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Torture and Culture

Thanks to the “War on Terror” the topic of torture is much more front and center than it was in the past.  As life mirrors art, I’ve noticed that popular culture has picked up on it.

In movies and television, torture has become an increasingly prevalent piece of plots. Jack Bauer, hero of the long running show, 24, has regularly used it to get answers and even supposed unexpected everyman hero, MIT educated, Sean Walker of The Event has used torture to get answers.

With real life and art showing torture so prevalently…is it any surprise that more than half of all American teens condone torture?

What’s most interesting is that it wasn’t always like that. We didn’t always glorify it or even condone it.

I just finished watching an old Star Trek the Next Generation episode that addressed torture head on and was far from supportive of the practice. In the episode, Captain Picard is captured by an alien race and tortured for answers. He refuses to break down and repeatedly discusses the ethics and effectiveness of torture. In the end, once he’s free, he admits to the ship’s counselor that after the torture not only was he willing to tell them anything they wanted, he thought he *saw* what they told him to see. (The episode is called “Chain of Command” and you can find an awesome article examining the episode on Slate here.)

As art can also mirror life, it’s well worth noting a practice from World War II. At Fort Hunt, high level German prisoners were subjected to chess, ping pong and steak dinners. Shockingly, these prisoners befriended their captors and divulge massive quantities of highly accurate information. Learn more about the incredible story here.

Our military’s practice of torture is only further enabled by our cultural embrace of its supposed effectiveness. The survey of teens shows that we may be more impressionable than we like to believe. I’m genuinely concerned for the implications of our future where the majority of people embrace practices so contradictory to our founding principles of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

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