June 8, 2007

Surveillance & Torture

Category: Television :: Permalink

For the past couple of days, I’ve been blogging about my reactions to Alias, as well as to 24 and Lost.  I’d been planning to blog about these things for some time, and in particular about the topic of torture, but I discovered that my friend and former elder Dale Callahan beat me to it.  So you can read his blog or you can just keep reading mine ’cause I’m going to steal some of what he said and run with it.

Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch any of these shows, you’ll probably want to stop reading at this point.

I hadn’t thought about it a lot until I read Dale’s blog entry, but I had noticed in several episodes of Alias that the CIA guys were able to track people and find their location by using all kinds of surveillance equipment.  Somehow, their computers were able to tap into ATM cameras and cameras on traffic lights and security cameras and satellite cameras.  A guy would detect the bug they planted on him and throw it away, but they’d find him almost instantly, thanks to Marshall’s computer geek genius, by using one of these cameras.

Now I recognize that a lot of this is science fiction.  Alias, after all, was a science fiction show, whether its fans recognized it as such or not.  What else was all that Rambaldi stuff if not science fiction bordering on fantasy?  And the fact that they could download things from the villains’ computers in just a few minutes and never have the computer hang up with a little hourglass on the screen the way mine does so often — what was that if not sheer science fiction?  (And did you ever notice that computer screens on TV never look the way they do in real life?  The font is always huge so that you, the viewer, can read it.)

But this surveillance stuff is also science fiction, I think.  I don’t believe that the CIA or anyone else can track people quite as well as they did on Alias.  At least … I hope they can’t, though Google Maps Street View is causing some people some concern.

And there’s the rub.  As we watch the show, we’re supposed to be glad that such technology exists.  It helps people catch criminals, right?  It helps APO find the guys who’ve kidnapped Sydney.  We want the good guys to be able to track the bad guys.

But at what cost?  At the cost of the loss of privacy for countless people?  After watching a show like Alias, it’s not too hard for me to imagine face recognition software associated with a surveillance system installed in a home.  Of course, the technology would be expensive at first, but maybe not forever.  Cameras in your house would survey everything in the home, maybe sending images to a security company’s big computer where the face-recognition program would verify that the person in the house was you or your wife or your son or an authorized guest … or someone the system didn’t know.  It would store all those images, and then if you reported that something had been stolen while you were out, the system would spit out the images of everyone who was in the house during the time of the robbery.

Sounds great, right?  If a study showed that such a system reduced home invasions significantly, would you want one?  Maybe some people would.  I, on the other hand, wouldn’t want cameras taking pictures of me and my family and sending them to other people, no matter how “safe” it would make my house.  I want to preserve my privacy, not just my possessions.

But shows like Alias, I suspect, may be getting us used to the idea of constant surveillance.  We no longer flinch when we hear about traffic cameras on street lights.  The fact that our picture is being taken at an ATM or that we’re being videotaped by a store’s security camera doesn’t phase us at all anymore.

In short, we’re learning to live without the privacy that previous generations took for granted, not because someone is trying to persuade us that such privacy is bad and that constant surveillance is good but because our entertainment shows us the benefits of that surveillance in terms of the show we’re watching.  We know the guys in that car are bad because they just kidnapped the main character and so they don’t have the right to privacy.  But the technology that would take away theirs so that they can be caught also takes away ours.

In his blog entry, Dale also talks about torture and that’s what has bothered me for some time about Lost, 24, and, most recently for me, Alias.  When Sayid, who used to be a torturer, plied his trade on Sawyer in the first season of Lost, it was disturbing, not only to me but also to Sayid himself who didn’t want to go back to the evil he had left behind.  But by the second season, Sayid seemed to overcome those qualms.  And he wasn’t alone.  Others joined him in tormenting a man whom they thought was one of “the Others,” but who claimed to be an innocent man stranded, like them, on the island. 

And never mind what the outcome was.  It’s not as if torture becomes wrong only at the point when you discover you’re torturing an innocent person, nor is it the case that torture becomes justified if you discover the person you’re torturing really is guilty.  On Lost, they didn’t know if the man was guilty or not but they tortured him anyway.  And even if he had been one of “the Others,” what crime had he committed to warrant the torture?

But torture is relatively rare on Lost.  It’s common in Alias and 24.  Time and again, the good guys want or need information from someone and so they torture him to get it.  Never mind that people who are being tortured have been known to lie to escape from pain and that torture is not necessarily a reliable means for extracting truth, in these shows the quick way to get accurate information is by torturing someone.  The need (or desire) for that information overrides the person’s rights — he gets no phone call, no lawyer, no trial — and appears to justify any outrage that the “good guy” perpetrates.

