How we should judge torture - Los Angeles Times

How we should judge torture - Los Angeles Times
Naturally, human rights groups are appalled by the suggestion that harsh treatment is ever justified. Similarly, blogger Andrew Sullivan dismisses the ticking time bomb as a "red herring" and argues that "you cannot raise or lower the moral status of mass murderers with respect to torture. The only salient moral status with respect to torture is that the mass murderers are human beings."
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And that's where Hollywood comes in. Politically, the entertainment community is fairly two-dimensional in its liberalism. But artistically — and to its credit — Hollywood seems to grasp that life can be morally complicated. After all, tactics that qualify as torture for the "anti" crowd show up in film and television every day. On "NYPD Blue," Andy Sipowicz, played by Dennis Franz, smacked around criminals all the time. In "Guarding Tess," Nicholas Cage shot the toe off a man who wouldn't tell him what he wanted to know — and told him he'd keep shooting piggies until he heard what he wanted.

In "Patriot Games," Harrison Ford shot a man in the kneecap to get the information he needed in a timely manner. In "Rules of Engagement," Samuel L. Jackson shot a POW in the head to get another man to talk.
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The issue here is context. Coercion of the sort we're discussing is used by good guys and bad guys alike — in films and in real life. Just as with guns and fistfights, the morality of violence depends in large part on the motives behind it. (That's got to be one of the main reasons so many on the left oppose the war: They distrust President Bush's motives. Very few of Bush's critics are true pacifists.)
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My guess is that when presented in cinematic form, even larger numbers of people recognize that sometimes good people must do bad things. I'm not suggesting, of course, that the majority is always right. But it should at least suggest to those preening in their righteousness that people of goodwill can disagree.

An interesting take on the power of narrative in forming opinions. Basically, a narrative (such as those mentioned here) establishes an idealized scenario (a mental image if you will) that can then be blended (conceptually integrated) with inferential processes such as deciding how well certain behavior qualifies for membership in the category of torture and how justifiable or condemnable it therefore is.

Of course, despite the astute analysis of the role of cinema (albeit slightly confusing it with real life), the argument being made misrepresents the liberal position. The question is not whether in certain extreme times, extreme measures can be justified, but whether the hypothetical possibility of these extreme times justifies across-the-board legislation. And it seems that it is not the case - legal framework for extreme times is more likely to to provide a mental frame by which any time when convenient can be judged as extreme (the appalling pseudo heroism of 24's main character is a worrying example). In other words, if torture is allowed under certain extreme circumstances, the frequency of these circumstances will increase. It is also important to note, that in most of the Hollywood scenarios, the person using 'extreme measures' is seen as a maverick, who transcends the rules to 'do what must be done'. The problem is that the narrative requires that the opponents must be cast into the role of bureaucratic nincompoops who put procedure before a larger purpose.

But what the column does not mention is that this narrative has a counter narrative (directly opposed only in the best of drama and literature) in which a deluded homicidal maniac casts himself (or herself) into the role of the maverick from the other narrative.

In real life, both of these situations are probably about equally frequent but it is hard to judge in any one case which is more apt. As it stands, the law enshrines the latter which is probably a good thing because (with the exception of an as-yet-unenacted 'ticking-timebomb' scenario) the consequences of the first scenario can be tragic and irreversible. The only legal framework for the latter, I think, is legislation protecting whistleblowers, which is also a good thing.

One final note: "people of good will can disagree" is, of course, a phrase used with about equal frequency both in the service of good and bad causes. As a basis of policy (with some exceptions such as religious tolerance) it is virtually meaningless.