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

US Politics
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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. 

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