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Posts from the ‘Torture’ Category

Draft of entry for “Torture” for Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Religious Ethics

Torture and fear

This entry would ideally consist of one word. No. Lisa Hajjar begins her essay “Does Torture Work? A Sociolegal Assessment of the Practice in Historical and Global Perspective” by stating, “If an article addressing the question ‘does torture work?’ had been solicited for the Annual Review of Law and Social Science a decade ago, it would have seemed as anomalous as an article entitled ‘does genocide work?’” (2009). A longer entry is necessary, and requires the author to ask about the definition of ‘work’ regarding the function of torture. Given that torture does not ‘work’ to procure intelligence, why have people working under the direction of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States tortured people? To put the question crudely, what ‘work’ does torture do? What ‘work’ has been wrought by torture in the last two decades?

In “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” Joel Marcus presents a question in interpreting the use, during the Greco-Roman era, of prolonged, spectacularly public executions on elevated, crosswise structures: Why? There were speedier ways to kill someone. What work was the cross doing for the authorities of that era? He explains, “in the ancient Greco-Roman context, the idea of bringing a person down by raising him up must still have struck people as incongruous, and presumably those responsible for the practice would have been cognizant of this irony” (Marcus 2006). The “human object lesson” that was crucifixion “gained maximum visibility and hence optimal deterrent power.” Marcus writes “this strangely ‘exalting’ mode of execution was designed to mimic, parody, and puncture the pretentions of insubordinate transgressors by displaying a deliberately horrible mirror of their self-elevation.” He continues, “people of any class who had not shown proper deference to the emperor,” people who “demonstrated disdain for imperial rule,” were particularly subject to this form of torture. “The graphic tableau of the cross” is, Marcus argues, “a prime illustration of Michel Foucault’s thesis that the process of execution is a ‘penal liturgy’ designed to reveal the essence of the crime” (2006, 79).

In Fear: The History of a Political Idea, intellectual historian Corey Robin enumerates different uses of fear as a means of control. Specifically, Robin is interested in “political fear,” by which he means “a people’s felt apprehension of some harm to their collective well-being . . .” (2004, 3). He links different ways that political fear works, and his analysis is helpful for thinking about how torture works politically. Robin explains that “political fear,” while “often associated with government acts,” is not unrelated to “the fear a woman has of her abusive husband, or the worker of her unkind employer.” Although by some accounts “these fears” are merely “personal, the product of an unfortunate but entirely private derangement of power,” Robin continues, “they are political . . . [and] spring from pervasive social inequities.” These established rules of order are, in turn, sustained by fear. Fear “sustain[s] long traditions of rule over women and workers” (2004, 3).

Robin explains that, during times of war, the form of fear used most obviously is to present “public objects of apprehension and concern” (2004, 18). The effort to normalize torture in the United States, and, to some extent, in other countries participating in the ongoing “war against terror” has involved depicting Muslim people as “public objects of apprehension and concern.” There has been another, related, political use of fear—a fear that “hover[s] quietly about the relationships between the powerful and the powerless, subtly influencing everyday conduct without requiring much in the way of active intimidation” (19). Linking Marcus’s insight about the use of crucifixion as a “display” or “liturgy” to warn against insubordination to state power, torture may “work” to, as Hajjar words it, “deter opposition and signal the costs of resistance.” Hajjar quotes Henry Shue’s 2004 essay on torture, noting that the purpose of torture may be “intimidation of persons other than the victim.” She continues, summarizing other essays on “modern torture regimes”: “Terroristic torture is an invisible spectacle because people are made fearful of torture that they know is occurring but do not actually see” (Hajjar 2009, 323). Torture, as a spectacle, as a possibility, as a hidden but known reality, may be used as part of a complex of social control.

Logistics of torture

The applicable definition of “encyclopedia” in the Oxford English Dictionary is as follows: “A literary work containing extensive information on all branches of knowledge, usually arranged in alphabetical order.” This encyclopedia entry—this set of words containing information about torture – comes from a location central to one agency’s pursuit of intelligence. This entry on torture comes from the vantage point of North Carolina in 2019. The North Carolina Commission on the Inquiry of Torture issued a report in September, 2018: “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program.” The commission included legal scholars, clergy, veterans, and physicians working together to document how and why Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, North Carolina was used as a launching site as part of the United States Rendition, Detention, and Interrogation program. North Carolina was involved in trafficking people by air to places where people were assigned the task of torturing other people in the presence of other people tasked with recording words.

In his “Foreword” to the report, Alberto Mora, Former General Counsel (2001-2006), Department of the U.S. Navy identifies the basics. He explains that the “connection between North Carolina and the government-sponsored torture of the era is clear: aircraft operated by at least one local company, based at North Carolina airfields that were subsidized by North Carolina revenues and subject to a measure of North Carolina regulation, and flown by North Carolina pilots, were engaged in the transport of dozens of captive individuals to multiple foreign sites, some managed by U.S. officials, others by foreign governments, to be tortured” (Read 2018, 4). This 2018 report was part of an ongoing effort by citizen groups across the United States to document U.S. sponsored torture. There was a saying about the Italian government under Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini. Tourists were said to have noted that Mussolini “made the trains run on time.” In their report, the North Carolina Commission documents how North Carolina made the rendition planes run on time. This report was barely discussed outside of activist circles.

Linguistics of torture

In the United States, the word “torture” has become diluted in the cultural lexicon. This entry is written from a state that functions as a hub of the U.S. military and of defense contracting to institutions of higher education. The author is interested in the dilution of the word and legal definition. To write accurately about torture for this lexicon requires that the author ask the reader first to note how accustomed most readers in the United States have become to use of the word casually in polite company. The word “torture” has been used as a joke. As in, “this is torture!” People in the U.S. hear this word used in gridlocked traffic, while someone is trying on a swimsuit in front of a department store mirror, to describe a badly written song on the radio. The word “torture” has, through common parlance and also through film and television, become something rhetorically other than what it is, technically. Actual torture has also been diluted, visually, through the use of images on a screen.

Torture has been used repeatedly since September 11, 2001 in Western, popular culture, to entertain, to warn, and to frighten—from Game of Thrones to 24 to Homeland to complicated, story-driven video games. Actual people have been tortured as “human object lessons,” to use Marcus’s phrase, with originally limited, targeted viewing. And, at the same time, fictionalized depictions of torture have reached a wide, general audience. As recently as April, 2019, John Powers, a television critic for National Public Radio, summarized the popularity of Game of Thrones as “the world’s most popular show” at that time. Powers noted that “journalists are even writing elegiac articles about how, given our fragmented media environment, Game of Thrones may be the last TV series that everyone watches at the same time in order to be part of the conversation” (2019). While some journalists have been attempting for almost two decades to draw attention to a systemic, carefully orchestrated system of actual torture, watching (and commenting adroitly on) television series that depict torture has become a civic ritual, even a responsibility to be “part of the conversation.”

Seventeen years prior, in an essay for The Christian Science Monitor, Gregory M. Lamb noted the precipitous increase in television violence after September 11, 2001: “So much for media critics’ expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after the sobering events of September 11. Scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years” (2002). Lamb also named in particular a Parents Television Council (PTC) study that reported, in 2008, the show 24 was depicting procedural torture as commonplace: “A Parents Television Council review found that 24 showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons. [The main character of 24] Jack Bauer has been involved in more than 160 separate instances of violence since the show began (all six seasons) and has killed at least 71 individuals” (Lamb 2002). Other television programming was keeping up: “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime-time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture. Data from 2006 to 2007 showed that there were 212 scenes of torture” (Lamb 2002).

Bush and Cheney administration officials were open about their appreciation and emulation of the show 24. In a succinct, 2008 review of two (then recent) books on torture—Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals and Philippe Sands’s Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values—journalist Dahlia Lithwick begins by noting, “The lawyers designing [the Central Intelligence Agency’s] interrogation techniques cited Jack Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.” She continues, “according to British lawyer and writer [Philippe] Sands, Jack Bauer—played by Kiefer Sutherland—was an inspiration at early ‘brainstorming meetings’ of military officials at Guantanamo in September 2002.” Lithwick explains that “Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer ‘gave people lots of ideas.’” Quoting Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, in his words to the Heritage Foundation about the show, it “reflects real life.” Lithwick continues: “Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. ‘Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles—He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,’ Scalia said. ‘Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?’” Lithwick concludes “The problem is not just that they all saw themselves in Jack Bauer. The problem was their failure to see what Bauer really represents within the legal universe of 24.”

Jane Mayer, the author of The Dark Side (one of the books reviewed by Lithwick) summarized the legal universe created by the show 24 in a 2007 essay for The New Yorker: “Each season of 24 . . . depicts a single, panic-laced day in which Jack Bauer . . . must unravel and undermine a conspiracy that imperils the nation.” She continues: “Terrorists are poised to set off nuclear bombs or bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate entire cities. The twisting story line forces Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security.” Mayer concludes that the show hinges on the choice, “invariably” for “coercion,” as, “[w]ith unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused.” And, “almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.

This “unnerving efficiency,” with which “suspects divulge critical secrets” is not only unnerving but in direct contradiction to the facts about gathering “intelligence” through torture. Lisa Hajjar draws on historical scholarship on torture in Europe to explain “its basic flaw was recognized since the Roman era: What it proves is the individual’s capacity to endure pain rather than the veracity of the statements elicited.” Hajjar quotes J.H. Langbein’s 1978 essay for the University of Chicago Law Review, “Torture and plea bargaining,” “Judicial torture survived the centuries not because its defects had been concealed, but in spite of their having been long revealed” (Hajjar 2009, 319). The visual loop of torture continues to be part of the concealing of both basic, logistical truth and a longstanding, principled, moral consensus unequivocally against torture.

