Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


In two of my 2009 posts, here and here, I stated that I didn't become quite as hinky as some comics-readers upon seeing heroic characters practice "inquisitorial torture," i.e., physical or mental torture in order to force a given individual to relinquish information. While I did not in any way condone real-world torture, or express any belief in its real-world effectiveness, I did note that it was often used as a simple narrative device with nearly no moral resonance.

In stories where [inquisitorial torture] is used as a minor narrative device that has all the drama and suspense of driving one's car over a road-bump, it's morally neutral. The formula "hero needs info so he roughs up a hood to get it" has no more symbolic significance than "hero needs to get somewhere fast so he steals a horse/car/spaceship to get there."
I did not, however, state that the act never had moral overtones. I gave as one example the work of hardboiled mystery-writer Mickey Spillane.  In Spillane's novels it's clear that the hero's ability to haul ass on his victims possesses strong ideological content, given that the author uses the excuse of anti-Communism to unleash his hero's brutality.

Because I grew up in a time when scenes of inquisitorial torture were rare in the comics, it's possible that I have a predilection to see such scenes as having a purely narrative (and hence non-ideological) function. In other words, a scene with Captain America beating up the Red Skull to make him talk is not necessarily emblematic of the fascism in American culture. I can think of comparable scenes that *might* imply a real ideological stance as such, as when Mike Hammer hauls ass on Dirty Commies in KISS ME DEADLY, but not every such scene carries ideological weight. All cats may look grey when one dwells in the darkness of ideological thinking, but the light discloses quite a bit more variegation.

In the shadow of the 9/11 catastrophe, television gave us 24, an eight-season wonder described by Wikipedia as "the longest-running espionage-themed television drama ever."  Though in its first season 24 avoided endorsement of inquisitorial torture, it was soon retooled to reflect what some have called the "Bushco" ideological mindset.  Scenes of torture, in which Jack Bauer or his aides successfully wrung vital information from America's enemies, became more than simple "speed bumps," as I claimed that they were in, say, Batman stories.  But even aside from its bad ideological content, I disliked the 24 series because the torture-scenes became one of the main selling-points of the teleseries.  I once complained about the tone of the series on Some Forum, and the usual yapping jackals claimed that I was contradicting myself, given that I had defended violence in its non-ideological manifestations.

In the last couple of months, I happened across not one but two instances of "inquisitorial torture" which weren't even directed at "America's enemies" but still managed to exude the odor of bad ideology with regard to the rights of the accused.  I'll look up titles and airdates of the episodes involved should anyone inquire, but for right now, I'll confine myself to brief summaries.

In a two-part episode of ABC'S CASTLE, the light-hearted title detective walks on the rough side of life a la the Liam Neeson film TAKEN.  Castle's daughter is kidnapped and whisked away to Europe by dastardly types.  The police find a skeevy fellow implicated in the abduction, a man who has sustained some injury (I forget the specifics).  The cops won't torture him for info, but they leave the anguished father alone in a room with the perp.  In moments, implicitly because Castle has tortured the man's injury, the perp gives up the information.

More recently, a rough simulacrum of the CASTLE scene appeared on the CBS cop-drama HAWAII 5-O.  To be sure, scenes of inquisitorial "leaning" appear consistently in this series, with cops invariably managing to force confessions or info from their captives, with seldom any scenes of  a lawyer's involvement.  The episode in question, though, resembles CASTLE in that the stakes deal with a little girl being abducted by ransomers.  Toward the end the cops get hold of a perp who's unquestionably involved in the caper, who refuses to give up the girl's location because he thinks he has "leverage."  One cop, the one played by James Caan' son, punches the crook, who then claims that cops can't do that.  The other main cop (the two are barely distinguishable, being alike right down to their "badboy stubble") asks Caan to give him his badge and leaves the room while Caan punches the info out of the crook.

Now, what's interesting here is that in both of these cases, the cops flagrantly abuse the laws they supposedly protect, based on the exigency of a life in danger.  This is a familiar trope, whose best-known exemplar remains the scene in 1971's DIRTY HARRY, where the hero tortures a criminal in order to make him reveal the location of a kidnap victim. 

However, the greatest difference between HARRY and the two television versions is that in HARRY, there is blowback as a result of the hero's actions: the villain is exculpated because the evidence of his crime becomes "tainted."  Whether one views the movie's script as a subtle manipulation of moral attitudes or a condemnation of societal molly-coddling, clearly its writer was aware that the action of torture had consequences.

In contrast, these two recent shows, more in less in the vein of 24, show no consequence to the action of torture.  However, with 24, lack of blowback was probable, given the hero's governmental connections.  But with more mundane crime-shows, why wouldn't the perps who suffered inquisitorial torture make noise about it?  I don't know if their cases would get "tainted" as quickly as the one in DIRTY HARRY, but surely the crooks would attempt to milk their abuse for all that it was worth.  The one in CASTLE might be hard to prove, but the other assault leaves the crook with fist-prints all over him. 

One probably shouldn't expect two lightweight TV programs to display any cognizance of real-world legality.  And of course, a lot of cop shows prior to this were known for some level of inquisitorial torture, though probably not as overt as the one in the FIVE-0 episode.  It suggests that the Bush ideology is alive and well, that the police may now arrogate to themselves the level of discretionary power usually attributed to a Jack Bauer, and that any criminals they choose to target will just become lost in the system a la the accused at Guantanamo.

No comments: