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?

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