Hollywood’s glorifications of torture so influenced US soldiers that military officials appealed to producers to tone it down

US Politics
on 12 Comments
Kiefer Sutherland in 24
Kiefer Sutherland in 24

A superb piece by Ron Unz at the American Conservative, on China’s rise and America’s fall, highlights the moral capital we have squandered in foreign adventure.

Unz’s piece is evidence of the realignment in our politics– paleos joining leftists in addressing a foreign policy built by neocons and neolibs– but I found it most searing in its description of how the new Hollywood is far more grotesque than the famously dark Hollywood of the ’50s. No other modern society has so glorified torture, Unz says, and glorifying torture in media has real world consequences. That part is toward the end of the excerpt, with my highlighting. Unz:

Our elites boast about the greatness of our constitutional democracy, the wondrous human rights we enjoy, the freedom and rule of law that have long made America a light unto the nations of the world and a spiritual draw for oppressed peoples everywhere, including China itself. But are these claims actually correct? They often stack up very strangely when they appear in the opinion pages of our major newspapers, coming just after the news reporting, whose facts tell a very different story.

Just last year, the Obama administration initiated a massive months-long bombing campaign against the duly recognized government of Libya on “humanitarian” grounds, then argued with a straight face that a military effort comprising hundreds of bombing sorties and over a billion dollars in combat costs did not actually constitute “warfare,” and hence was completely exempt from the established provisions of the Congressional War Powers Act. A few months later, Congress overwhelmingly passed and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, granting the president power to permanently imprison without trial or charges any American whom he classifies as a national-security threat based on his own judgment and secret evidence. When we consider that American society has experienced virtually no domestic terrorism during the past decade, we must wonder how long our remaining constitutional liberties would survive if we were facing frequent real-life attacks by an actual terrorist underground, such as had been the case for many years with the IRA in Britain, ETA in Spain, or the Red Brigades in Italy.

Most recently, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have claimed the inherent right of an American president to summarily execute anyone anywhere in the world, American citizen or not, whom White House advisors have privately decided was a “bad person.” While it is certainly true that major world governments have occasionally assassinated their political enemies abroad, I have never before heard these dark deeds publicly proclaimed as legitimate and aboveboard. Certainly if the governments of Russia or China, let alone Iran, declared their inherent right to kill anyone anywhere in the world whom they didn’t like, our media pundits would immediately blast these statements as proof of their total criminal insanity.

These are very strange notions of the “rule of law” for the administration of a president who had once served as top editor of the Harvard Law Review and who was routinely flattered in his political campaigns by being described as a “constitutional scholar.”

Many of these negative ideological trends have been absorbed and accepted by the popular culture and much of the American public. Over the last decade one of the highest-rated shows on American television was “24”, created by Joel Surnow and chronicling Kiefer Sutherland as a patriotic but ruthless Secret Service agent, with each episode constituting a single hour of his desperate efforts to thwart terrorist plots and safeguard our national security. Numerous episodes featured our hero torturing suspected evildoers in order to extract the information necessary to save innocent lives, with the entire series representing a popular weekly glorification of graphic government torture on behalf of the greater good.

Now soft-headed protestations to the contrary, most governments around the world have at least occasionally practiced torture, especially when combating popular insurgencies, and some of the more brutal regimes, including Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, even professionalized the process. But such dark deeds done in secret were always vigorously denied in public, and the popular films and other media of Stalin’s Soviet Union invariably featured pure-hearted workers and peasants bravely doing their honorable and patriotic duty for the Motherland, rather than the terrible torments being daily inflicted in the cellars of the Lubyanka prison. Throughout all of modern history, I am not aware of a single even semi-civilized country that publicly celebrated the activities of its professional government torturers in the popular media. Certainly such sentiments would have been totally abhorrent and unthinkable in the “conservative Hollywood” of the Cold War 1950s.

And since we live in a entertainment-dominated society, sentiments affirmed on the screen often have direct real-world consequences. At one point, senior American military and counter-terrorism officials felt the need to travel to Hollywood and urge its screenwriters to stop glorifying American torture, since their shows were encouraging U.S. soldiers to torture Muslim captives even when their commanding officers repeatedly ordered them not to do so.

Given these facts, we should hardly be surprised that international surveys over the past decade have regularly ranked America as the world’s most hated major nation, a remarkable achievement given the dominant global role of American media and entertainment and also the enormous international sympathy that initially flowed to our country following the 9/11 attacks.

More Unz. Check out his analysis that 100,000 “extra” deaths a year in U.S. mortality beginning in the late 90s stemmed from the introduction of Merck’s Vioxx into the market. The drug was blamed for 55,000 deaths; Unz argues it caused far more, and outstrips the Chinese Melamine-infant-formula scandal, but in good ole America. 

