Jonah Goldberg looks to pop culture as a barometer of American values and concludes that many of the abhorrent practices revealed in the 2004 IG report on CIA interrogations will not be considered outrageous by the modal citizen:
I’ve long been fascinated with the disconnect between what pundits, politicians and various activist groups complain about and the status of interrogation techniques in the popular culture (here’s a column I did on the subject in 2005). In countless films and TV shows the good guys — not the bad guys — do things to get important information that makes all some [see update] of the harsh methods and allegedly criminal techniques in the IG report seem like an extra scoop of ice cream and a Swedish massage. In NYPD Blue, The Wire, The Unit, 24 and on and on, suspects are beaten, threatened, terrified. In some instances they are simply straight-up tortured. In movies, too, this stuff is commonplace. In Patriot Games, Harrison Ford shot a man in the kneecap to get the information he needed in a timely manner. In Rules of Engagement, Samuel L. Jackson shot a POW in the head to get another man to talk. In Guarding Tess, Nick Cage blows off a wimpy little man’s toes until he talks. In The Untouchables Sean Connery conducts a mock execution.
Now, I know I will get a lot of “it’s just a movie” or “TV shows aren’t real” email from people. At least I have every other time I’ve made this point. So let me concede a point I’ve never disputed while making one these folks don’t seem to grasp. If such practices, in the contexts depicted, were as obviously and clearly evil as many on the left claim, Hollywood could never get away with having the good guys employ them. Harrison Ford in the Tom Clancy movies would never torture wholly innocent and underserving victims for the same reasons he wouldn’t beat his kids or hurl racial epithets at black people. But given sufficient time to lay out the context and inform the viewers of the stakes, as well as Ford’s motives, the audience not only understands but applauds his actions. Of course it’s just a movie. But the movie is tapping into and reflecting the popular moral sentiments. Think of these scenes as elaborate hypothetical situations in the debate about torture and interrogation that are acted out and played before focus groups of normal Americans.
This has a certain surface plausibility, but I don’t think it holds up under scrutiny. Hollywood gets us to sympathize with and root for all sorts of protagonists who, in the real world, we would regard as moral monsters who should be in prison at the very least, and probably on death row. A quick list off the top of my head: Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega; Mr. White and Mr. Pink; the team of con artists on Hustle; Tony Soprano; Omar Little; Spike from Buffy; Jayne Cobb on Firefly; Leon the Professional; The Punisher; Wikus van de Merwe in District 9; Danny Ocean of the eponymous 12, 11, and 13; the homicidal grad students in The Last Supper. You can probably add a dozen more with a few minutes thought. We had better hope fiction isn’t a reliable guide to our moral intuitions, because with a tub of popcorn and some Milk Duds in hand, we routinely cheer thieves, thugs, and murderous sociopaths provided they’re kind to children and puppies or make a habit of mostly killing or victimizing mean people, or seem like maybe they’re sorry about that whole “lifetime of causing mayhem and suffering,” or frankly just dress stylishly and seem kind of badass. Maybe we don’t regard most of these as “good guys,” exactly, but redemption typically comes cheap, and a characters often do a face-heel turn on a dime.
Jonah’s argument gets its whiff of plausibility from the observation that there are some things a sympathetic character—and certainly not a “hero” character—really can’t do. We’ll accept the cold-blooded killer with a heart of gold or the costumed crimefighter who maims petty crooks and pisses on due process, but you won’t usually see the (white) good guy drop an N-bomb or smack his kids. Why is that? Well, why are parents often a lot more worried about cinematic sex than violence and gore? Well, probably because little Timmy is a lot more likely to have occasion to emulate James Bond’s penchant for bedhopping than his prowess with a Walther PPK. Similarly, people who use racist language or mistreat their children are “real” to us—part of our actual social worlds—in a way that hitmen, suave mobsters, and tough-guy cops who make their own rules just ain’t. So we can identify with the latter in full-bore fantasy mode, reveling in their power and freedom from constraint, without triggering our normal moral reactions—provided they don’t actually do something repugnant that we could realistically imagine ourselves or people we know doing in real life. Look, I think Batman is awesome too. This is not a reliable guide to my feelings about the Fourth Amendment.
Update: Radley Balko hits some of the same notes, and adds his bemusement that Jonah now appears to think Hollywood is reflective of authentic American values. Meanwhile, down in the comments, Rick Russell makes the sound point that there’s a certain fictional circularity at work when we wink at the strongarm tactics of cinematic heroes: That is to say, we don’t worry quite as much about whether the good guy’s actions are morally justifiable because as omniscient viewers, we’re sure they’ve got the right baddie, and anyway they’re the good guys, so of course whatever they’re doing is justified. (Again, it’s a lot easier to fall back on the “they’re the good guy” heuristic when we’re talking about actions far removed from our practical experience or the day-to-day demands placed on our moral senses.)
That said, let me flip Radley’s ironic point and put on my conservative media scold hat for a minute here. It may actually be socially harmful that we’re now so acclimated to and comfortable with these portrayals of anti-authoritarian authority figures who don’t have any patience for rules and regulations, who don’t hold up the action with search warrant applications and Miranda warnings, because the entertainment industry has discovered that these types of law enforcement agents make for more exciting drama and more thrilling power fantasies.