Watch "Primetime Torture" — a 14-minute film produced by Human Rights First that explores the way torture and interrogation are portrayed on TV. The film features scenes from some of TV's most popular shows and interviews with seasoned interrogators, military educators and Hollywood screenwriters.
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The Problem: Torture on TV on the Rise
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.
Jack Bauer, the hero of FOX’s 24 regularly tortures people to elicit information. In this scene, he barges in on a “soft” interrogation, shoots the suspect and gets credible info in 20 seconds.
In this scene, from ABC’s Alias, Jack Bristow jabs a needle into the neck of a woman and threatens to administer a lethal dose of chemicals to her if she does not talk.
In this scene from ABC’s Lost, two heroes use torture to get Sawyer, a morally compromised character, to talk. On TV, torture almost always works.
In this scene from NBC’s Law & Order, Detective Fontana threatens to drown a kidnapper by repeatedly dunking his head in the toilet bowl. As a result of the abuse, the kidnapper cracks and tells Fontana where he hid the little girl.
In interviews with former interrogators and retired military leaders, Human Rights First learned that the portrayal of torture in popular culture is having an undeniable impact on how interrogations are conducted in the field. U.S. soldiers are imitating the techniques they have seen on television – because they think such tactics work. Listen to former interrogators describe the problem.
Human Rights First has published two reports outlining the scope of abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody. One report, By the Numbers, which Human Rights First co-authored with other organizations, outlines the widespread nature of the abuse. A second report, Command’s Responsibility, addresses the issue of deaths of prisoners in U.S. custody.
Hollywood writers, of course, did not create the environment that led to the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere; the U.S. government created this environment by authorizing coercive interrogation techniques, departing from the long-held absolute ban on torture and cruel treatment, suspending the Geneva Conventions, and by assigning soldiers to tasks for which they were not trained.
Human Rights First has launched a project that seeks to limit the impact
TV has on the way interrogations are conducted in the field and also the way
Americans view torture. Working with military educators and prominent Hollywood
producers and writers, Human Rights First is developing a training film aimed
at educating junior soldiers about the differences between what they see on TV
and the way they ought to act in the field. Human Rights First is also working
to encourage those with control over creative content in Hollywood to consider
portraying torture in a more nuanced, more responsible fashion.
Human Rights First created this award to honor a TV program that self-consciously uses the medium to raise awareness about a human rights problem. This year, we are giving the award to a TV show that depicts torture and interrogation in a nuanced, realistic fashion.