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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12 Responses

  1. lysias
    April 26, 2012, 11:10 am

    Would this have happened if the moguls in Hollywood had not been determined to normalize Israel’s dark deeds?

    24, although it did not premiere until after 9/11, had been in production for months before that date.

    • Antidote
      April 28, 2012, 10:28 am

      “Would this have happened if the moguls in Hollywood had not been determined to normalize Israel’s dark deeds?”

      Let’s not confuse chicken and egg. “Contempt for the rule of law is deeply rooted in U.S. practice and intellectual culture. ” (Chomsky)

  2. marc b.
    April 26, 2012, 11:24 am

    not enough attention is paid to the media’s role is transforming society. it’s not just the ’24’ type series, but the proliferation of the forensic series most of which amount to a species of necrophilia. dee-scusting.

    • Chu
      April 26, 2012, 12:14 pm

      Forensic shows proliferated and left us with newer shows where the audience sides with a serial killer, who catches other serial killers. That’s transformational and detrimental.

  3. eljay
    April 26, 2012, 12:38 pm

    >> That’s transformational and detrimental.

    I’ll take a fictional serial killer coping with his obsession by killing (but not torturing) other serial killers over political, religious and media leaders brainwashing society into believing that wars of aggression and the use of torture – among other immoral acts – are just and virtuous deeds that merit unthinking and unwavering support.

    • marc b.
      April 26, 2012, 8:48 pm

      I’ll take a fictional serial killer coping with his obsession by killing (but not torturing) other serial killers over political, religious and media leaders brainwashing society into believing that wars of aggression and the use of torture

      but the two are connected, eljay. the romanticized killers like ‘dexter’ and what’s his face in ‘silence of the lambs’, and the reluctant, morally justified killers like that turd protagonist on ‘breaking bad’ are extensions of the glorified military killers.

      • Mooser
        April 27, 2012, 5:28 pm

        I’ll take a sky, which is ever-changing, and never tries to sell me anything, or grass that grows, or even paint that dries, over anything on TV. Crap, I’ll take my own thoughts in a dark room over TV, and that’s saying something, if you knew what my mind is like. Most people would rather be shot than spend time alone with it.

      • marc b.
        April 27, 2012, 7:07 pm

        you’re right mooser. i argue with myself over the ‘potential’ of TV. but guess what it’s 60 years old, and if it hasn’t lived up to its potential yet, well then.

  4. PeaceThroughJustice
    April 26, 2012, 2:04 pm

    “Would this have happened if the moguls in Hollywood had not been determined to normalize Israel’s dark deeds?”

    Would this have happened if the moguls of Hollywood did not regard gentile society as an adversary?

    About “24”: we’ve already talked on this site about Surnow’s politics–
    link to newyorker.com

    But the show’s co-creator, Howard Gordon, is also Jewish and also an enthiusiastic booster for the back-up homeland.
    link to jewishjournal.com

  5. Keith
    April 26, 2012, 4:41 pm

    It is primarily the entertainment media which create the social mythology which significantly influence reality perception. We live in a militarized warfare state which, to be successful, needs to normalize violence and brutality. The increasing violence in the media suggests that we are going to become an increasingly repressive society as a consequence of neoliberal globalization, with never ending, unpopular wars abroad and police state repression at home.

    An additional factor is the cultivation of a Manichean mindset where “we” are depicted as the “good guys” who are fighting a never ending battle with the “evil other.” We strive to do good, our intentions pure and noble, and if we occasionally are forced to perform despicable deeds it is necessary for the greater good of all. Good deeds by the evil other a cynical ploy to advance evil objectives. For example, it is difficult to imagine Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter engaging in evil acts, whereas, Darth Vader and Lord Valdemort are the very essence of vile evilness. This created social mythology forms the popular mindset which can then be exploited by the news media. Instead of judging people based upon their actions, the media labels people and groups (the new Hitler, etc) and judges them based upon the label.

    All of this is no accident. In a militaristic empire such as ours, there is a constant need to pre-condition the public mind to accept the righteousness and need for the inevitable wars of aggression and other despicable acts that the empire inevitably engages in. Further, the elites need to deceive themselves as well.

    • Mooser
      April 27, 2012, 5:30 pm

      “An additional factor is the cultivation of a Manichean mindset where “we” are depicted as the “good guys” who are fighting a never ending battle with the “evil other.”

      That’s what the movie “The Manichean Cabdidate” was all about.

  6. aiman
    April 27, 2012, 12:40 pm

    Awesome piece.

    Add to this video games like Call of Duty that glorify military violence and war. I recently watched a Youtube clip of Blackwater mercenaries driving over a passing Iraqi woman with relish. The comments were extremely shocking. I remember John Pilger once stating how PR began with Edward Burneys who under the guise of feminism got women to start smoking, called it “torches of freedom”. Media does play a role in shaping attitudes.

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