torturous electricity

Torture in Fiction: Captain America, The Winter Soldier

With its superb fight scenes and stand out performances by a talented cast, this movie is a fan favourite and cornerstone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I don’t think you’re going to like what I have to say about it.

So I’m going to start with the little disclaimer I have for this series as a quick reminder.

Once again I’m rating the depiction and use of torture, not the movie itself. I’m trying to take into account realism (regardless of fantasy or sci fi elements), presence of any apologist arguments, stereotypes and the narrative treatment of victims and torturers.

If you are in any way upset by my analysis of this movie or its characters I advise you to consider both the impact fictional depictions of torture have in real life and Rule 6 before you respond.

On to the movie-

The relevant plot details are, well, most of the film. I’ll try to be as brief as I can.

Steve Roger’s (aka Captain America) boss at SHIELD (Nick Fury) is assassinated by a mysterious man known as ‘The Winter Soldier’. Before dying Nick tells Steve that SHIELD itself has been compromised and gives him a usb.

On refusing to hand over the usb Steve is attacked by a large group of his former colleges in a lift.

He escapes and teams up with Natasha Romanov aka the Black Widow. Together they discover that SHIELD has been infiltrated by Hydra, a Nazi organisation who are particularly interested in SHIELD’s latest weapons project which they could use to kill millions.

The Winter Soldier, a character who is heavily coded as mentally ill, is ordered to assassinate them by Hydra.

Steve and Natasha track down a SHIELD/Hydra agent and threaten him with death or grievous bodily harm unless he gives them information. They get the information they want.

They clash with the Winter Soldier and during the scuffle he is unmasked and revealed as Steve’s long lost wartime friend Bucky Barnes. Steve, Natasha and their friend Sam are all captured by Hydra.

The audience is told that Bucky, apparently now a super-soldier, was captured by Hydra, tortured and brainwashed. He has been their best assassin for decades. A scene of his memory being ‘wiped’ follows with props that are heavily reminiscent of ECT machines.

Steve, Natasha and Sam stage an assault on SHIELD HQ in an effort to stop the launch of the new weapons. In the process Steve takes over the comm system and announces Hydra’s plan to the entire base.

Two sympathetic characters are shown resisting Hydra demands when threatened with death. One of them dies for his trouble.

Steve and Bucky fight until the last weapon is disarmed. With the threat of civilian casualties gone Steve refuses to fight Bucky and tries instead to appeal to his humanity, asking him to remember their friendship. Bucky beats him unconscious but stops short of killing him.

I’m giving it 0/10

The Good

And well that really is the problem: with regards to torture I cannot think of more than one good thing about this film. Usually I’d throw the movie at least one point for a single good scene, but in this case I think the scene is part of a larger entirely negative trend in the narrative.

1)      The scene I’m thinking of is the attack on Steve in the lift. About eight or nine people, all armed in various ways, attack Steve at once. His arms are pinned by several people each while he’s repeatedly shocked with a device a bit like a cattle prod. This basic set up is extremely true to life for many cases of police brutality, although a Taser would have been a more likely weapon.

The Bad

Where to begin?

1)      Every major ‘good’ character in this movie engages in torture.

Our heroes Steve, Sam and Natasha torture a Hydra agent for information by threatening to kill him, then throwing him off a building (Sam catches him before he falls to his death).

This is not just portrayed as good and reasonable but it is played for laughs. The scene is used to extend a joke about Steve’s dating life.

2)      The ‘good guys’ obtain accurate, timely, relevant information through torture. This never happens in real life. Torture cannot force someone to give accurate, timely or relevant information. And it’s a stereotype in fiction that I particularly despise because it has been linked to the justification of and practice of torture in real life.

3)      The ‘bad guy’ they torture does not resist once they have tortured him. This is extremely unlikely. The data we have at the moment suggests that torture makes people far more likely to resist.

4)      This stands in contrast to the way ‘good’ characters act when threatened with death or torture. The film consistently shows ‘good’ people resisting torture and ‘bad’ (or in Bucky’s case mentally ill) people complying under torture. This is not only wrong; it’s frankly sickening and perpetuates extremely harmful stereotypes about victims and torture.

5)      Brainwashing does not work and is a central, important plot device in the film. The story simply does not work unless violence, torture and pain can ‘force’ a victim to change sides.

