Before 9/11, fewer than four acts of torture showed up on prime-time television each year, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international human rights organization. But over the last five years, the number of scenes of torture and abuse our kids see has grown into the hundreds, with regular appearances on TV shows like 24, Lost, and Heroes—which are watched by millions of teens and tweens.
Not only has the number of scenes increased, but the torturers have changed. Now, being a torturer no longer automatically makes you a “bad guy”; TV heroes like 24‘s Jack Bauer regularly inflict horrible—and illegal— pain, in the name of patriotism and safety. Which begs the question: What is the impact of these scenes on our kids?
While producers claim that kids know the difference between TV torture and real torture (see Jane Mayer’s excellent New Yorker article), others aren’t so sure. Mayer quotes a report by the Intelligence Science Board (an advisory panel to the U.S. intelligence community) that says “most observers, even those within professional circles, have unfortunately been influenced by the media’s colorful (and artifical) view of interrogations as almost always involving hostility.”
We all know that the media can normalize anti-social behaviors—we see it all the time. But when we show torture as essential to American freedom, we’re sending a message to our kids that needs some course correction.
Here are a few things to discuss with your kids about torture scenes in movies and on television:
Torture is illegal under U.S. and international law. Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told Mayer that “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.”
Ask your kids if they think the law should be sacrificed for security. You can share U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan’s opinions with them. Finnegan, who is dean of West Point Military Academy, has a clear point of view. He thinks that glamorizing torture is “toxic”and that it has affected the training and performance of real American soldiers.
Why do your kids think that there’s never any serious dialogue or moral anguish shown about torture in entertainment? It’s true that some characters question the abusive tactics, but real moral discussions rarely create gripping entertainment. Remind your kids that—irst and foremost—these are TV shows and movies whose entire purpose is to entertain, not enlighten. If a story is made more dramatic by the inclusion of an illegal act of torture, then that’s probably what we, the audience, is going to see.
Take a look at the Web site www.primetimetorture.org. Have your kids look at it. Make sure they really understand what they’re seeing. Then they can decide for themselves what they think about the tactics shown in so many popular shows.
By Liz Perle