The number of scenes of torture on TV shows is significantly higher than it was five years ago and the characters who torture have changed. It used to be that only villains on television tortured. Today, "good guy" and heroic American characters torture—and this torture is depicted as necessary, effective and even patriotic.These facts motivated Human Rights First to launch Primetime Torture, a website investigating pop culture depictions of interrogation. The project looks at shows such as 24, Lost, and Alias. In a video clip on the site, former U.S. Army Interrogator Tony Lagouranis says that official Pentagon rules of engagement encouraged interrogators to "be creative." In the absence of useful training and guidelines, pop culture became a source of such creativity.
It would be overwhelming to debate every day the ticking time bomb scenario and other questions of torture (as the Carnegie Council did in 2005 with an expert panel). But TV and film wield impressive rhetorical power in this debate through their wide reach, continuous broadcasting, and endless reruns and rentals. The danger is that these media are nonparticipatory and not self-reflective—you can't argue with them and they rarely analyze their own coverage and trends.
The "violence in the media induces violence in real life" hypothesis may never be definitively resolved, but art imitates life and vice versa. Our narratives and public discourse define us. Television didn't mature into the educational platform many envisioned, but it is always teaching and it is always on.