6)      Torture cannot change hearts and minds. It cannot force someone to support or work for a cause they are strongly against.

7)      Memory really does not work in the way the film suggests. Anything that could remove old, strongly held memories, such as those of childhood or the victim’s name, would also have removed their memory of how to drive a car, fight hand to hand, use a gun or virtually anything else Bucky does in the film.

8)      Even accounting for the sci-fi idea of removing specific memories, torture and pain would not force a victim to comply with their captors. In fact it makes resistance more likely. A Bucky Barnes without the memory of his friends or the war would still almost certainly resist Hydra simply because they caused him pain.

9)      There has never been a recorded case of ECT machines being used to torture. They have been used as a form of abuse in some hospitals but they have never been used by military or terrorist organisations such as Hydra. This is another inaccurate stereotype: the idea that torture is ‘scientific’ or ‘high-tech’.

10)  The film assumes that a victim of systematic abuse over decades would be physically and mentally capable of complex assassinations. Instead the sort of damage to both physical and mental health this would inflict means that Bucky and Natasha should both be noticeably less capable than their colleagues. Instead they are more capable than their colleagues, implying that abuse made them ‘better’ at committing wanton acts of violence.

11)  Both this film and other Marvel films state that Natasha has both suffered and committed abuse, yet she shows no severe symptoms. This seems to be narratively linked to the idea that she is ‘strong’. And I detest the notion that a basic, bodily reaction to trauma makes victims weak.

Overview

I think the word for this movie’s use of torture is ‘dire’.

It’s not just consistently wrong.

It’s not just based around an impossible, trope laden premise.

It’s not just running through a check list of every harmful stereotype that regularly turns up in fiction.

The movie supports the notion that the torture of ‘bad people’ does not ‘count’.

It shows ‘heroes’, particularly individuals that the audience is supposed to think are morally above reproach, engaging in torture and the plot supports and justifies their doing so. It tells us that really ‘good’, ‘pure’ characters, such as the titular hero, threaten ‘bad guys’ with torture and then stand back to watch their friends do the torturing.

It shows victims (ie Bucky) as dangerous and violent and without other symptoms. It shows torturers like Natasha as without symptoms. It shows torture as a successful interrogation tactic and shows torture fundamentally changing hearts and minds.

Even accounting for sci-fi elements, the movie’s attitude to and treatment of torture is consistently false, dangerous and fundamentally against the basic principles of human rights.

Human rights are not for ‘good people’. They are for everyone. Whatever their race, gender, creed, politics, or crime. Torture is never justified.

And for that reason this movie’s treatment of torture is quite possibly the worst I’ve ever seen. It is a shining example of how much torture apologia pervades popular culture.

This, readers, is how not to write torture.

Disclaimer

On bearing witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructiveness of ableism

One of the most powerful things that we can do is to bear witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructive consequences of ableism. When we bear witness to our humanity and to the things that others do to us, it changes the conversation. Our stories are powerful.

Some people have the privilege of being largely untouched by ableism. (Or being untouched by a particular kind of ableism.) Most people who are privileged in this way are also unaware of how deeply marginalized disabled people are being harmed. (I’m using disability as the primary example here, but this actually applies to ever kind of marginalization.)

We are dehumanized, and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s happening. They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them. When people learn how to notice, they often start caring.

Bearing witness to our humanity means making it impossible to discuss disability in the abstract. It means making people have to notice that when they talk about disability, they’re talking about *actual human beings*. We do things. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are artists. Some of us write. Some of us are married. Some of us are fans of TV shows. Some of us are experts in our fields. Some of us cook. All of us matter. Making people notice us as real human beings changes the conversation about disability.

Speaking out about the consequences of ableism also changes the conversation. When institution survivors bear witness to what happens in institutions, it becomes much more difficult for people to believe that institutionalization is good for disabled people. When people speak out about what authoritarian childhood therapy did to them, it’s harder to pretend that compliance training is harmless. When people speak out about electric shock, it is much harder to pretend that people who are tortured with electric shocks think that it makes their lives better.

When disabled people talk about what it is like to learn the name of their disability by eavesdropping and googling, some parents listen. Likewise, when disabled people talk about what it’s like to grow up without accurate language for ourselves, some parents come to understand the importance of talking to children about their disabilities.