In a 2005 New York Times essay “Normalizing Torture on ‘24,’ ” Adam Green notes a pattern that links different ways fear works politically-socially with how torture works politically-socially. Torture is, by one sociolegal universe, not only necessary to procure “intelligence” but creates ligaments to connect people in a social body. Suffering torture becomes a macabre form of bond. This is another way that torture has “worked” politically in the U.S. Green’s narrative summary is necessary to understand the perhaps counter-intuitive claim that torture has worked to domesticate torture.

“What is most striking about torture on 24 is how it affects not only politics but also emotional and professional relationships. The C.T.U. data technician Sarah Gavin, interrogated with tasers to discover if she were a terrorist mole, subsequently returns to work showing no signs of trauma. Indeed, she marshals the clarity of mind to renegotiate her terms of employment with her superior, who approved her interrogation just hours earlier. The war-protester son of Secretary of Defense Heller, more alienated than ever after a session of sensory deprivation in a C.T.U. holding room, receives a strikingly paternal lecture from his father about why that treatment was appropriate. Even Audrey’s husband, Paul, somehow rises above his grievance to view his erstwhile tormentor as a buddy, helping Jack extract documents from a defense contractor and fend off attack—and even loyally taking a bullet for him. In all of these interactions, torture doesn’t deaden the feelings between people, rather it deepens them. . . . It is often noted that torture goes against the tenets of human community in two fundamental ways. Because torturers deny the basic humanity of their victims, it’s a violation of the norms governing everyday society. At the same time, torture constitutes society’s ultimate perversion, shaking or breaking its victims’ faith in humanity by turning their bodies and their deepest commitments—political or spiritual belief, love of family—against them to produce pain and fear. In the counterterrorist world of 24, though, torture represents not the breakdown of a just society, but the turning point—at times even the starting point—for social relations. Through this artistic sleight of hand, the show makes torture appear normal.” (Green 2005)

Note that the creators of Game of Thrones elicited what Terri Gross called (approvingly) “a huge and fanatical international fan base” by way of repeated scenes of rape, graphic violence, and prolonged sequences of human beings torturing human beings. The title of that review was “Game Of Thrones Keeps Its Finger On The Pulse,” a phrase that warrants another question: What are the characteristics of a social body that has been trained to pulsate in this particular way (Powers 2019)?

The dilution of “torture” continues. “The Good Place” (2016–the present) is a television series produced in the United States specifically and explicitly about morality. The show has as its core conceit a universe in which the main characters are set up to be tortured for eternity by their proximity with one another. The show’s creator, Michael Schur, has explained his aim for The Good Place is to bring moral philosophy to a mainstream, television audience. Schur has literarily made torture a laughing matter. To quote the title of a Vanity Fair article: “The Good Place Makes Eternal, Hellish Torture So Hilarious.” Schur explains: “We’ve always tried to keep it sort of cartoon-y and silly, because what is actually happening is obviously awful for everyone.” He elaborates thus: “I have a 9-year-old son, and part of my thinking whenever we do something about how someone is being tortured is, ‘Would my 9-year-old son laugh at this?’ That’s the sort of target audience for that kind of joke is, a 9-year-old boy . . . I’ve gamed it out in my head” (Bradley 2017). One possible reading of the series is that it upends the logic of suffering in shows like 24 and Game of Thrones, depicting visually an alternative form of living together toward mutual flourishing. This fact of an era remains. During the same two decades when the United States might have been, under different circumstances, engaged in a United Nations investigation about U.S. sponsored torture, popular culture made “torture” a household word.

There are counterexamples. Yasiin Bey underwent the standard procedures for forcibly feeding a person imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in 2013. Bey, known professionally in his career as a musician by the name Mos Def, underwent these procedures as part of a documentary directed by Asif Kapadia, in coordination with Reprieve, a human rights organization based in London, in an effort to bring awareness of the ongoing conditions at the U.S. military prison at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In describing the effort, the Guardian notes, “in its fight against human rights abuses there is no substitute for the court of public opinion” (Ferguson 2013).

“Real patriots”

The actual facts of whether torture “works” to elicit intelligence have been established since the Greco-Roman era. Regardless of the court of public opinion, the courts of ethics have been clear about the morality of torture for decades. This is what must strike a reader at present. The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was established in 1984 and, from the outset, in Part I, Article 1 of its founding resolution, it defines torture as:

“. . . any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

There are multiple practices covered by this definition: prolonged and repeated pouring water into a human being’s face so that he or she feels as if they are drowning; forcing prolonged confinement in a small space alone, without even intermittent contact with another human being; putting another human being, while naked, into a freezing cold space, causing hypothermia; shocking another human being, while naked, on their genitalia; and forcing water into another human being’s anus. This is not an exhaustive list. These were some of the practices encouraged under the auspices of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency after September 11, 2001. These practices are not allowed under U.S. law and are explicitly disallowed under international law, including prohibitions established through the Geneva Conventions following World War II.

People working with and in the U.S. have been assigned the role of torturer; people have been assigned the role of assigning the role of torturer; people have assigned the roles of these practices, determining who is best suited to which role. And people have been assigned the role of popularizing the necessity of these practices. There have been organizations and working groups of psychologists, filmmakers, musicians, clergy and scholarly writers charged with the work of determining how to implement the “deterrent power” of torture in the United States and abroad (to use Joel Marcus’s phrase again). To paraphrase General Dwight D. Eisenhower in his departing speech, torturing other human beings became, after September 11, 2001, an industrial complex. Again, when threatened with psychologically acute pain, most human beings will respond with an answer that the executioner of such pain seems to be eliciting. But torture may “work” in that it may spread fear across a region, a nation-state, a village, or a family.

Scott Horton is an investigative journalist who has written extensively on U.S. sponsored torture. In his 2015 essay for Harper’s Magazine, “Company Men: Torture, treachery, and the CIA,” Horton writes that when “the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released its torture report—or, more accurately, a redaction-studded version of the report’s executive summary . . .

the authors avoided the tepid style of most congressional prose, opting instead for a clinical, precise, and engaging narrative that patiently unfolds one of the most dysfunctional and embarrassing episodes in the history of American spycraft.” Horton contrasts the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s narration with a story that was much more popularly regarded as truthful, a 2012 movie directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Jessica Chastain as a CIA operative serving on a team to use supposed intelligence to carry out the execution of Osama bin Laden. The Senate report “makes for an instructive comparison with Zero Dark Thirty, which was written and produced with the CIA’s secret backing. The film tells the story of post-9/11 intelligence in the way Langley [a metonym for the Central Intelligence Agency] would like to have it told. But the Senate report unmasks the film as sheer fiction.” The report “has the distinct advantage of being true.”

This course of events was not inevitable. It was possible that the United States could have embarked on a thorough, public reckoning with the facts eventually highlighted by the (partial) publication of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report in 2014. But, there were new “objects of apprehension and concern” (to use Robin’s phrase) in the form of “ISIS” (the Islamic State) and November elections for members of the U.S. Congress. During an August, 2014 press briefing, Barack Obama, then in the middle of his second term as President of the United States, responded to a question about the Senate report by referring to people involved in the practice of torture as “real patriots,” conceding that, although “we tortured some folks,” and that torture is “contrary to our values,” the acceptance of torture as a necessity is ethically conceivable. To quote from that briefing, President Obama explained, “I understand why it happened. I think it’s important when we look back to recall how afraid people were after the Twin Towers fell and the Pentagon had been hit and the plane in Pennsylvania had fallen, and people did not know whether more attacks were imminent, and there was enormous pressure on our law enforcement and our national security teams to try to deal with this.” He continued, “it’s important for us not to feel too sanctimonious in retrospect about the tough job that those folks had. And a lot of those folks were working hard under enormous pressure and are real patriots” (Kludt 2014). His wording encourages empathy not only for the enlisted men and women expected to carry out torture, but for the people above them in the hierarchy who created the moral and legal architecture that made torture seem plausible.

