” of human-on-human torture. If, as some (many) believe, it is entirely just that unrepentant sinners suffer actual, painful (whether psychological or physical) torture for eternity, isn’t it conceivable that God would allow us to inflict a smaller dose of that same sort of suffering on a similarly unrepentant sinner, particularly if we are convinced that the pragmatic outcome of that torture is righteous (the defense of innocent lives, or the just punishment of “evil-doers”)? Ivan, I think you bring up a really interesting and really important point here, particularly when I consider that most of the churches I know that subscribe to ECT are also significantly “patriotic” (LOTS of American flag bumper stickers in the Heaven’s Gates, Hell’s Flames parking lot!).

  • Jon

    This is frequently and emotional issue, but rarely one that is morally considered. I believe that if we looked closely enough, we would find a spirit of fear underscoring those who support “enhanced interrogation techniques.” This fear of “the other” drives an ends justifies the means mentality and in the process, enables us to forget who we are and who we are called to be.

    If we want to resolve the issue of torture, then we need to figure out how to answer the question, “How can we stop being afraid of terrorists?” There’s no need to torture those we don’t fear.

  • Fred Karlson

    I was trained in interrogation for the US Army in 1972 at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona. Part of our schooling was watching a film on torture from North Korea and then a one hour lecture on the subject. We were taught in no uncertain terms that torture went against the Manuals of War and all treaties signed by the US government. If we were caught using it, we could be prosecuted to the maximum. Despite the policy of the previous US administration in Iraq and Afghanistan and Gitmo, the laws still exist on the books. Anyone who practices torture can be severely punished. The risks are not worth it, in my opinion, and any knowledgeable interrogator knows that more useable information is gained by establishing a rapport with the prisoner than any other method. Hollywood is so unhistorical and anti-reality. It is disgusting. Imagine my surprise when I learned recently that the Pony Express of the Old West was never robbed, and that sheriffs in most towns of Texas had strangers and visitors register and lock-up their firearms prior to seeing the town. There are multiple reasons for our culture of violence. We should learn from the prophets of the OT who spoke out against it so strongly. The bottom line has to be the common good, or we will destroy ourselves.

  • Mike Anderson

    When I encounter gratuitous torture scenes, bloodlust, explicit sex, and messages such as “the ends justify the means,” my first thought is, “who is pushing this into the popular entertainment?” I don’t think entertainment consumers are clamoring for it as much as it is offered to them whether they like it or not, and it is alarming to see that they’re developing a taste for it. Though we understandably distance ourselves from fearful, unreasonable conspiracy theorists, most (all?) conservative Christians are, to some degree, conspiracy theorists. As we wait the parousia of Jesus Christ we are pushed around by the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), and we should expect that this prince will seek to influence the institutions that influence us. Why shouldn’t we expect an agenda from mass entertainment?

    • rogereolson

      I agree. I have come to believe that certain moguls of American entertainment are determined to corrupt viewers’ minds and morals. One TV show producer announced that he wanted to be the first one to show scenes of anal intercourse on TV. I occasionally go to one of the last DVD rental stores in my area and peruse the hundreds of “new releases” (mostly old). I never cease to be amazed at the titles and covers of so many of them: occultism, torture, horror, gratuitous sex, etc., etc. And then I see families with small children also perusing the DVDs and sometimes renting ones guaranteed to give their kids nightmares. It’s difficult not to blame the makers and purveyors of such garbage (to say nothing of the parents who allow their children to watch it).

  • kylelauf

    I wonder what you make of the violence in the movie ‘Passion of the Christ’. This might be another debate entirely, but it seems to me that part of the reason for the popularity of that film had to do with the violent depictions of the crucifixion – Jesus being tortured to death. Only, the scenes seemed more (gratuitously) violent than what you might have seen in previous Jesus films. Do you think that was ‘torture for entertainment’…?

    • rogereolson

      I purposely avoided the movie and have never seen it. I grew up seeing church “passion plays” during Lent. I have read the gospels numerous times. I don’t need to see a movie to know what Jesus suffered. Besides, in my opinion, his main suffering was abandonment by the Father, not physical torture. I think the movie (and most passion plays) tend to overlook the main point of his death.

    • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

      It was certainly unpleasant to watch, but I think it was useful. Many people have heard He was beaten and crucified, but have no clue what that entailed. Seeing the whole thing portrayed so graphically helps make it more “real.”