Bearing witness also matters to other disabled people. We often learn to overlook our own humanity. We often learn to disregard the things that others have done to us. When other disabled people are unapologetically human, it’s easier to see ourselves as human. When other disabled people talk about the harm ableism does, it’s easier to remember that these things shouldn’t happen to us.

This doesn’t always work. When people with disabilities bear witness to our humanity and to what happens to us, we often get hostile responses. Even when some people are listening, there are usually also angry people who are not. Even when people are eventually willing to listen, they are often initially angry and mean. Those of us who talk about these things pay a price for doing so. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether this is a price they’re willing to pay in a given situation.

Your stories belong to you. Stories can be a powerful force for liberation, but you are not a liberation object. You are a person. You have the right to decide whether or not to tell your stories. If you choose to tell stories, you have the right to decide which stories to tell, how you want to tell them, and who you want to tell them to. (Including, whether or not you want to answer questions that people ask you.) You can also change your mind. Doing some advocacy work doesn’t make you an advocacy object, and it doesn’t strip you of the right to say no. No matter how politically or socially useful your stories are, they belong to you.

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CAMBODIA. Phnom Penh. 1996. Tuol Sleng prison, now a museum. Photos of inmates executed by the Khmer Rouge. 

The infamous Tuol Sleng prison, aka Security Prison 21 (S-21), was one of at least 150 execution centres in the country used by the Khmer Rouge regime when in power (1975-1979). Between 17,000 and about 20,000 people were imprisoned there; there are only seven known survivors.

Prisoners at Tuol Sleng were systematically tortured to obtain confessions of whatever crimes their captors desired. Routine torture methods included beatings, electric shocks, searing of hot metal instruments, hanging, lacerations with knives, suffocation with plastic bags, pulling out of fingernails while pouring alcohol on the wounds, and waterboarding. The “medical unit” at Tuol Sleng also performed medical experiments on some prisoners; test subjects would be sliced open and their organs would be removed with no anaesthetic; others would be attached to intravenous pumps drained of every drop of blood to see how long they could survive. Flaying was reserved to the most difficult prisoners. After captors were satisfied with the confessions obtained, prisoners would usually be transported to Choeung Ek, one of the most infamous killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, and killed there using crude weapons like iron bars or machetes, before being buried in mass graves. 

Nowadays, Tuol Sleng is a museum open to the public. Buildings have been preserved as they were left when the Khmer Rouge were driven out in 1979 and extensive records are available since the regime made efforts to document its activities. Several rooms are lined, floor to ceiling, with black and white photographs of some of the estimated 17,000 prisoners who passed through the prison.

Photographs: Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos

Torture in Fiction: 1984

I got an ask about my opinion on torture in 1984, the best way to address it seemed to be starting off the media analysis Masterposts. Possibly the most famous dystopian novel in the world, 1984 is set in a fictional ‘future’ where the citizen’s every word and moment is recorded and scrutinised by a brutal totalitarian state.

Orwell’s story about the ordinary Winston Smith’s desperate struggle for some sort of emotional freedom has informed the Western world’s view of totalitarian states and torture since it was published.

I first read this as a kid and I remember it feeling incredibly profound at the time. Reading it again knowing what I do now instead of taking Orwell’s word for it…..it doesn’t add up.

But that isn’t for lack of effort on Orwell’s part. I can see to much larger extent reading this now how Orwell’s journalism fed into the way he wrote this story.

Unfortunately without anything beyond interviews to go on, without analysis, without statistics, Orwell fell for one of the oldest tricks in the book: he believed the torturers’ hype.

I’m rating the depiction and use of torture, not the book itself. I’m trying to take into account realism (regardless of fantasy or sci fi elements), presence of any apologist arguments, stereotypes and the narrative treatment of victims and torturers.

I’m giving it a 3/10

The Good

1)      Winston, despite his mental posturing, is neither political activist nor lover. He is not a true believer. He is, in all important respects, an innocent. He hasn’t done anything. He doesn’t know anything. And that makes the ease with which he ‘confesses’ and the information he spouts realistic. Winston has nothing to protect and every reason to believe that making things up will help his case.