In order better to understand the court of public opinion created at that time, and thus President Obama’s own political options, it is helpful to note two images from a media source distributed widely in the U.S. in 2014. The line running underneath the address label for The Week was, in 2014, “ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT MATTERS” (Capitalization in the original, 2014). In September of 2014, the two editions serving as parentheses around September 11, 2014 featured images about “ISIS.” In the September 5, 2014 edition, the highlighted article was “Back on the Job: Obama’s decision to respond to ISIS’s challenge,” with a political cartoon on the cover featuring Barack Obama, looking directly at a badge that would be known to most readers in the U.S. as a sheriff’s badge from the “Western” classic High Noon. That storyline asks a basic question about a man’s willingness to engage in a showdown against a murdering gang. In this case, the object of “apprehension and concern” is personified by a caricature of another man with brown skin, with a beard and a turban. The badge is engraved with the word “SHERIFF” and “OF THE WORLD.” The Week also announced “The Best of the U.S. and International Media” on September 12, 2014, with a related image, of two young men looking at the image of a poster featuring a Muslim imam pointing, in a style referencing the Uncle Sam military recruitment poster from the U.S. in World War I and II, with the words “I WANT YOU” across the bottom. Two young men with brown skin are looking up at the poster. One young man has on an athletic jersey and is holding a basketball. To the side of the drawing is another brown-skinned young man with an athletic jersey, walking away from a basketball court and toward the poster. The racial dynamics are not subtle. Would the first African-American President of the United States be up to the task of performing as Sheriff of the World, or, as the second image implies, would he be on the side of the three other brown-skinned young men, “Joining the jihad.” (xxii)


Joel Marcus writes in his essay on crucifixion: “The greater the insolence, the higher the cross; the proper response to excessive haughtiness was, in the words of the Clint Eastwood film, to ‘Hang ‘Em High!’” If the work of torture in the years after September 11, 2001 was in part to strike fear and deter haughtiness, and if the work of torture on television was in part to dull the sense that torture is neither moral nor normal, then it is my hope, as a citizen and a scholar in religious ethics that people will summon defiance and clarity. At a 2011 conference held in Durham, North Carolina, “Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture,” Scott Horton named as a possible, very unintended consequence of the U.S. program in torture the acceleration of resistance that came to be known as the “Arab Spring.” With the 2004 publication of images of U.S. coordinated torture of human beings at the Abu Ghraib prison, Horton proposed, people suffering under dictatorships in the region gathered courage to resist regimes held up through a combination of foreign (often U.S.) aid and torture. This possibility, that, contrary to American grand strategy, the exposure of actual torture may have elicited such courage helps this author to continue her pursuit of our common discipline.


Bradley, Laura. 2017. “How The Good Place Makes Eternal, Hellish Torture So Hilarious.” Vanity Fair. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Ferguson, Ben. 2013. “When Yasiin Bey was force-fed Guantánamo Bay-style – eyewitness account.” The Guardian.  Accessed September 11, 2019.

Green, Adam. 2005. “Normalizing Torture on ‘24.’” The New York Times. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Hajjar, Lisa. 2009. “Does Torture Work? A Sociolegal Assessment of the Practice in Historical and Global Perspective.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 5: 311‒345.

Horton, Scott. 2015. “COMPANY MEN: Torture, Treachery, and the CIA.” Harper’s Magazine, 04: 84-88.

Kludt, Tom. 2014. “Obama: ‘We Tortured Some Folks.’” Talking Points Memo. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Lamb, Gregory. 2002. “TV’s Higher Threshold of Pain.” The Christian Science Monitor. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Lithwick, Dahlia. 2008. “Lithwick: How Jack Bauer Shaped U.S. Torture Policy.” Newsweek. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Marcus, Joel. 2006. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 125: 73–87.

Mayer, John. 2007. “Whatever It Takes: the politics of the man behind ‘24.’” The New Yorker. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Parents Television Council. 2008. “Parents Beware of 24.” PTC’s Weekly Wrap. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Powers, John. 2019. “‘Game Of Thrones’ Keeps Its Finger On The Pulse As It Enters The Home Stretch.” National Public Radio. Accessed September 11, 2019.

Read, Catherine. 2018. “Torture Flights: North Carolina’s Role in the CIA Rendition and Torture Program.” Accessed September 11, 2019.

Robin, Corey. 2004. Fear: The History of a Political Idea. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. 2014. “Report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program.” 2014. Accessed September 11, 2019.

United Nations Human Rights. 1984. “Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.” Accessed September 11, 2019.

Draft of 2013 essay for The Muslim World on Torture and Television

This is a draft of an essay that was published by The Muslim World,

Special Issue: Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture. Edited by Daniel E. Arnold and Amy Laura Hall of Duke University, April 2013, Volume 103, Issue 2, Pages 195–286.

Torture and Television in the United States

Amy Laura Hall,, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Duke University

What exactly, we must ask ourselves, is missing from our world that we should require spilled blood and incinerated flesh, and the fear such havoc and loss create, to feel alive?

Corey Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (23).

Many scholars of American culture see our national preoccupation with female rescue as mere cover story, a pretext employed to justify the sanguinary pleasure our pioneers took in the slaughter of the continent’s natives and the decimation of the wilderness . . . But what if the reverse is also true? What if the unbounded appetite for conquest derives not only from our long relish for the kill but from our even longer sense of disgrace on the receiving end of assault? . . . What if the deepest psychological legacy of our original war on terror wasn’t the pleasure we now take in dominance but the original shame that domination seeks desperately to conceal?

Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (213).

Although much of this book details how easy it is for ordinary people to begin to engage in evil deeds, or to be passively indifferent to the suffering of others, the deeper message is a positive one. It is by understanding the how and why of such evils that we are all in a better position to uncover, oppose, defy, and triumph over them . . .

Philip Zimbardo (creator of the landmark Stanford Prison Experiment), The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Forward (viii).


Part of Abdullah Antepli’s anti-torture appeal in 2011, which appears in this volume, was for American citizens to risk the moral injury of viewing real footage of torture. In this, he and I shared an assumption. We assumed that most people in the US had been avoiding such viewing. As conference organizer Matthew Elia explained in the months leading up to the event, the planning team thought we were asking people to make a shift – to “turn their eyes in this direction” and pay attention to what was being done in the name of American security. But, during the course of the conference, it became clear that there was a sizeable, and not idiosyncratic, segment of the population that wanted to view torture. American eyes had already been looking in the direction of interrogation since 9/11, turning to the Fox Broadcasting Company’s television show 24 each week for nearly a decade (2001-2010), as a character named Jack Bauer from 24 did “whatever it takes” to keep Americans safe. Robin Kirk named this pattern specifically in her talk, here in essay form: Why did a significant part of the United States wish for scenes of torture?

This question assumes that it does not lie within a default pattern of human behavior to seek out images of another human being suffering. Working with that assumption for over a year after the conference, I am willing to venture an interpretation. It is by no means a novel one, but it is one that I think bears repeating. 9/11 involved a mass spectacle of violation that continues to shape conceptions of gender, sexuality, and safety in the US. One need not be steeped in Freudian analysis to perceive the visual of the felled towers as emasculating, and several generations of viewers in the US watched the grand display of cruelty and vulnerability on screen, together, also watching one another’s reaction to national impotence. For a segment of the population, the horror was not only unimaginable, but it threatened basic notions of the home and family. That is, the spectacle of American castration was repeated as children watched adults in immobilized fear, as they watched the screen, and adults perceived the critical, confused gaze of children, who were watching them watch the screen. With Susan Faludi, I believe that the event tapped into anxieties about masculine authority, and, following her lead, I suggest here that torture on television (specifically, through the Fox Broadcasting Network’s serial drama 24) provided a kind of collective catharsis – a way many Americans sought manageably to endure violation and also to recalibrate a myth of afflicted, but yet still potent, masculinity.[1] I also interpret the widely-popular spectacle of violence on the new (2011) Home Box Office television show Game of Thrones better to understand the work 24 did for viewers. By watching characters suffer and die in horrific ways, viewers may have been trying to form a kind of affective callus to cover over past fears, to harden current fears of vulnerability, and to steel themselves for potential, future loss. I posit in closing that such viewing, while seemingly therapeutic, may leave a generation of viewers less capable of both self-dignity and empathy toward the designated enemy.

This question has confounded me to such an extent that I will not even attempt to untangle two related questions. First, who is to say who makes up the “we” and the “our” for any reading public? The authors of the opening quotes above use first person, plural pronouns. In Faludi’s The Terror Dream, she works through American myths and memories, and the ways that these shape “our” imagination. It is fair to say that she does not seek to analyze or give voice to non-dominant myths and memories, except inasmuch as she recounts how white women’s resistance to dominant myths were squelched. Corey Robin writes about the “unspectacular, quotidian fear” that permeates the lives of Americans by considering the multiple permutations of domination that make up what appears “normal” to us – the forms of fear that constitute the “American way of repression.”[2] Robin does tell stories of resistance, but his appeal of “we” is to a particular, book-reading segment of Americans. Philip Zimbardo, as a social psychologist, attempts both to cut through and diagnose the particularity of torture-culture, and to delineate scientifically the collective conditions that made up Abu Ghraib in a way that can warn peoples across the specificity of time and place. I appreciate each focused effort to understand “ourselves,” and I here limit myself to beginning the sufficiently confounding task of sorting through the desire for scenes of torture, with little attention to counter-narratives and sub-narratives of resistance.

Again, this is an imposing enough question to begin asking here: How did people I know and love, citizens of the US who consider themselves loyal Democrats as well as those who are passionately, evangelically Republican, come reliably to partake of storylines in which torture seems to secure the homeland? Why did “we” make torture part of “our” lives? Fox’s television show 24 seems to have functioned as a kind of romantic bond for some of its fans in the US. Over the course of this research, I personally heard about a couple who took the first six seasons of 24 on their honeymoon, and about a couple whose weekly date nights consisted of watching each episode. These two couples might have eschewed one another at any social gathering, but they had in common a few decades, their race (white), and a basically Christian upbringing.

