Thursday, February 11, 2010

Torture Tales

There are various factors behind America's growing embrace of torture, but among them, largely overlooked, is a brilliant campaign of cross-promotion between right-wing ideologues and right-wing entertainment.

First, the right reduced the entirety of torture to a simple talking point: "Can you really say torture never works?" And then answered the question through thriller novels and television shows.

There's a reason Glenn Beck so assiduously hawks what he calls the "conservative porn" of novelist Vince Flynn. When Flynn's series character, covert operator Mitch Rapp, saves the day through torture, his deeds vindicate the authoritarian worldview Beck advocates. Beck even has a list of his top ten thrillers at Borders, with Flynn and another rightist thriller writer, Brad Thor, in the top two slots. Nor is Beck alone: he is joined in his promotion of pro-torture novels by Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Hugh Hewitt. And of course the right loves no one so much as Jack Bauer, the "24" operative whose defense of America always depends on torture -- a love the show returns in kind.

All of which raises an important question: why? Given that expert interrogators like the Air Force's Matthew Alexander and Steven Kleinman and the FBI's Ali Soufan and Jack Cloonan agree not only that torture is unnecessary, but that, by producing false leads and creating new jihadists, it has made America less safe; given the existence of scientific evidence demonstrating why and how torture produces false information; and given that there is no reliable evidence that America's resort to torture foiled any jihadist plots, we have to ask, why does the right continue to promote it?

Because fictional questions about torture's efficacy obscure real questions about its criminality. The UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment, signed by Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate, not only prohibits torture, but categorically rules out all exceptions. By Article VI of the Constitution, the UNCAT is the supreme Law of the Land (because the treaty also requires party nations to investigate and prosecute credible allegations of torture, President Obama is himself now in violation).

It's surprising the left has been so feckless in its response. True, the left is no marketing juggernaut. After all, this is the movement that chose the stunningly vague and uninspiring product name "the public option" for its make-or-break health care rollout. But because the best thrillers are the most realistic, the form is ideally suited to dramatically examine the actual motivations behind torture (panic, incompetence, proxy revenge). Or to make plain the real fruits of torture (new jihadist recruits and increasingly radicalized Muslims). Or to show how torture, once permitted in military and intelligence circles, metastasizes to civilian law enforcement and otherwise. Or to detail the way torture brutalizes our society and destroys the psyches of the young men and women we encourage to do it in our names. And yet some of the most commercially successful thrillers are those whose take on torture is the most cartoonish.

If the leftwing mass media continues to ignore political thrillers, this important means of shaping the public debate on torture and other critical issues will remain the exclusive weapon of the Glenn Becks of the world. Worse, as reviewers like Kirkus go under and newspapers and magazines curtail their book coverage, writers and publishers, aware that the best means of publicizing their thrillers will be an appearance on Beck or Limbaugh, will shape their stories to please the talking heads whose ministrations they increasingly crave. There's already an orthodoxy among some publishers that the audience for thrillers is largely conservative, an understandable (though mistaken) conclusion caused by the fact that the only mass media hawking thrillers today is rightwing. And with the sad recent news about the demise of Air America, that mistaken orthodoxy is likely set to deepen.

Those of us who value the rule of law and the blessings of liberty in America need to wake up. Novelists, bloggers, screen and teleplay writers, journalists, talk show hosts -- if we don't start hanging together, then, as Benjamin Franklin said, assuredly we shall all hang separately.

P.S. Proud to say I'm now blogging both at Truthout and at the Huff Post, where this piece ran today on the front page. If you have a chance, stop by and leave a comment (already responded there to a bunch) -- thanks.


aaron said...

Not a fan of the torture, myself. Only way it would work is if you had the ability to check the tortured person's information on the spot, and how often is that going to come up? Never has in my time.

Most the collectors I know don't even like to use fear up/down approaches, since they destroy any other approach's viability, so if they fail, then what?

Also, Flynn's stuff is odious. Can't read that sort of thing. Lee Child is worse, if barely. I used to wonder if it was just that they didn't know how to check their material, or contact subject matter experts. But after reading a book or three from each, I have concluded that they willfully avoid doing so.

Jaguar said...

Brad Thor is obviously a big fan of torture -- his writing is tortuous. His novels are a minefield of cliches, one-dimensional mustache-twirling cartoon villains, and brain-bending conspiracy theories. Why bother with waterboarding when someone could simply read his fusty prose aloud to any hapless terrorist?

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