"There. Are. Four. Lights": How Torture Became Mainstream

In his weekend roundup, driftglass reminds us that there was a time when our mainstream pop culture villified torture and praised those who attempted to resist it:

And then Fox TV's Torture Porn Show, also known as 24, made torturing fashionable. Strength was to be had in torturing people, not in resisting it.

At this point, it's tempting to bemoan our nation's sorry fate, but Thomas Levenson offers a good explanation of how we reached this dismal point (italics mine):

....this [bizarre and obscene definition of lynching] is an example of the kind of rhetorical deceit that would have made the patron saint of political thuggery-by-deception proud. Joseph Goebbels famously said "Propaganda has nothing to do with the truth."

By this measure, of course, Lord's post is a triumph. It takes someone already the victim of an artful and astonishingly effective hatchet job, pursues one of the most awful incidents in her family history, and tells the world that her accurate account of her relative's murder is false -- and disqualifies her from public regard. Slick, evil, and just what Dr. Joe would have recognized as the political manipulator's stock in trade.

I'm not trying to Godwinize myself here. Rather I want to draw one thread out of this admittedly loaded comparison.

At no time up to the end of 1933 did the Nazi party command a majority allegiance within the German electorate. They did, however, create a powerful climate of opinion in which their recognizably crazy and fringe politics came to be seen as reasonable and a plausible element in national governance.

At no time did the old right elite among the German political classes intend to deliver real or lasting power to the Hitler and his crew. Notoriously, the failed former German Chancellor Fritz von Papen, after persuading President Hindenburg to invite Hitler to lead a coalition government in which von Papen would serve as Vice Chancellor, crowed "We've captured him!"

As we know, it didn't quite work out that way.

We have always had a batshit lunatic quarter of the population. In different eras, they have been known as John Birchers, segregationists, the Moral Majority. The Palinist impulse, sadly, never goes away, only mutates. But the question for the rest of us is why do we grant these loathsome people a place in the discussion?

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"But the question for the rest of us is why do we grant these loathsome people a place in the discussion?"

I am not an American, so I am probably missing some of the nuances, but this is not the most important question. Although it is true that irrational elements exist in any population, they only begin to gain power if some powerful people and/or institutions are organizing them and paying to do it. The fact that the Republican Party seems to be quickly being captured by such "reality challenged" groups means that powerful people and interests are behind it. I don't believe that such powerful people actually believe this crap. So who are the backroom power brokers? What is their agenda? Why have they successfully replaced the old-guard Republican Right? Presumably the agenda of the old-guard is not that of the new power brokers.

Arlo wrote "Presidential Rag" about Nixon and his gang of thugs, but this portion (at least to me) speaks to Bush's choice of Yoo and others.

...no one voted for your advisors,
and nobody wants amends,
You're the one we voted for, so you must take the blame,
For handing out authority to men who were insane

We scare me.

By Silent Service (not verified) on 30 Jul 2010 #permalink

It's been 42 years since the My Lai Massacre, when Americans, and the world, were horrified that innocent civilians were slaughtered. Today, our military can kill thousands upon thousands and it won't make the news. We can displace millions, and that doesn't make the news. Instead we have the great issues of our time, like how is Lindsay doing in jail, and what's Snooki up to?

By Globle Warren … (not verified) on 30 Jul 2010 #permalink

I think there is nothing fundamentally new about Americans engaging in torture. It is as old as the Cold War. The School of the Americans engaged in torture during the 70âs and 80âs. They provided training in the fine arts of torture to the military juntas of Argentina, as well to Pinochet. They worked along side the Chicago Boys. Of course, back then the American public was kept in the dark, and we were fighting lefties rather than terrorist. I think what is different today is that torture is out in the open, rather than performed in some secret bunker in Latin America. This might be a good thing, because it will force us to question ourselves. It is hard to held governments accountable for the things they do in secret. Now that torture is openly done we can opt to stop, and be a better nation, or accept it as a people and realty go in the wrong path.

Walter, if it is secret, it can be revealed. If it is out in the open and people have come to accept it. How do you stop it?

Thomas Levenson's article sucks. He accuses Jeremy Lord of abusing the definition of the word "lynching", yet his proof sources are criminal codes that do not mention the term.

And the common usage and dictionary references DO, in fact, reference lynching as characteristically employing public hanging.

As ungenerous as Jeremy Lord was to Sherrod, so is Levenson to Lord.

By Gingerbaker (not verified) on 01 Aug 2010 #permalink

The funny thing about the "There are four lights" clip is that it's the part everyone remembers, the heroic moment of Picard triumphing over his opressor.

But to me, the most haunting part of the episode was the final admission, that in the end, he actually thought he saw five lights. In the end, it's not about courage or bravery or strength; everyone breaks eventually.

By Left_Wing_Fox (not verified) on 04 Aug 2010 #permalink

And ... we never actually see how many lights there are at the end. That was a really nice touch about that episode. Did they actually break him? Or did they set up a fifth light to make him think he was broken (much the same thing, from their point of view)?