Regarding the second unanswered query, I will not try to solve the chicken and the egg question of whether a) Americans get what we want from the media, or b) Americans are told what to want by the media. Mostly, I will ask questions about a). But, regarding b), permit me a long, preliminary remark. It is now considered politically-aware, common sense that mainstream media, after 9/11, made torture appear a customary component of national security. Fox News’s unapologetic, rightward leaning, pro-torture commentary in the US is overt, but the more mainstream New York Times and liberal-leaning National Public Radio’s reticence to use the term “torture” (much less offer an ongoing account for the prohibition of torture) has done its part in acclimating Americans to a culture of torture as well.[3] I hope eventually to probe the various ways that the effort at equating torture with everydayness has been concerted. The Rupert Murdoch scandal in 2011 forced a reckoning with the well-organized, power politics of Western media, but that pattern is far from new. For the skeptical, I will cite a salient example. Recently, the WYNC radio series On the Media featured a historical piece entitled “White House Meddling in First Film about the Atomic Bomb,” noting how MGM and political architects of the Manhattan Project sought one another out to sell and tell a particular story about atomic weaponry. As Greg Mitchell explains in the radio interview, General Leslie Groves was given script approval authority, with the goal of shaping public perceptions of “The Truth”:

One of his main goals was to downplay the impact of radiation, so there was a portion of the script that was rewritten to show that radiation wasn’t that big a deal. Each variation of the script adhered more and more to the official Hiroshima narrative, that there was no choice but to use the bomb and that the President not only made the right decision but there was really no controversy around it . . . One of the planes in the attack, they changed the name on the side of the plane from Boxcar to Necessary Evil, which I love the blatant nature of that. In the explanation in the movie, both in what Truman says and what others say, continually talk about Hiroshima being basically one big military base, which was not true at all. There was a military base there but 95 percent of the casualties were civilians, mainly women and children. He claims that they dropped warning leaflets on Hiroshima beforehand, which was – it was completely false. The film also does not mention Nagasaki at all.[4]

There are many more such stories. Might some enterprising thinkers under the Department of Defense’s “Public Affairs” umbrella have colluded to create the Fox television series 24, or to shape the plotlines once the show was off and running? We would be underestimating their ambition if we did not at least allow for the possibility.[5] But I would wager that even the brilliant men and women of the pro-torture propaganda machinery in the US could not have successfully created desire in the viewer out of thin air. The popularity of television depictions of torture tug on the pain and pleasure impulses in the mix of “our” current culture. It is incumbent on “us,” as Zimbardo urges, to “uncover, oppose, and defy” the pro-torture memes that have shaped our imaginations.[6]

Television as Cathedral

On December 19, 2012, “The Stephanie Miller Show” replayed on their radio broadcast footage of a right-leaning television commentator, as he appealed to left-leaning commentators not to politicize a tragic, school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut the week before. He argued, “Television is the cathedral where the American public goes to mourn after an event like this.”[7] It seems a helpful phrase. Although there are an infinite variety of options on the screen for distraction from what counts as national news, there are only a few choices for partaking of and sorting through the official, common-sense account of what counts as national news in the US. There was a need, the commentator argued, for an atmosphere of structured, common purpose to be presented to a viewing public suffering from trauma and stricken by grief. The cathedral is a useful heuristic, I believe, for thinking about the function that widely popular television shows serve in the US. Until the splintering of the Protestant Reformation, the general population in Western European cities attended the liturgies that marked particular feast and fast days in cathedrals. And there, through words, bodily practices, static and moving images, and music, they were influenced to perceive their daily lives and human history in particular ways. When, years ago, one of my Yale Divinity professors noted that our own American culture had no narratives in common – that we had lost a sense of common story – I (irreverently) began singing the theme song to Gilligan’s Island, a CBS situation comedy that ran in syndication on US television for decades. Everyone in the seminar except the two international (German) students hummed along. There are common, meaning-making narratives in American culture, many of them televised.

So, in October, 2012, when President Obama said that another Fox Television network series, Showtime’s Homeland, was among his favorite television shows, he did not have to justify an eccentricity.[8] This very popular US drama series features an established, female darling of American television, who previously struggled with adolescence on the critically acclaimed ABC drama My So-Called Life, now, as an adult, attentively tracing and then tearfully raging against plots of Muslim terrorism in the US. This image has become a new icon in the cathedral that is television. In the first season of the show, millions watched screens as actress Claire Danes watched a potential terrorist on her own screen, in an unsubtle joining of voyeurism and arm-chair (or couch) military intelligence gathering. As one reviewer notes, it is a perfect terrorism serial for a purportedly gender-egalitarian administration conducting remote drone attacks.[9] Our female heroine bests her on-site male colleagues with her stationary, off-site screen sleuthing. The creators of the new Fox series Homeland had accomplished cultural iconography a decade prior, with another baby-faced, blonde darling of a previous generation, Kiefer Sutherland and Fox’s 24.

Television is a meaning-making medium, and the form of that meaning matters. In 2002, Gregory M. Lamb, staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor wondered at the precipitous increase in television violence after 9/11: “So much for media critics’ expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after the sobering events of September 11. Instead, scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years.”[10] The piece names in particular a Parents Television Council (PTC) study, the same organization that, in 2008, characterized 24 as the biggest offender: “A Parents Television Council review found that 24 showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons. [The main character of 24,] Jack Bauer has been involved in more than 160 separate instances of violence since the show began (all six seasons) and has killed at least 71 individuals.” But other television programming was keeping up: “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture. Data from 2006 to 2007 showed that there were 212 scenes of torture.”[11] Why? Lamb gives one clear answer, and, by way of a metaphor, a helpful interpretive tool. He quotes Jamsheed Akrami, communications professor at William Paterson University: “Violence, as odd as it sounds, can have a sort of cathartic effect on people. When they are exposed to violence there is something of a vicarious element … [of] participation that could have a soothing effect on them.” Lamb also likens the increase in violence with “the proverbial frog in a pot of warming water.”[12]

Was there a desire on the part of many in the television viewing public, after 9/11, to partake of violence in a controlled, scripted manner, and, more specifically, to view torture as a form of cultural catharsis? As the PTC study notes, there was not only an increase in the number of torture and sadism scenes, but there was a shift. The supposedly “good guys” were practicing torture and sadism. And, by watching “our own” “good guys” torture again, and again, and again, saving “our own” women and children, were we like frogs, with the temperature rising just slowly enough that we were eventually willing to accept as par for the safety course the images of naked, hooded prisoners piled in a pyramid? I mean, at least the interrogators at Abu Ghraib had not severed the prisoner’s heads, right? That’s what Jack Bauer did to one recalcitrant informant early in the second season of Fox’s show 24, after all, and he had saved the entire West Coast as a result.

Susan Faludi builds her hypothesis in her book The Terror Dream by linking example after example of erroneous but gripping storytelling after 9/11. The actual firefighters who entered the actual buildings died, in large part, due to an ill-funded force with faulty radio-equipment. In the post-9/11 mythic narratives, however, they became superheroes who died saving vulnerable women and children, even though the victims of the 9/11 murder were overwhelmingly male. As a rule, the widows of those male victims were not eager to become domestic heroines, holding down the suburban fort with apron and cupcakes, but there was a concerted effort to have them tell such a story, again and again. Faludi shows how the actual survivors of the trauma – the ones whose lives were directly shaped by the murders – were resolutely trying to deal with reality. Meanwhile, those of us in the US who were surviving the trauma from a distance, trying to go about our daily lives while intermittently viewing scenes of horror, seemed eager to buy (literally) a story written as a familiar, domestic myth of effective male protection and female vulnerability. Why? Faludi suggests that the hero/damsel myth was a well-worn way to deal with the shame of an unspeakable national failure, a well-worn set of gender myths built up after the prolonged period of conflict with Native Americans under American expansion:

“We perceive our country as inviolable, shielded from enemy penetration. Indeed, in recent history the United States has been, among nations, one of the most immune to attack on its home soil. And yet, our foundational drama as a society was apposite, a profound exposure to just such assaults, murderous homeland incursions by dark-skinned, non-Christian combatants under the flag of no recognized nation, complying with no accepted Western rules of engagement and subscribing to an alien culture, who attacked white America on its “own” soil and against civilian targets. September 11 was aimed at our cultural solar plexus precisely because it was an “unthinkable” occurrence for a nation that once could think of little else. It was not, in fact, an inconceivable event; it was the characteristic and formative American ordeal, the primal injury of which we could not speak, the shard of memory stuck in our throats. Our ancestors had already fought a war on terror, a very long war, and we have lived with its scars ever since.”[13]

I believe it is helpful to apply Faludi’s hypothesis to interpret the popularity of shows that have depicted escalating torture as an efficacious and necessary means of preserving (or saving) the social body.

I will also go one step further, to suggest that the gender politics of such shows may take their form from the same cultural impulse that led to the ritualized emasculation of Muslim prisoners in places like Abu Ghraib. Why were prisoners not only intimidated, but sexually violated, when study after military study has shown that such methods are ineffective for securing intelligence information? As Zimbardo explains in detail (using government reports) in his book The Lucifer Effect, the story that sexually intimidating and violating practices at Abu Ghraib were the result of the unique depravity of the “Abu Ghraib Seven,” is disproven repeatedly: “This thorough investigation [the Jones/Faye report] by two Army generals should lay to rest any claims that the MPs on the night shift of Tier 1A abused and tortured the prisoners solely out of their personally deviant motivations or sadistic impulses. Instead, the picture that is emerging is one of complex multiple causality.”[14] One of the causes, according to The Schlesinger Report, was the toxic mix of institutionalized dehumanization that Zimbardo himself had documented in his Stanford Prison Project. And, as Zimbardo explains, the Schlesinger Report highlighted in particular the ways that nakedness had been used to dehumanize the prisoners, rendering them violable within a system of perpetual fear of attack, unlivable filth in an overcrowded torture facility (that the U.K. military command had tried to condemn as obviously unusable), and the overall disorientation of the Iraq war. Dealing daily with their own vulnerability, and the pressure to produce “intelligence results” that would “save American lives,” military police officers dehumanized and violated the prisoners under their watch.[15] I believe it possible to view American viewing habits after 9/11 in a related way. Due in part to the shame of violation, we desired a narrative of necessary, controlled, and effective violation. By this reading, the treatment of Muslim men suspected of terrorism involved their standing in not only for the terrorists who got away, by dying on 9/11, but all of the original, Native American terrorists in mythic, American memory, who had repeatedly rendered male colonists, settlers, and pioneers impotent.