2)      Orwell’s depiction of sleep deprivation, relay interrogation (the Party men shouting at Winston or questioning him for hours at a time until he breaks down in tears), beatings and electrical torture is on point. This especially is where Orwell’s work as a journalist shines through. The descriptions of humiliation during relay interrogation, phantom pain from stress between torture sessions, the searing pain of electricity and losing track of time in a windowless cell. These all read like they could have come from interviews. And on these points, things that were actually happening in Russia while Orwell was reporting, the book is incredibly, shockingly accurate.

3)      The way Winston loses track of time is completely true to life. And it ties in with the tortures he’s shown to go through early on. His disorientation makes his account difficult to decipher in places. It makes it difficult to tell what happened when, which tortures he was subjected to when and what was real versus what was in his head. And that is true to life. Winston’s disorientation, confusion and memory problems are exactly the sort of thing that makes prosecuting torture difficult: victims rarely know how long they were held or what they went through when.

4)      The rats, according to Rejali, were based on an actual method of execution by torture. Which is a level of research I appreciate.

The Bad

The fundamental problem is that Orwell seems to have taken what torturers say as fact. The book shows torture working and it shows torture achieving things that it is incapable of doing. I don’t think this is exactly Orwell’s fault, the statistical studies and research on pain I’m drawing from weren’t done until decades after he died.

But he believes the hype; he shows it as if it’s fact. Particularly-

1)      Torture does not change hearts and minds.

2)      Personalities can not be rebuilt using torture

3)      Torture does not ‘break’ people in the way torturers seem to imagine it does. It does not have predictable results and it does not have the same effect on everyone. The systematic way the Ministry of Love ‘breaks’ everyone who comes through their doors is fundamentally impossible

4)      The extent to which the torturers know about Winston’s life is impossible and absurd. Even if they somehow had the manpower to watch and listen to every second of his life and intently scrutinise every moment they would not be able to judge his thoughts at any given moment with the accuracy that they do.

5)      Winston’s torturers are supremely good at detecting when he lies. And human beings are terrible at detecting lies. The degree to which the torturers seem to be able to read Winston’s mind is really more at home in an X-men comic than anywhere else. Because without telepathy what the book shows is impossible.

6)      A lot of the torture that goes on in the Ministry of Love appears to be high tech, drugs, complicated machinery and the like. Doctors usually seem to be on hand and assisting. This rarely happens in real life. If something is complicated enough that it requires a specialist to operate than it generally isn’t used in torture.

7)      The ordering of Winston’s torture doesn’t match the general pattern I see in accounts and analysis. Torturers don’t tend to wait around. They generally use as many of the worst things they can think of in the first 24-48 hours. They may keep torturing beyond that point but they generally repeat themselves after that point and after a while lose interest. In contrast Winston is left alone, possibly for days, before he’s even beaten. Then he progresses from beatings to relay interrogation to drugs to electricity to ‘Room 101’, going to progressively worse and worse tortures.

8)      Torture destroys Winston’s affection for his lover. I’m not convinced by the narrative that the affection was all that deep to begin with but- that isn’t something torture can do. The idea that wounded people are somehow incapable of affection seems particularly horrible to me: it’s something torturers tell victims but it is not true. And it seems to perpetuate stereotypes about the mentally ill.

Overall

It’s difficult to blame Orwell for the glaring mistakes in this book when he was working with the best information he had at the time.

But looking back over this book I can’t help wondering how much this has fed into the stereotypes about torture we see in fiction today. Because most of the usual suspects are here:

The idea that everyone ‘breaks’. The idea that torture is high tech. The idea that it’s scientific. The idea that torture can fundamentally change a person’s beliefs, thoughts and feelings. The idea that torturers can recognise lies easily. The idea that victims are forever defined by their torture.

I don’t think these all started with Orwell, but he seems to have codified them and popularised them.

They’re made to look more plausible by being interspersed with descriptions that are accurate. They’re woven together so seamlessly that the two are difficult to pick apart. It’s jarring to see such vivid, accurate portrayals of Soviet torture techniques next to things that are flat out impossible.

In the end I think it’s a shame. 1984 is a book that gets a fair amount really, really right but it’s outweighed by the sheer scale of the things it gets so wrong.

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