Vengeance is Ours

Posted: February 14, 2007 in Culture, Ethics

Ezra Klein has a brief analysis of the way we view heroes and their methods in the post-9/11 world. The linchpin is this data from an article in the Los Angeles Times:

From 1996 to 2001, there were 102 scenes of torture, according to the Parents Television Council. But from 2002 to 2005, that figured had jumped to 624, they said. “24” has accounted for 67 such scenes during its first five seasons ….

Klein compares the protagonist in “24,” Jack Bauer, to the heroes of comic books, and surely enough, the comments from comics fanboys immediately and gleefully dissect comic book heroes in light of Klein’s analysis. (That’s more entertainment for comics enthusiasts but misses Klein’s point, I think.) Klein’s ideas are pretty good, but I find it rather telling that his analysis never goes beyond fiction to actual examples of torture, questionable heroes, or the attitudes underlying the Patriot Act and the so-called Torture Act.

I’ve written before on how pragmatism is the new idealism, how we’ve gotten too comfortable with the idea that ends justify means. Well, it’s not just fiction served up for our entertainment. It’s now a full-blown ideal that informs politics and policy. What’s unclear to me is whether it’s an idea put into practice by the powerful, eventually filtered down to the masses, or an expression of the Zeitgeist that has percolated up to the board room, the legislative chamber, and the Oval Office. Either way, it’s clear that vengeance is ours to own and use to motivate and justify in real life some of our worst, most atrocious behaviors. The argument usually goes that the stakes are just too high to play fairly, that we can’t afford the time and exposure necessary to go through proper channels, operate within the law, and act with restraint. We must have whatever it is that we want right now! It can’t wait. And to enable that, any notions of propriety are simply too quaint to be bothered with.

Back to fictional depictions, David Mamet’s movie Spartan is a rather chilling depiction of what it means to act brutally and lawlessly in pursuit of an objective. However, the various characters each have their own conflicting objectives, and the putative hero has no problem torturing, killing, and sacrificing others to achieve his mission, which was paradoxically rather idealistic. And afterwards, there are the spin-doctors to package it for the news. What struck me was that the chaos, mayhem, and waste of all that unrestrained hubris is probably closer to reality than we would like to admit.

Thinking of the 1950s, even Joe McCarthy in all his paranoia still had a gentlemanly manner about him. Indeed, the cold warriors of that era were not marked by the high level of outright hate of some of our current political activists: Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, perhaps even Keith Olbermann. While talk isn’t torture, the condemnation and hate heaped upon others by energized citizens is flabbergasting. It would seem we’ve all taken on the righteousness of victimhood and can’t see beyond the destruction of our enemies. It’s the world we now live in, and it’s reflected in our entertainments.

  1. grasshopper says:

    Talk, as you said, is not torture. That’s true, probably no matter how terrifying and vitriolic a speech might be, it won’t destroy a thinking person for life. Hatred does destroy the hater for life if not the hated.
    Also to your point, I think, is that hatred is contagious. If it weren’t, it would die like a virus without a host.

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