“Get Your Hands Dirty” on 24

This section title comes from a key scene in the second season of Fox’s 24. The first episode of the second season opens immediately with a scene that is unambiguously, blatantly of torture. A man is stretched across a table, while his torturers, all of some unspecified Asian descent, administer electric shock to break his silence. He “breaks” and tells the interrogators what they were seeking, and they walk down the hallway to tell the US military officers the news. It is the first extended, obvious torture scene in the series, and it is important to note that the foreign torturers seem to have been hired to do the repugnant work for the US military. Viewers sitting in their living rooms have to choose whether to watch the torture scene or, like the fastidious men in the other room, avoid the spectacle. Are you “man” enough to watch what must be done? This is the implicit question posed, already, in the very first scene of the second season. Soon after this, in case viewers had not gotten the point, Jack excoriates a key character with the “Counter Terrorist Unit” for just such squeamishness: “That’s the problem with you, George. You want results, but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves.” Jack Bauer then uses a hacksaw to sever a man’s head from his body, right there in a CTU board room.

I have avoided graphic espionage and police dramas like 24 not because I am morally superior, but because I am morally nauseous. Watching violence makes me physically ill. When my first daughter was a baby, I gave up television, and I have not looked back. After 9/11, I intentionally stayed away from visual images of the horror, hearing only news reports on the radio. They were enough to make me never want to fly again. But, in the midst of the fear, I absolutely was uninterested in watching a show that involved people inflicting pain on other human beings, for any reason. So, in preparation for this essay, I had to watch from scratch, so to speak, the first two seasons of 24, along with multiple episodes of Homeland, and Game of Thrones. I like to fancy myself the ideal, naïve, interpreter. I have become so unused to television that all of the tricks work on me. I became hooked on all three shows and had to swear off of further watching in order to avoid more nightmares.

In case any other readers have been able to avoid 24, this basic summary, from Jane Mayer’s piece on 24 creator Joel Surnow may be helpful:

“Each season of 24, which has been airing on Fox since 2001, depicts a single, panic-laced day in which Jack Bauer–a heroic C.T.U. agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland–must unravel and undermine a conspiracy that imperils the nation. Terrorists are poised to set off nuclear bombs or bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate entire cities. The twisting story line forces Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security. Frequently, the dilemma is stark: a resistant suspect can either be accorded due process–allowing a terrorist plot to proceed–or be tortured in pursuit of a lead. Bauer invariably chooses coercion. With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused; almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.”[16]

As Mayer recounts later in the article, the man at Fox who secured the series for the network explained to her, “[It] doesn’t have much patience for the niceties of civil liberties or due process.” “Extreme measures,” he explains, “are sometimes necessary for the greater good.” The show features a repetitive liturgy of moral meaning, and it draws on different storytelling genres – cliffhanging serial, soap opera, film noir – to pull the viewer into a world where the lived details of family, kinship, local and national politics, are all set on a precipice, dependent on the charisma and potency of one man.   A colleague told me, when I explained I was going to watch as much of the series as I could stomach, that he thinks 24 is “Scooby-Doo for grownups,” referring to a wildly popular cartoon franchise for children in the US, featuring a goofy dog and a sleuthing band of teenagers, which aired for decades on Saturday mornings. 24 is similarly formulaic. The resolution of the besetting conflict on 24 does not come until the end of the season, whereas for Scooby-Doo and his pals the resolution comes at the end of each half-hour episode. But the comparison is useful, down even to the predictable musical score for each show. Watching 24, I came to foresee fairly quickly which sort of music would accompany which kind of scene. As with Scooby and his best friend Shaggy, Jack Bauer’s snooping around where he wasn’t wanted came with an initially creepy, but, after so much repetition, eventually reassuring type of score. And 24 routinely plays Wagnerian-Important music when Jack Bauer must c-o-n-c-e-n-t-r-a-t-e to keep his cool, much as Scooby-Doo played bubble-gum pop tunes when Shaggy and Scooby had to stop running in place and actually RUN. (This being one of the regular gags on the cartoon series.) One big difference: the series Scooby-Doo, Where are You was intentionally created as a non-violent alternative to the usual children’s television programming at the time: a team solving a mystery without weapons.

People who think about the meaning of television as a story-telling device explain that “the basic mechanisms of following a story are not ‘natural’ or simply automatic. We must learn how to process the fragmented camera shots, multiple streams of auditory material, and conventions of visual composition, turning them into a story that typically appears ‘realistic’ even though we never experience the real world through such devices.” Jason Mittell continues, “Viewers learn to comprehend media by building mental schemata, or cognitive patterns, that process visual and aural information into recognizable conventions that can be applied to any moving-image example.”[17]  And, in a serial, the writers are able to repeat these cognitive patterns in such a way as to shape cognition itself.  One of my most rudimentary, teaching examples on this point involves the game of checkers.  After playing the game for hours, I found myself thinking of pieces of furniture, people, whatever object, as set up in a pattern to allow for a good move on the board.  When taught repetitively to think in a pattern, many of us maintain that pattern in other, totally unrelated arenas of life.  (If this example does not work, I ask students to consider how often they wish they had a “mute” button to apply to a live person.)  The creators of 24 well matched form with content for a show on terrorism and US counter-terrorism policies, in that their use of various serial, even soap-opera, motifs allowed for what one teacher called “an indefinitely expandable middle.”  Tania Modleski continues the interpretation of soap operas, explaining that “successful soap operas do not end.”  Indeed, “they cannot end.”[18] 24 works like a soap opera, in that it is set up for repeated non-resolution, formally identical to the “War on Terror” which cannot end either.  Fox Network’s new series, Homeland continues the 24 soap opera, set appropriately for the Obama administration.

Something that struck me quickly with the first season of 24 is the anxiety over marriage, motherhood, sex, and fatherhood.  The series is well-constructed to attract female as well as male viewers, and not only because it features the aesthetically normative Kiefer Sutherland.  Faludi seeks to understand why the murders of 9/11, ostensibly by an anti-Western, anti-feminist movement, became a catalyst for anti-feminist, pro-maternal and downright paternalistic ideology in the US.  One quotation she cites, from a May 10, 2004, piece by Kay Daly, “Happy ‘Security’ Moms Day,” is helpful to hear the tone:

“On a clear September morning in 2001, the most basic instinct of mothers – protection of home and family – took top priority over any other concerns. In an instant, all other concerns outside the realm of survival seemed trivial.  Suddenly, the enemy had not only invaded our nation, but the realities of everyday life.”[19]

The storylines in both of the first two seasons of 24 intertwine a terror threat around issues within the family:  marital conflict and struggle between children and parents, most specifically around paternal authority, female sexuality, and feminine vulnerability.  On the packaged DVD set of the first season, the background image for the concluding episodes is helpfully obvious.  It shows an overlaid collage of Jack Bauer hugging his wife and daughter, with their heads visually muted into the outline of the continental US.  The fate and future of the family is tangled up with the fate and future of the nation, and vice versa.  What Anthony N. Smith writes about HBO’s series, The Sopranos, is true of 24, although 24 heightens the importance beyond an exotic, ethnic sub-culture in New Jersey: “it is likely that one storyline in a Sopranos episode will feature domestic concerns, while another graphic violence,” and, “the utilisation of this traditional technique of cutting between disparate story-strands frequently presented Chase [the Sopranos creator] with many opportunities to cut between beats presenting mob violence [or, in our case, intelligence/terrorist violence] and beats documenting everyday suburban living.”[20]  Smith suggests, along with many others, that this back and forth allowed for the wide-spread popularity of a character as deceitful as Tony Soprano, and, I would suggest, a similar rhythm in 24 appealed to viewers anxious not only about national security, but about the ways that traditional, male authority within the homeland had been undermined after 9/11.  After all, although Bauer was able to save the nation by the end of the first season, he still was unable to save his own wife.  While critics at the time marveled at this turn in the storyline, I would suggest that Jack’s failure to save his own wife may have been as visually therapeutic to viewers as the earlier scenes in which he tortured his wife and daughter’s master-mind tormentor.  Viewing Jack’s helplessness may have allowed a kind of reassurance that even a hero can massively fail, and still return the next season to fight.

