Surfing the Spectacle

That Which Entertains


In its extraordinary tale of urban insurrection, the 1967 film Battle of Algiers considers with unblinking eye the brutalities humans inflict upon one another. Sentiment is largely exhausted. Each side coolly regards its violence as utterly justified.

The film features a brief sequence on torture, as French colonial forces interrogate Muslim prisoners. The montage is played out as human tragedy. A witness to the torture, perhaps another prisoner, silently weeps at the degradation. The filmmaker intends that the viewer himself may be just such a witness.

But, alas, who now sheds a tear for such things?


The torture in Battle of Algiers may remind us of certain interrogations the American government has presided over in recent years.

Perhaps we shall not call these interrogations torture, because we are told by the highest of sources that America does not torture.


Torture is something only our enemies do. It’s a barbaric practice, part of the Inquisition and the Dark Ages.


Back then, torture was frequently a public spectacle. Normal folk were given the privilege to observe the piercings, the burnings, the gore, the screaming and, finally, when the time was just right, the grand demise. It was entertainment.

That impulse hasn’t vanished. Our public seems to have an appetite for vivid depictions of pain, fear and sadistic control. Amid such impulses, there seems to be an enduring fetish for the mutilation of the body.


Hollywood is only too glad to feed that appetite. The torturer’s secret twin is now the filmmaker who controls elements of suffering and pain with the precision of a sadist. The exquisite realism of modern cinema adds to the heightened authenticity. You, the viewer, can feel utterly immersed in the torture chamber.

There is no cause for alarm. We remain a culture of deep values. For instance, in the realm of network television where one character may slowly butcher another, we should remember that it is strictly forbidden for anyone to utter the word “shit.”


Torture, after all, can be a very good thing. In the last few years, the celebrated network series 24 has showcased some 67 incidents of torture. While some of the torturers are evil and debased foreign terrorists, much of the torture comes at the hands of the “good guys” who show great enthusiasm and skill in the wielding of unbearable pain.

The good guys have no choice. Jack Bauer, the heroic government agent played by Kiefer Sutherland, is locked in an epic battle against domestic terrorists. He must torture. Otherwise the terrorists will kill us all. Torture, we are shown again and again, forces the enemy to confess their deadly plans.

Patrick Finnegan has a problem with this. He’s an Army U.S. Brigadier General and dean of West Point. Accompanied by top Army and FBI interrogators, General Finnegan recently paid a visit to the TV show, delivering a message to the show’s producers: Cut the crap.


It turns out the show’s image of torture is nothing more than a chickenhawk’s wet dream. General Finnegan told 24’s producers that the brutal acts they depict are illegal, psychotic and simply do not work in the real world.

Evidence had been accumulating that inexperienced army interrogators were imitating the actions they saw on the show. The general finds this development alarming. Moreover, he said that he saw no advantage in having the world think that American officers and officials are, more or less, viciously insane.


Speaking of chickhawks, Joel Surnow (above), rightwing creator of 24, couldn’t actually be bothered to meet with the General’s delegation. Surnow said, “They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that.”

So that’s that.

Jane Mayer has an interesting video essay about this story on the New Yorker website (click here to view the video and here to read original essay). It’s instructive that, despite her reporting, Mayer remains a staunch fan of the show. She finds it riveting.


As we sit before our televised scenes of torture, breathlessly witnessing inventive displays of human terror and degradation, we might take solace in knowing that we’re not truly delighting in human suffering. It’s just entertainment.

It’s just make believe.

It doesn’t mean anything at all.

[The Abu Ghraib image is from Fernando Botero. The Bush cartoon is by Bill Day of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. Information about the billboard can be found here. And click here for a short video on 24 by the Primetime Torture Project.]

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