If it were just one movie or TV show, we could dismiss it. But it’s a consistent trope across many different stories. Why?
I, like most fans, absolutely loved the first Netflix season of Daredevil. The action scenes are great, the characterization is spot-on, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is genuinely revelatory. My main reservation, and it’s a little strange that this is a mere reservation rather than a dealbreaker, is that the hero tortures someone in nearly every single episode. As part of being heroic. Does that seem weird to anyone else?
There was a time, not too long ago, when the idea that torture is morally wrong was so universally accepted that international law still holds torturers as the common enemies of humanity, alongside slavers, pirates, and the genocidal. Notoriously, after 9/11, American society abruptly discovered that it harbored a pro-torture faction, and sober-minded debates were suddenly being held about the issue. Rather than just blame Dick Cheney, though (tempting as it is), I think the roots of the problem go deeper.
Much was made of the unrelentingly pro-torture politics of 24, but it goes beyond that one show. Torture has been becoming part of the standard heroic toolbox for a long time, to the point where it’s nearly standard-issue now. Any random hero in a movie or TV show might cheerfully beat a confession out of someone, dangle them from a great height, threaten to kill them on the spot, or engage in various other acts that are commonly and legally classed as torture. It doesn’t even register as unusual any more.
As a writer, I understand part of the reason for this. Getting information into a story is a laborious process. The mystery genre builds thousands of stories around painstakingly ferreting out information. But if your hero isn’t Lt. Columbo, and they need to find something out for the story to progress, you have to take a shortcut. You don’t have time to spend on piecing together clues and tricking people into slips of the tongue, you just need the hero to find out where the villain is so you can get to the big fight scene.
One common shortcut is The Computer, where the hero (or their Hacker Sidekick) says “I cross-referenced the datamining through the archives with the Dark Web server DNS email Tumblr, and pulled up an address” or something to that effect. It rarely makes any actual sense, but it doesn’t have to; it’s just trying to get the info into the story. The other narrative shortcut is torture. Since showing an eight-hour interrogation would be criminally dull, and simply cutting to the end with the baddie having given up the info would make the hero look passive, torture provides a dramatic and time-efficient alternative. It’s usually more visually interesting than actual grown-up interrogation, too, which is an important consideration in screenwriting.
Even before torture per se became a popular TV and movie trope, though, the underlying logic of it, that being tough and violent with people makes them cooperate with you, was deeply rooted in our fictional tropes. We all know about the good-cop/bad-cop routine by now, but most shows and movies seem to be under the impression that the suspect might confess to the bad cop. That’s where we get tough-guy lines about “bad-cop/worse-cop” or variations thereupon: from this fundamental misunderstanding.
In real life, nobody ever, ever, ever confesses to the bad cop. The bad cop is only there to make the good cop look good. People confess to folks they trust. The bad cop creates fear, which accelerates the suspect’s bonding with the most trustworthy person in the room: the good cop. When you’re made to feel your situation is desperate, you look for someone you can trust. Once you trust them, because they’re the one alleviating your fear, you’re willing to talk to them.
The fact of that misapprehension lies at the heart of our moral confusion about torture. In a sane society, we would unanimously oppose torture because it is morally repugnant to any thinking person. Instead, we’ve long been addicted to fantasies of “tough guys” who “do what’s necessary” and “get results”. Think about how many times you’ve heard variations on those lines, or their close cousin “make the hard decisions”, which only ever means torturing and killing people.
In the real world, torture is not a hard decision, because it isn’t necessary and it doesn’t get results.
This isn’t controversial. The overwhelming opinion of professionals in intelligence and interrogation is that torture is evil and a waste of time. It’s practiced and encouraged by unimaginative dullards who think they’re action heroes, produces nothing of any value, and is covered up by euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation”, which isn’t even original, having been coined as a German phrase in 1937.
Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves too often become the stories we live. People who want to justify torture never do it with real data; they do it with imaginary hypotheticals, stories that carefully stack the deck so that torture seems justifiable. These stories never even hold up under their own internal logic, but they’re emotionally compelling and that’s enough. The narrative convenience and dramatic intensity of torture put it into our stories, and once we have it in stories we begin to think it belongs in real life.
The problem does come down to the fact that we think in stories. It’s too easy for us to think of the real world in terms of Good Guys and Bad Guys. Of course, we’re always the Good Guys. So if we’re torturing people, there are one of two possibilities: it’s not really torture, or torture is something the Good Guys do. And the more stories we get reinforcing the latter idea, the easier it is to believe it–the easier it is to avoid thinking that maybe we’re not the Good Guys after all, or maybe the world isn’t even that simple.
So, writers and producers of Daredevil, let me be clear: in your last episodes, Matt Murdock finally starts dressing like a superhero, and that’s awesome. How about next season, he starts acting like one as well?