The conflict between Jack Bauer and his wife and daughter, and the conflict within the soon-to-be presidential Palmer family, is vital for setting up the arc of the 24 storyline. First, I will try briefly to relate the drama regarding the Bauer family. A key scene in the first episode of the first season involves Jack failing to be present when his own teenage daughter seems on the verge of having sex with a boy she has just recently met. Against the backdrop of the literally ticking time bomb is the race to save his daughter’s virginity – not to mention, as it turns out, the ticking of his wife’s ovaries. When Jack’s wife searches a furniture warehouse for their daughter, who has gone on an escapade (turned kidnapping) with a girlfriend and two teenage boys (who turn out to be thugs-for-hire), the girlfriend’s father (who, it turns out, is not really her father) helps Jack’s wife find a condom package . . . wait for it . . . torn open. It is obvious, at that point, that one of the teenage girls has had sex. At this point, Jack’s wife tries desperately to reach him, to give him the news that his daughter may have had sex. But, sadly, Jack is too busy saving the nation to save his daughter’s virginity. Another aspect to this ongoing search drama in the first series is the viewer’s expectation that Jack’s wife, who is increasingly distraught and feeling abandoned by her super-intelligence-anti-terrorist husband, may turn to the other girl’s (single) father for intimate solace. Within the first three episodes, the writers have interspersed anxiety about (protected) teen sex, and anxiety over what appears potentially to be (perhaps justified) impending marital infidelity with the first scene of dismemberment. Jack Bauer removes the extended finger of a dead man, chopping it off in a way that is quite unsubtly phallic.

The first scene of torture in the first series may not, at first, read as torture. But I would argue it is not only torture, but torture related to female sexuality. Jack Bauer’s daughter has been kidnapped, in part due to her girlfriend’s lack of judgment about teenage boys. Her girlfriend, as the viewers know, is the foolish one who has had sex in the furniture warehouse, and, after their kidnapping, the bad girl eventually ends up unconscious in the hospital. Jack has, in the meantime, figured out that his daughter’s disappearance is likely linked to his role in the ongoing terrorist plot of the season, and he (finally) contacts his wife to tell her to watch out, lest the one person (his daughter’s girlfriend) who can tell them about their daughter’s whereabouts be silenced by someone posing as benevolent. So, the viewers, who are as clueless at this point as Jack’s wife, watch as a new doctor enters the girl’s room and administers shocks to resuscitate her. The question is left excruciatingly open. Was the girl actually in cardiac arrest, or was the entire thing feigned, so that she could be shocked to death by a counter-agent posing as her doctor. The first scene of possible torture is to the “bad” girl, who chose foolishly to have sex, and who, it turns out, will be eventually suffocated, while whimpering, at the hands of the man who has been impersonating her father.

I assert that this scene is the first torture scene, in part due to the fact that it repeats itself in the second season. Here, another young woman, barely out of her teens, is also submitted to electrical shocks, even as the doctor insists it might kill her – all because she may be able to remember computer codes that can help Jack Bauer trace the mystery of the season. In the latter case, it is obvious within the storyline that this young Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) employee suffers bodily violation for the sake of the cause. There is no question about the motives of the people ordering the shock treatment. They are the “good guys,” willing in this case to dirty their hands even when it comes to a person for whom they have real affection. Both scenes are linked to a key part of the storyline in the second series, regarding the willingness of the President of the United States to countenance the torture of a colleague, through the same shock method, this time administered to his brain. Finally, to close the loop, although Jack Bauer’s own daughter has avoided illicit sex, and, perhaps thereby avoided the fate that the series writers meted out to her bad friend, Bauer fails to protect his own wife from being raped in his daughter’s stead.

The end of the first season thus ends with a “security mom’s” nightmare. Jack ensconces his wife and daughter in what he hopes will be a “safe house” in the suburbs, complete not only with a male guard hiding out in a cherry-picker outside, but also a male guard mowing the lawn. When the viewer discovers that the terrorists have invaded the domicile, the camera shows . . . again, wait for it . . . the lawn mower is unoccupied. The good men have been shot, and the women eventually must, again, fend for themselves. By the end of the season, Jack’s wife is not only pregnant, possibly by her rapist, but she is also dead, shot by Jack’s former lover, a CTU rogue who returns in the second series to endure torture at Jack’s hands. The themes of sex, marriage, torture and terror are obviously and explicitly intertwined, in ways that reveal a brilliant writing feat – the “War on Terror” is not only about ticking time bombs and torture. It is about real families living with the daily struggles of teen sex, infidelity, and paternal impotence.

Intertwined with the Bauer drama is the Palmer drama, as David Palmer, candidate for US President (and, eventually President) must reckon with the past lies of his wife, who has deceived him ostensibly to save her children and his political career. To go through the serpentine details of this plot-line would test the reader’s patience, so I will concentrate on one contrast. Whereas Jack Bauer’s wife is thin (arguably anorexic), helpless, and relatively clueless, David Palmer’s wife is hale, resourceful, and brilliant. But, a key aspect of the first two seasons is Mrs. Palmer’s manifestation of what one friend called “pure evil.” Mrs. Palmer, who is, we should note, African-American, serves as the stereotype of an emasculating matriarch, even masterminding a plan for her husband’s infidelity so that she can potentially control him through the compliance of a younger, female aide. While the first season ends with Jack holding his dead wife, as he weeps and repeatedly apologizes for his inability to protect her, it also ends with David Palmer dismissing his wife in steely-resolved, humiliating fashion, stating that “You’ve lost touch with what it is to be a parent, a friend, a wife.” Finally, in front of the secret-service agents assigned to protect them, he tells her through clinched teeth, “I just don’t think you’re fit to be First Lady.” The viewers have been prompted, by this point, to cheer him on.

In a New York Times essay entitled “Normalizing Torture on ’24,’” Adam Green notes a pattern in subsequent seasons:

“What is most striking about torture on 24 is how it affects not only politics but also emotional and professional relationships. The C.T.U. data technician Sarah Gavin, interrogated with tasers to discover if she were a terrorist mole, subsequently returns to work showing no signs of trauma. Indeed, she marshals the clarity of mind to renegotiate her terms of employment with her superior, who approved her interrogation just hours earlier. The war-protester son of Secretary of Defense Heller, more alienated than ever after a session of sensory deprivation in a C.T.U. holding room, receives a strikingly paternal lecture from his father about why that treatment was appropriate. Even Audrey’s husband, Paul, somehow rises above his grievance to view his erstwhile tormentor as a buddy, helping Jack extract documents from a defense contractor and fend off attack – and even loyally taking a bullet for him. In all of these interactions, torture doesn’t deaden the feelings between people, rather it deepens them.. . . It is often noted that torture goes against the tenets of human community in two fundamental ways. Because torturers deny the basic humanity of their victims, it’s a violation of the norms governing everyday society. At the same time, torture constitutes society’s ultimate perversion, shaking or breaking its victims’ faith in humanity by turning their bodies and their deepest commitments – political or spiritual belief, love of family – against them to produce pain and fear. In the counterterrorist world of “24,” though, torture represents not the breakdown of a just society, but the turning point – at times even the starting point – for social relations. Through this artistic sleight of hand, the show makes torture appear normal.” [21]

And torture is not just normal. Submitting to the suffering necessary to secure the safety of one’s loved ones is a key part of a torture scene early on in the series (as I noted above) when the young female computer tech is submitted to electrical shocks to allow her to resume consciousness just long enough to regurgitate the code that might save the storyline. Soon after, as the doctor predicted, she dies. She is a heroine, albeit unconscious and involuntary, for suffering at the hands of her comrades. And, those who are willing to sacrifice their own friends for the sake of the cause may be even more brave than those who endure the torture itself. Affliction for the good of the group elicits love.

As a Christian ethicist, I must note that this may be read as a kind of macabre reversal and re-distribution of what some Christians call the Eucharist, in which the wound that saves the faithful is distributed back out to the faithful. Here, brothers and sisters willingly suffer the letting of their own blood, and the taking of one another’s blood, because the blood of the Christian savior, Jesus Christ, was insufficient to bring about national security. 24 presents a kind of pilgrimage by way of violence, in a narratively compelling, if formulaic manner. Slavoj Žižek names this starkly in a 2006 piece about the series:

It is here that we encounter the series’ ideological lie: in spite of the CTU’s ruthlessness, its agents, especially Bauer, are warm human beings – loving, caught in the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people. . . Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents’ and the terrorists’ behaviour serves this lie.[22]

There are also sacrifices that do not bond but mutilate.  The writers have intertwined suffering for one another with suffering that severs ties.  Two families come apart at the seams in the second series, with a case of unambiguous domestic violence and a case whereby a young, elite Californian blonde woman turns against her family, and her Muslim fiancé, in order to serve the cause of her adopted terrorist group.  A young man who attempts to help Jack’s daughter in the second series breaks off their relationship over the phone, from the hospital.  On the other end of the telephone line, she is confused, but the viewer watches as the camera rises to show him recovering in the bed, having had one of his legs severed.   The writers of 24 give a simple answer to terrorism, again, and again, and again, intertwined with a complex set of stories that ask viewers to trust that all of the carnage will, eventually, lead to the remembering of all who have been dismembered.

“Winter is Coming”

As the study I noted above cites, the rise of television violence has been precipitous since 9/11.  The increase in scenes of torture is set within a larger pattern of increasing “sadism,” as the study names it.[23]  I believe it helpful to think through the work of violence in 24 by considering another, currently popular show that also features routine acts of violation.  This section’s sub-heading serves as the motto of the family line for which many viewers are to cheer in the HBO series Game of Thrones.  A horrific winter is coming, and there is only one family in the series apparently capable of toughening themselves for the impending disaster.  Several former students suggested to me that I had also to view this series, if I am to begin to interpret the allure of television violence and sexual domination.  When I posted online that I was fairly certain that something was amiss in the revival of medieval gore and supposedly “realistic” sexual hierarchy and exploitation in the series, I was inundated with the defensive comments of fans – men and women, African-American and Anglo.  It turns out that this is a wildly and widely popular series, with parents of my daughters’ school-mates and with colleagues across disparate walks of life.  “The stories just pull you in!” I heard again and again, in some form or another.

