Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why I hate torture in fiction

    In the 1971 Dirty Harry movie, Scorpio kidnaps, rapes, and buries alive a teenage girl. When Scorpio refuses to reveal the location of the girl, Callahan tortures the killer by standing on his wounded leg. Scorpio confesses, but the police are too late to save the girl.

    A variant of this scene has played out in hundreds of movies and tv shows. It's not always a girl whose time is running out. Sometimes it's terrorists who have hidden a bomb. Other times it's, I dunno, the location of a drug lord who is going to escape after killing a bunch of people.

    The actual reason for it doesn't matter, the point is the hero needs to get answers from a guy quickly. So, he beats or whatever the suspect until he talks. Unlike in the above example, this method usually works and the hero is proven to be a hard man making hard decisions.
    God, I hate when this happens.

    Part of this is the reality subtext. Torture is a somewhat questionable resource in real life. Yes, if you happen to have caught someone with reliable intelligence, beating it out of them seems like a good way of acquiring information. The problem is that television rarely depicts the inherent problems. I'll avoid talking about the real life use of torture and instead talk about why it annoys me in fiction.

    The first problem is that an intelligent suspect will usually realize that if he gives up information under torture he's screwed. Let's go with Scorpio, above. By confessing to kidnapping, rape, and murder there's no real place for him to go except the gas chamber.

    In Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington, the leader of a local gang confesses to trying to kill a little girl under threat from the hero who loves her. What does he think is going to happen to him now? Doesn't he realize that confession has sealed his fate? According to Hollywood, no.

    In the case of low level bad guys, this makes sense. They're not going to be thinking too clearly. However, when you're dealing with a major villain, the whole idea that they're going to fold like a deck of cards seems rather silly. Obviously, if the heroes cut a deal with the villains, it's going to feel problematic as well. Still, there's a reason why detective work and talking killers are so popular. Even the later feels more authentic to me.

    Next, there's the problem of the fact that torture always seems to work even with fanatics. In your stereotypical 24-esque scenario, our heroes torture an Al-Qaeda operative into revealing where he's placed a nuclear bomb.

    Call me crazy but, really, what prevents the operative from sending the heroes on a wild goose chase? They don't know whether the bomb is located under a high school (it's actual location) or a sports arena (something off the top of his head).

     Then there's the issue that torture requires you to already have managed to capture someone who knows something important. Yes, it's more dramatic to have to interrogate someone than find a note which gives you the evidence to find what you need but I think that's mostly a matter of writing. You can make finding evidence dramatic and it's equally possible to get suspects to give up information without assuming beating it out of them will work.

    Finally, it's just so overplayed. It's not really a hard decision to torture a guy who know to be bad. In real life, I don't support the death penalty. It's not because I think serial killers or terrorists should live, it's because I am deeply suspicious that the people sent to die are going to be 100% guilty. If you're going to torture someone in your fiction, maybe you should be willing to go the extra step and have it not work for your hero.

    I think Dirty Harry makes an excellent use of torture by our protagonist because it's not effective. Callahan gets Scorpio to cough up the girl's location but it doesn't do any good and results in the killer getting off scott free.

    There's also the inherent fact torture isn't particularly courageous and is, in fact, somewhat cowardly. A hero who manages to stand up under torture or endure it for a short time like Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part 2 is a character who wins our respect. The torturer, on the other hand, is not endangering himself. Torture, inherently, is done from a position of power.

    A hero who engages in it just shows the audience he's willing to be a bully. We forgive Callahan because he's torturing the guy out of desperation and rage, not because we think it's going to get results.

    I think it'd be more interesting to read about one of those heroic 'hard men making hard decisions' torturing a guy for information only to find out he genuinely didn't know or was innocent. It doesn't change the fact he's doing it for a 'good' reason but it's something different and shows the dangers of the practice.

    My .02.

1 comment:

  1. I've recently used torture in my fiction. And I did wrestle with all these issues. I didn't depict the torture, but strongly suggested that my character Benji had used certain tactics to gain information. Benji's major purpose within the organization depicted is to interrogate--not always torture, but methodical steps that are never revealed, leaving the reader to wonder how or why he gained some information but not all. How he cracked one man, but couldn't crack another.

    The conversation involving the torture . . . I cut a lot of this from the novel, but left the crusty-eyed Searson as a suggestion that torture might have taken place.

    I think it's important to be careful and weigh things all around. It is also more authentic to fail and succeed, fail and succeed. Not everything works on every man. Not every criminal will be the same criminal. Not every situation will be the same situation.

    I'd be VERY concerned with an author advocating torture in the narrative.