“But,” you might say, “the guy being tortured really is guilty!  Weren’t you watching?  He’s the guy who kidnapped the girl and she’s buried alive and unless they get him to tell them where she is, she’ll die!”

Yeah, you know that.  But Jack Bauer doesn’t.  As Dale Callahan points out,

One of the subtle tricks that television plays on us is that it gives the viewer a type of divinity.

We watch the behind the scenes “dirty stuff” that even the characters in the show are not privy to. This means that “we” know that the dirt bag in the back room is guilty…we saw him in the last episode planning to plant the bomb or whatever slime ball activity he was doing…so when we see the torture instruments getting pulled out…we tend to justify it…because…hey the guy is guilty…right?

But in the eyes of Jack Bauer…or the other CTU agents…they didn’t see the guy planning…they are just assuming his guilt…and violating his rights as a U.S citizen…as most of the viewers [many who are U.S citizens] nod their heads in approval…

But what about the fact that the torture leads to the rescue of many people who might otherwise have died?

First, I doubt that people who are being tortured in those kinds of circumstances always blurt out the truth, so that information extracted through torture isn’t necessarily reliable.  If the guy tells you where the person he buried alive is located, you’ll stop torturing him.  But you’ll stop if he lies, too, at least until you find out that he lies.  But by then, it’s probably too late.

Or do you keep torturing him for a while, to see if his story stays consistent?  What if he was telling the truth all along?  Does the concern to make sure he’s telling the truth justify the prolonged torture after he blurted out the location?

Second, but even more importantly, this argument boils down to a claim that the end justifies the means.  The torture, the argument is saying, is valid because it leads to something that we, the viewers of the show, think is good.  But ends don’t justify means.  Sin is not legitimate if it leads to something genuinely good.  If you commit adultery with someone’s wife and she reveals to you her plot to murder him and so you’re able to rescue him, the adultery is still sin, no matter how much good comes out of it.

And where do you draw the line?  I don’t know how much torture I’d be able to take.  As William Cavanaugh says, “It should be clear that resistance to torture and refusal to talk belong almost exclusively to the realm of movies and cheap novels, not to the modern reality of the secret police apparatus” (Torture and Eucharist, p. 38n48).  Everybody talks.

But even if I could hold out if someone tortured me, would I hold out if someone threatened to torture my wife or daughter?  Suppose the kidnapper who has the girl buried alive could hold out for three hours before talking.  By then, the girl might be dead.  Would it be legitimate to torture the man’s wife or child to get him to talk right now so that the girl could be rescued? 

Or what about the technique used by the character Rorschach in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, who solves crimes by going to a seedy bar where criminal types hang out and starts breaking fingers until someone talks, confessing guilt, revealing important information, passing on a story he heard, or naming someone who might know more.  Is it a big leap from Rorschach to Jack Bauer?

The kind of surveillance presented in Alias and 24 is still, I think, science fiction.  At least, I hope it is.  And even if the technology develops, not everyone can access it as quickly as Marshall does in Alias.  But the more we see it on these sorts of shows, the more we may become used to the idea of being under constant (potential) surveillance.

But unlike this sophisticated surveillance, the kind of torture we’re being led to approve in these shows has been going on for a long time, and not just among the people we’re expected to think of as “bad guys.”  Even back in the 1960s, the United States had men such as Dan Mitrione training the Brazilian miltary regime in torture, “using beggars taken off the streets as his subjects” (Cavanaugh 24n5).  I don’t know if everything in this Wikipedia article is accurate, but it’s extremely disturbing.  There’s been an outcry about the kinds of torture practiced in places like Abu Ghraib.  We may be disgusted by the reports we hear.

But on our televisions, Jack Bauer and Jack Bristow and others whom we treat as heroes practice torture and we are expected to approve it because it gets the job done, because someone we care about is rescued as a result, because the good end is supposed to justify whatever means brought it about.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I’ve recommended 24 to people.  I haven’t seen any of the recent seasons, but I can imagine enjoying a lot of things in them.  I’ve enjoyed many episodes of Alias.  But I’m disturbed by the subtle endorsements of evil and what Dale calls the “mental conditioning” in these shows.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:39 pm | Discuss (8)

8 Responses to “Surveillance & Torture”

  1. Andy Packer Says:

    When many of the candidates at the first Republican debate said they would use torture the crowd cheered. And Tancredo even said he would want a Jack Bauer. It makes me wonder how much the torture on 24 and other shows has influenced the thinking of people on this issue – even our elected officials.

  2. Paul Baxter Says:

    You are going to need to convince me that privacy as such should be considered a good by Christians before I get too upset by the loss of it.

    I do understand that there can be ancillary concerns, that information being gathered CAN be used for harm and evil. I’m just not on board yet for thinking that there is such a right as privacy that is worth defending. But then again I’m not much into rights theory anyway.

  3. John Says:

    I can’t tell you how much that disgusts me, Andy. It’s really sad.

    As for privacy, Paul, I think you’d agree that some degree of privacy is a good.

    Would you think it fine for the US government to install surveillance equipment in your bedroom to watch you and your wife? Would you want your next door neighbours watching the two of you? If you say “No,” then I submit that you’ve established my point.

    Now I’m not all that concerned about a camera at an ATM recording me as I withdraw my money. But I do think that viewing constant surveillance (or the potential of it) as a good is questionable and it’s worth thinking about how TV shows are opening us to it so that we approve it without thinking.

  4. Paul Baxter Says:

    I think you need to do considerably more than that to establish your point. There are only a relatively few portions of my life for which I really think privacy/secrecy is really important to any extent, and those generally involve nakedness of some sort. And I don’t particularly care that someone knows THAT I use the bathroom, take showers or have sex with my wife, I just don’t want to be exposed in my nakedness.

    OTOH, things I do out of the house are, to my way of thinking, intrinsically public. I think a great deal of harm is done by treating public activities as if they should be kept secret. It helps create a sort of ring of gyges situation where people feel enabled to do wrong since it is impossible (they think) to be caught or punished for doing so.

    I don’t see how protecting our naked moments necessarily leads to a defense of a doctrine of privacy. I know I’m very anti-american on this point, but, as Luther would say, unless you can show me from scripture where I err, I refuse to recant 🙂

  5. John Says:

    Okay, I can grant your point that when I’m naked in the house that’s private but when I’m walking in the street it’s public and so people can watch me doing it.

    I have no problem with people watching me walk past their house. What creeps me out, I guess, is the thought that someone could watch me all the time, tracking me or viewing me no matter where I go. And when it comes to peeking in my windows and watching me in the house, even if I’m not naked, well, that really creeps me out.

    Perhaps that isn’t an argument that proves anything. But I suspect many of us feel this way, which is why stalking is regarded as a problem.

    Girls don’t like it when guys they’ve met once suddenly start following them around, even if the guy is only watching them. I’d feel the same way, and the fact that it might be someone from the government wouldn’t make me feel any less uncomfortable.

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughts, Paul. We’re watching you.

  6. Paul Baxter Says:


  7. Dale Callahan Says:

    Hi John,

    I know that you and I agree that we have no problem with the idea of God viewing us at all times…because HE is just, He is love, He is everything good and He works all things together for our [those who love Him] good.

    My problem is having someone without God’s wonderful, unchanging attributes having tabs on me 24/7. Sure, it is fine and dandy while the powers that be are on your side…or I guess it would be you being on their side, but what happens when it becomes criminal to be a Christian or to oppose a certain political view?

    If the church can’t play the role of the “coveteous police” then why should the civil government be allowed to try and inmitate this divine attribute?

  8. alastair.adversaria » Links Says:

    […] John also has some very interesting observations from David Jenkins, the former bishop of Durham (part 1, part 2). John also has a very good post on the subject of Christian children. ***R. Scott Clark on ‘Baptism, Election and the Covenant of Grace’. If nothing else, one has to be impressed with Clark’s chutzpah in distinguishing Lutherans from Protestants. Those terrible Lutherans, suggesting that Baptism actually does something! ***John Piper’s The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright will probably be released in November. ***There is a pre-publication special offer for Logos Bible Software’s electronic version of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God. ***I am encouraged. I thought that I read too many blogs. However, I only have about 250 blog feeds on Bloglines; Macht has about 550. If you don’t already use a feed aggregator like Bloglines, I strongly suggest that you start. It makes blog reading so much quicker and easier. ***Cooking for Engineers [HT: Peter Roberts] ***John Barach discusses Alias, strong male figures in popular TV shows and the manner in which shows such as Alias and 24 can desensitize us to surveillance and torture. As a fan of LOST and 24 (although my faith in both shows has taken a bit of a beating over the last season) and someone who has watched most of the first couple of seasons of Alias, I find that I agree with many of John’s observations. ***Please pray for the Presbyteer’s church. ***Some helpful productivity advice [HT: Mark Horne] ***From lifehacker: […]

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