There are formal similarities to 24, even while the two shows are from different genres. Game of Thrones is fantasy, and, although any military analyst will tell you 24 is fantastical, it is not strictly within the “fantasy” genre.  As with 24, the violence is intertwined with sexual and gendered themes.  I watched the show in part to consider how gender and violence interact differently or similarly to 24.  In this case, many of its admirers suggest that the repeated scenes wherein women are sexually violated are warranted, because they are “realistic” to the vaguely designated time period in which the fairy tale is set, that is, once upon a time, in a land far, far away. . . .  As with the case of another popular television show of the new millennium set in an earlier era, AMC’s period drama Mad Men, the abominable treatment of women seems to provide a kind of masochistic/sadistic viewing pleasure justified somehow by a kind of purported, historical accuracy.  If 24 is like Scooby Doo for grown-ups, Game of Thrones is like a popular medieval, role-playing game in the US called Dungeons and Dragons, combined with online porn for people who also love the novels of English author J.R.R. Tolkien. Game of Thrones is much more prone to show women naked and men dressed in large, metal armor than is 24.  The contrast between naked, female vulnerability and male strength is both more overt and more complicated than on 24. But I would argue that ultimately the messages similarly undergird a gender binary of strength/vulnerability, encouraging a kind of emotional distance and preparing the viewer to suffer loss.

The depiction of violence in the two shows is similarly graphic, repetitive, gendered, and vital. Men and women must variously muster the strength to endure their own and their loved ones prolonged suffering and dismemberment.  In both shows, characters are presented with complex personalities and motives, but, in each show, human beings are also presented as “mere meat,” to use a phrase popular in post-modern film studies.[24]  A key question in 24 is whether or not viewers will have the courage to watch, endure, and commit the torture necessary to protect the nation.  As noted above, the series implies that a telling dynamic within a culture of torture is whether or not one is willing to endure suffering at the hands of one’s own comrades, for the sake of proving his or her loyalty.  And, in reverse, is one willing to commit torture, not only on one’s clearly demarcated “enemy,” but on one’s ambiguously designated, potential loved one? Game of Thrones continues this question in a different form, presenting the challenge for viewers to endure, to watch, the deaths of characters designated as real human beings.

Richard Hofstadter suggested in his classic 1964 essay on “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” that “It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is, on many counts, the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him.”[25]  I believe there is a kind of boomerang effect in American culture during a time of perpetual fear, whereby there is an urge to enact retributive violence on those who serve to symbolize our past and potential violators, but also a desire to endure a controlled viewing of our own suffering.  Within the politics of fear after 9/11, there seems again to be a theme of self-sacrifice, and the necessity of sacrificing one’s own attachments, for the sake of facing the monstrosity of terrorism and, perhaps in the midst of an economic recession, also the specter of fratricide during drastic austerity.

This, then, is the set-up in Game of Thrones, which (like 24) plays on themes of temporality.  The opening features not a map of the continental US and a digital clock-face (as in 24), but an intricate, moving, miniature map of the fantasy-land and a medieval-esque globe-dial, resembling an astrolabe, spinning toward the resumption of another brutal, indefinitely enduring winter.  Yet again, the clock is ticking.  It is a time of urgency, when men and women must act to save the future.  The first season sets up a world-view where kinship and friendship connections are simultaneously crucial, and necessarily, often violently, relinquished in the face of the preparations for winter.  In the midst of impending apocalypse, viewers are themselves drawn in to see the unique vulnerabilities and gifts of even cursory characters, and compelled to watch while these individuals are killed.

The severing of heads from bodies seems particularly important in the series, and the symbolism fits.  If one’s face involves one’s capacity to think, then the removal of head from body enacts the disconnection of individuality and relationality from a body.  Within the very first scene of the very first episode, there are multiple beheadings, including one that sets up a central premise of the show.  A member of the monastic military guard called The Night’s Watch has just narrowly escaped the land from whence monsters and savages come.  He has just viewed the brutal murders of two of his friends, but, having run away from the scene, he is considered a deserter and must, by the king’s law, have his head removed from his body.  But, before he is executed, he calmly but vulnerably avers his honesty – he has indeed viewed the monsters from the north.  His desertion was not one of cowardice, he explains, but borne of the amoral chaos inflicted by what he has viewed.  The youngest son of the hero’s family, still a child, must watch this execution.  He is told by his brother that their father will know if he looks away.  He is told this not unkindly, but with compassion combined with stoicism.  In order to prepare to be a man, he must watch as an honest man has his own eyes closed, by having his head chopped off.  The viewer is given a similar challenge.  Will we have the nerve to continue watching, even while, eventually, the hero himself is beheaded at the end of the first season?  And, just to be clear, this is not a gender-specific challenge.  The hero’s oldest daughter must not only watch her father’s beheading, but later view his severed head on a spike.

The relationship between sexual desire and violence is fraught in this series in ways similar to 24.  Both series simultaneously present sexually explicit scenes and punish those whose sexual desires reveal their vulnerability.  And, again, beheading is a part of the symbolism.  In one of the most cited, graphic scenes, a brutally successful knight who is felled during a joust stands up after his horse has thrown him, pulls out his massive sword, and chops off the head of his whinnying horse.  (This is all shown in excruciating detail, please note.)  The viewer soon learns that the dismembered horse has failed his master due to the fact that the other knight’s mare was in heat.  The cost of sexual distraction is death.  Soon after this episode, the hero’s most trusted guard, called on to protect him as they attempt escape from their enemy’s compound, is momentarily distracted by the alluring gaze of one of the show’s many naked prostitutes.  This is the first sign of this man’s humanity, as he is both tempted and visibly embarrassed by the woman’s recognition that she has distracted him.  It is the first scene in which the viewer sees him seeing, and being seen back, as an embodied person, rather than as a mere tool for protection of his master.  Immediately afterward, when he walks out of the door with his master, this guard is killed by another swordsman, by receiving a knife through the eyes.  The viewer watches as a person who has been caught viewing is punished with death by blindness.

It is not incidental that the unequivocal, unambiguous heroes of the first season are soldiers sworn to monastic celibacy.  And, following scene after repetitive scene of naked, female love-slaves, the heroine of the season first must suffocate her rapist-husband turned (we are asked to believe genuine) lover to his death, and then emerge naked but unscathed from a fire, a fire in which another, older woman is ritually burned to death (while screaming for mercy, no less).  If the question left at the end of the first series is whether one, like the youngest son in the first scene of the first season, has the courage to continue watching as people we have come to care about are disemboweled, raped, tortured, and impaled, I declare failure.

I would suggest, following Faludi’s thesis, that both 24 and Game of Thrones represent a kind of ritual, visual, cultural self-cutting, whereby viewers not only want to view with vengeance, but to master the violent loss and perpetual fear of future loss, whether such fear is conspiratorially promoted (which I believe it is) or viscerally, psychologically wired (which is perhaps also is the case).  Regardless of the cause and effect (which I warned I would not try to answer) the spectacle continues to be widely, wildly popular, streamed reliably into the moral imaginations of American citizens.

Both Abdullah Antepli and Ingrid Mattson’s presentations at the 2011 conference appealed to the common humanity of their listeners. They each appealed to our common sense of connection through our love for kin – through our capacity to relate to and empathize with our neighbors.  If, through the viewing of violent suffering in shows like 24 and Game of Thrones, Americans are not only learning to hate our neighbor, but also practicing a kind of liturgy of self-sacrifice and loss, then what will happen to such appeals for empathy?  If we are practicing a stoicism born of shame, what will happen to our capacity for relationship?  With deep sorrow, I now hear Abdullah Antepli’s call for us to risk the viewing of torture as coming from within my own world of isolated idealism, a world where people actually experience a moral shift usually known as empathy when they view another human being in pain, rather than experiencing some kind of solace or affective armor through such viewing.

Inconclusive Postscript from Homeland

In a comment posted on the feminist website Jezebel, under a whimsical blog relating Fox’s new show Homeland’s main character to another eccentric character in a comedy series, a person designated as “LarHar” states: “I am usually not into the whole, CIA, Military, Terrorist series, but I am hooked on Homeland. I didn’t think I would like it, and now I freaking love it! I think Claire is brilliant.”[26] By shifting the anti-terrorist operative to female, and by rendering her a non-threatening, typically feminine form of unstable (she is presented as “bi-polar” and weeps frequently), the former writers of 24 continue the soap opera of the perpetual War on Terror, which replaced the perpetual Cold War. Rather than being unhinged by necessary violence toward others and needing anger-management therapy (as did Jack Bauer), Homeland’s heroine is hysterical and needs to be protected from her own worst, self-harming impulses. She is a reassuring warrior for a new era of fighting the designated enemy of radical Islam. Writer Stan Goff names with his usual analytical clarity a Hollywood phenomenon he calls using “decoys.” In his interpretation of the film Man on Fire, Goff names Denzel Washington as the perfect “decoy.” By writing an African-American man as the cowboy savior who must use supposedly effective interrogation techniques like anal rape to save a young girl, the writers distract viewers from the racial context of America’s current wars.[27] Similarly, I would suggest that the camaraderie between the hero and heroine of Homeland, portrayed by Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin, as they work together to make the Western world safe from Muslim terrorists, distracts viewers from the gendered nature of selling war today. Homeland actually bests stories like Man on Fire, in that the writers have embedded concerns about female vulnerability into the storyline about a woman fighting terrorism. Claire Danes remains perpetually a version of the adolescent girl she played in her television debut, needing Patinkin’s fatherly protection and also, repeatedly, eliciting the protective affection of the audience. She is brilliant but unstable, eventually giving herself “totally” over to the man viewers have been cued to perceive as a threat.