      • rogereolson

        Really. So did the movie portray him being crucified naked? He probably was, you know. How “real” do you want it to be? And why is that even important? The church got along quite well for hundreds of years with the gospel accounts only. I don’t see why we need to see it portrayed in movies so graphically.

  • E.G.

    Great response to the “what is torture” question in the first comment. Questions like that are always asked by those who want to justify it.

    Also, you hit all of the big points in the succinct post. But the one that should make all true followers of Christ stop and think is this:

    “From a Christian point of view, if not just a civilized one, torture is wrong because it violates the dignity of a person created in God’s image and likeness.”

    If a person can honestly contemplate that and still endorse torture, then I have some difficulty in believing that they and I are of the same faith.

    • rogereolson

      I agree.

    • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

      I am still quite Fundy enough to accept the truthfulness of the OT accounts, including the ones where God commanded horrific acts of genocide. So, while I believe violence has no place in propagating or defending the Gospel, I also believe that even such violent acts as beatings and mutilation as punishments for crimes, and even genocide during wars, are not necessarily and inherently “evil,” since they were at times explicitly commanded by my God.

      • rogereolson

        There you go. Thanks for making my point for me. I’ve several times here argued that taking those OT stories literally–as accurate accounts of what God commanded–serves to justify all kinds of horrors perpetrated by humans today. It’s just a baby step from what you wrote to saying it is okay to torture, mutilate, commit genocide.

  • K Gray

    Well why do we watch TV or movies? :) Just kidding, but I have cut way way back because of what you mentioned: the unexpected appearance of graphic (and often gratuitous) gore, violence, torture or sex. That, I don’t need. (I’ve never seen Law & Order SVU). I like my mind and I like knowledge, information and entertainment. I feed it with good things including history and politics, but most often through print (right now I’m reading “1942″). Many of us are visual learners, and images that enter our eyes often linger or invade unrelated thought patterns or return unbidden. I would not be surprised if, as you mention, such images change our brains — particularly young brains. Accordingly, I’m protective of my mind and I encourage my teens in that direction. But we don’t live in a bubble. We are curious, omnivorous learners from all trees in the garden except those which (for us, anyway) bear ill fruit or change us for the worse.

    Everyone’s conscience is somewhat different on this issue. But some preaching on it would be great.

    • rogereolson

      For once we agree. :)

  • Rick

    Wait — the evangelical church was completely silent about REAL White House-sanctioned torture during Bush’s presidency, but now is going to demand that PRETEND torture not be shown in movies? I want to make sure I have that correct because I think I just threw up in my mouth.

    • rogereolson

      There is no “the evangelical church.” I opposed torture then and now (in movies). Many evangelicals spoke out openly against torture when it was sanctioned by our government. I don’t know who you’re talking about (or throwing up over).

      • Rick

        I think you’re being coy, Roger. Of course the statement “baseball ignored steroids in the 90s” doesn’t account for the baseball people who actually did speak out, but instead is a statement of general sentiment. Likewise, I’m standing by a general statement that waterboarding was either ignored, or even defended, by most evangelicals during the presidency of a fellow evangelical. If you’re suggesting that’s not the case at all then I don’t know what to say, as I can’t imagine you can defend it.

        • rogereolson

          You were generalizing too much. As I recall you claimed something you labeled “the evangelical church” condoned torture during the Bush administration. There is no “the evangelical church.” If you are going to make claims such as you did, perhaps you should mention specific evangelicals who spoke out privately or publicly in support of torture. I don’t recall them. Did many evangelicals seem implicitly to support whatever Bush and his colleagues chose to do? Yes. Can all evangelicals be lumped together as doing that? No.

  • Craig Nash

    I thought Gushee’s comments showed a lack of understanding of the purpose of the film. When I watched Zero Dark Thirty, I felt that it was in itself a project in “having a genuine moral conversation” about torture. I agree with Laurel that the film didn’t glorify the practice, nor was it “entertainment,” but it showed very clearly the psychological toll that torture took on the perpetrators and the prisoners. The main character clearly had an existential dilemma over the practice throughout the movie and the storyline even touched on the relative ineffectiveness of torture in finding enough credible intelligence to justify the practice. (Assuming, as the state does, that effectiveness equals morality.) Rather than comparing it to pornography, I would compare it to war films such as “Deerhunter” and “Platoon” in showing how violence against anyone degrades the humanity of victim AND aggressor.

  • david carlson

    Did you ever think about why the tv show 24 is so popular? Especially in a certain subset of christianity?

    I often refer to it as “WWJT” – Who Would Jesus Torture” – when talking to them.

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