Human Rights First has developed a project called Primetime Torture that seeks to limit the negative impact television has on the way U.S. troops operate by:
We are developing training materials to educate junior soldiers about why the way torture is portrayed on television should not be imitated. The training materials include a 20-minute video that combines scenes of torture and cruel treatment from popular television shows with interviews from seasoned interrogators, script writers and cultural critics as well as a written discussion guide written by former interrogators.
Talking to the creative community in Hollywood
Human Rights First has reached out to writers, producers, studio executives, actors and others with creative control to talk to them about the way torture is presented on TV. As part of this, we are introducing seasoned interrogators to Hollywood and encouraging writers and producers to utilize former interrogators as a resource.
Human Rights First has also created the following recommendations to creators of popular culture who are writing scenes about interrogation:
1. Depict torture, but condemn it – and the torturer.
Historically, the American military has viewed torture as unacceptable: not only does torture practiced by Americans undermine the United States’ role as a champion of human rights, it also puts captured Americans at greater risk of torture and limits the U.S. government’s ability to criticize or punish such treatment.
U.S. interrogators say that not only is torture illegal and immoral, it is also ineffective as an interrogation tactic – because it is unreliable. Moreover, evidence gained through torture is inadmissible in court – and therefore unusable for prosecuting alleged terrorists or criminals.
In depicting interrogation scenes, writers might consider having respected characters condemn acts of torture or question the morality, the consequences, and the efficacy of abuse when used as an interrogation technique. Characters who torture should be criticized and ostracized.
It would also be helpful for writers to consider having only villains – or characters of questionable ethics – torture to elicit information, and then to have the abuse prove ineffective in producing actionable intelligence. Certainly, Americans – and American heroes in particular – should not torture.
2. Show that torture is unreliable and ineffective.
Torture, as it is performed by American characters on television, regularly
produces reliable information – and quite quickly. When writing
about interrogation, writers might consider creating scenes that more accurately
mirror reality: showing that torture often incapacitates suspects (or
kills them); that innocent people are often mistakenly tortured; or that victims
of torture provide false information.
3. Show the consequences of torture – physical
On television today, torture has few consequences for the torturer and the tortured. Interrogators report, however, that the physical and psychological effects of torture are profound – that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for those who torture or are tortured to resume normal life quickly as they do on television.
Writers might consider showing the psychological dimensions of those who treat others inhumanely, and the real physical and psychological costs to those who are tortured.
4. Have heroes use legal techniques.
For decades American soldiers and police officers have gleaned valuable information from suspects without torturing them. There are textbooks full of legal interrogation techniques – techniques with great dramatic possibilities.
Writers might consider speaking to experienced military and FBI interrogators about the range of psychological and dramatic situations faced in real-life interrogations.
5. Remember that American popular culture is exported widely around the world.
With the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo fresh in people’s minds, exporting the glorification of torture by American military and police personnel further tarnishes America’s image in the world.
At a moment when there is an active policy debate in the United States about legalizing coercive interrogation, writers might consider the effect on America’s image – and soldiers’ safety – of creating interrogation scenes that celebrate Americans torturing without legal consequences.
6. Understand the impact of perpetuating the “ticking time bomb” scenario.
Since the attacks of September 11, there has been an effort to change U.S. interrogation policy so that abuse is permissible in certain circumstances; the so-called “ticking time bomb” scenario is often raised as such a circumstance. Experienced interrogators say that the ticking time bomb scenario is so exceptional it is all but mythical: interrogators rarely, if ever, are certain that a suspect in custody knows the details of an imminent attack and that torture would work to elicit that information.
The ticking time bomb scenario, however, has been firmly lodged in the public debate as likely and common. Opinion polls show that Americans – who once thought torture unacceptable – now believe torture may be warranted in certain circumstances.
Because the ticking time bomb scenario is a powerful dramatic device, it
is used regularly, even disproportionately, in television interrogation scenes;
this contributes to the false idea that such a scenario is common. Writers
might consider balancing ticking time bomb scenes with other scenarios. This
way, writers will not perpetuate the idea that this situation is commonplace
and effectively addressed by torture.