I also believe it is no small matter when, in the first season, our heroine realizes a crucial piece of the terrorism puzzle just as she self-sacrificially submits to her own ritualized torture through electro-convulsive therapy. In doing so, she submits to her own pain, and through her acceptance of suffering, lying horizontal, strapped down to a bed, she gains her wisdom. This cannot be what Susan Faludi had in mind when she calls, at the end of The Terror Dream, for Americans to draw on “the talents and vitality of all of us equally, men and women both.”[28]

Finally, I want to close with an appeal from Kalman Bland’s essay in this volume, his paraphrase of the Jewish proscription of torture, as a prayer. If torture in America is in part a ramification of shame, may these words be of some use, to women as well as to men. Rather than steel ourselves, preparing for self-sacrifice, loss, and possibly the call to sacrifice our beloveds, may we be willing still to believe sufficiently in love.[29]

“Consequently, we are meant to hear God saying something like this: I know how humans tend to react to adversity. Precisely because you have been the victims of injustice and torture, your hearts are hardened and you are inclined to commit those acts yourself, for injustice and torture perpetuate themselves by scarring the soul, making it more difficult to empathize with the other. Physical violence and psychological abuse in one generation are among the major causes for reproducing abuse and violence in the next generation. I weep for your pain, with you I am lost in exile, but knowing the scars in your tormented collective consciousness, I command you, my people, to be extraordinarily vigilant in resisting the abominations and crimes of torture. Don’t let your oppressive history have the last word. Overcome it. Don’t commit atrocities. Don’t torture.”


[1] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[2] C. Robin, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 20.

[3] See G. Greenwald, “The NYT’s nice, new euphemism for torture,” Salon (June 6, 2009),  Also, for examples of NPR avoiding the term “torture,” see this website:

[4] “White House Meddling in the First Film about the Atomic Bomb: Transcript,” On the Media (August 13, 2010),

[5] The reverse has been documented, in that numerous Bush administration officials were explicit in their appreciation and emulation of the show:

According to British lawyer and writer Sands, Jack Bauer-played by Kiefer Sutherland-was an inspiration at early “brainstorming meetings” of military officials at Guantanamo in September 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer “gave people lots of ideas.” Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show “reflects real life.” D. Lithwick, “The Fiction Behind Torture Policy,” Newsweek Vol 152, Issue 5 (Aug 4, 2008), 11.


[6] P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008).


[7] “The Stephanie Miller Show,” December 19, 2012.

[8] Stephen Battaglio, “The Biz: President Barack Obama Reveals His Favorite TV Shows,”


[9] R. Beck, “Threat Level: Against Homeland,” n+1 (Dec 3, 2012),


[10] G. Lamb, “TV’s higher threshold of pain,” The Christian Science Monitor (Aug 23, 2002),

[11] “Parents Beware of 24,” Parents Television Council (Nov 21, 2008),


[12] G. Lamb, “TV’s higher threshold of pain,” The Christian Science Monitor (Aug 23, 2002),

[13] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 208.

[14] P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2008), 397.
[15] See especially P. Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect, 362, 346, 333.

[16] J. Mayer, “Whatever It Takes: The politics of the man behind ‘24’,” The New Yorker (Feb 19, 2007),

[17] J. Mittell, “Film and Television Narrative.” In The Cambridge Companion to Narrative, ed. D. Herman. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007),163,164,167.


[18] D. Porter, ‘Soap Time: Thoughts on a Commodity Art Form’, College English (Apr. 1977), 783. Quoted in: T. Modleski, “The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Opera.” In Loving With a Vengeances: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women. 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2007), 29-40, 29.


[19] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream, 160, from K. R. Daly, “Happy ‘Security’ Moms Day,” GOPUSA (May 10, 2004),


[20] A. N. Smith, “TV or Not TV? The Sopranos and Contemporary Episode Architecture in US Network and Premium Cable Drama.” Critical Studies in Television. 6.1 (2011), 36-51, 44, 45. Please note British spelling in the original.



[21] A. Green, “Normalizing Torture on ‘24’,” New York Times (May 22, 2005),

[22] S. Žižek, “The depraved heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood,” The Guardian (Jan 10, 2006),

[23] Lamb, “TV’s higher threshold of pain,” The Christian Science Monitor (Aug 23, 2002),

[24] For a helpful overview, see W. Brown, “Monstrous Cinema.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 10.4 (2012), 409-424.
[25] R. Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Harper’s Magazine (Nov 1964),


[26] M. Davies, “Carrie on Homeland Is Actually Charlie on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” Jezebel (Dec 7, 2012),

[27] S. Goff, Sex and War (, 2006), 18-20.

[28] S. Faludi, The Terror Dream, 296.

[29] I would like to thank Kara Slade, Matthew Elia, Isaac Villegas, and the people at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture for organizing the conference that helped me finally to begin trying to write on this issue. Kara Slade continually helped with thinking and editing.  I am grateful to my co-editor, Danny Arnold, for helping me process the misery of watching these shows, and to his brilliant wife, Kate Roberts, for her gender analysis of all things pop-culture.  Thanks to my pastor Ryan Quanstrom, for the Scooby-Doo reference, to Namaan Wood for many helpful articles pertaining to media analysis, and to several friends and former students who allowed me to question them mercilessly about shows that they love.

Torture on Television

This opinion essay appeared on July 3, 2016 in the Durham Herald-Sun.  It is based in part on research for an essay in the journal The Muslim World, April, 2013, Volume 103, Issue 2.

Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker, recently opened a laudatory review of two new television series with this caveat:

“If you don’t watch shows that include sexual violence, please avoid ‘Outlander.’ (Actually, you might rethink ‘The Americans,’ too.) Like ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘Outlander’ is set in a universe in which rape is a constant threat, and not just for women.”

Many of my friends love the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” and I wrote a long essay for a journal called Muslim World, arguing that the series is horrible.  Nussbaum’s review prompts me to try again.  Watching human beings violate one another in the worst possible ways on a screen can cause a kind of numbness, making horror mundane.  To “escape” into such a fictive “universe,” as some friends have told me they do, is to turn off a part of your soul that needs to be vibrantly awake if we are to love one another well and be courageous for the sake of flourishing together.  Fans alternatively contend that these shows are “realistic,” as if watching rape after rape after beheading after impaling (“Game of Thrones” features all of the above) is to become acquainted with the facts of life.

The allure of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Outlander” is, in part, their complex, unique characters, and their intricately drawn storylines. The brilliant writers for such series simultaneously encourage viewers genuinely to care about the future of an individual on the screen, while warning viewers to prepare themselves to view this individual’s violation or death on the screen.  I see no way that this helps someone appreciate the beautiful uniqueness of a neighbor, child, co-worker, or spouse or to trust that the world is a mostly-not-horrifying place.  In short, shows like “Game of Thrones” can make us less loving and less open to trust.  I also believe that television violence, however well-written or decorated with dragons, has encouraged cynicism.  Screen violence has dulled moral outrage when we discover, for instance, that our own government has been torturing people.  Repetitively entering universes “in which rape is a constant threat” (Nussbaum’s phrase) may lead viewers to think sexual domination is normal.  Repetitively watching violence on screen may have led people to accept brutality as politically necessary.

My long essay for Muslim World came out of a conference in 2011 here in Durham with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture.  One of my teammates put the purpose of the conference like this: we wanted people to turn their eyes toward a set of facts about U.S. sponsored torture that people seemed to be ignoring.  Robin Kirk wrote an essay for the conference that explained we were slightly off, in that, after September 11, 2001, television shows had actually offered a continual loop of torture, and people were happily watching.  People had become convinced that torture is simply how the world works.  (Even CIA and FBI studies report torture as ineffectual, unless your purpose is to render people mute.)

In a 2002 essay for The Christian Science Monitor, Gregory M. Lamb wrote about a drastic increase in violence generally on television after 9/11: “So much for media critics’ expectations that grisly fictional violence on TV would abate after . . . September 11. Instead, scenes of torture and sadism appeared on network entertainment TV at a rate nearly double that over the previous two years.”   Lamb names a Parents Television Council (PTC) study, an organization that, in 2008, characterized Fox’s series ‘24’ as the biggest offender:  “A Parents Television Council review found that ‘24’ showed 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons.” Other television programming kept up: “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001. From 2002 to 2005, the number increased to 624 scenes of torture. Data from 2006 to 2007 showed that there were 212 scenes of torture” that year alone.

Adam Green also wrote an essay for the New York Times in 2005, tracing how story-lines in ‘24’ had “normalized torture,” shifting our perceptions of torture as “a violation of the norms governing everyday society” to “the turning point – at times even the starting point – for social relations.”  I believe sexual violence and domination in popular series today continue this trajectory, with more sophisticated storylines and better costumes. I submit that putting your eyeballs in front of these shows is to endanger your capacity to envision a universe not marked by brutality.  Finally, in his book on fear as a mechanism of social control, Corey Robin asks “What exactly, we must ask ourselves, is missing from our world that we should require spilled blood and incinerated flesh, and the fear such havoc and loss create, to feel alive?”  I suggest it need not be so.

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