On Torture: Modern Fantasy and Dick Cheney

When the Senate report on torture surfaced last week, I was disgusted, but on certain level I was also excited. It was one of those moments where I felt that the rest of the world was catching up to me. It was as if the public conscious had finally digested all of the information that people who are interested in politics, power, and history had known about for years. As I sat down and watched Jon Stewart condemn the Fox news response to the report, I was minded of how people spoke out against the Robocalls during the last Canadian election, but it took some time for it to percolate into the general discourse. I was eager to finally discuss this issue with my friends.

Of course, I discovered that no one really talks about torture. This is doubly true during the holidays. I mean Dick Cheney said that the ends justify the means, was recorded, and the vast majority of people shrugged or twisted their noses

An overwhelming majority of people feel that torture is bad. However, some feel that if it saves lives, like it did in that one episode of 24 (and in no real world case) it might be justified. That pretty much hasn’t changed yet. I was hoping that the information in the report would clear the veneer of partisan bullshit away and open up the discussion. It has, to a certain extent, but the general public seem deeply unwilling to grapple with the issue, especially in the western world. Instead the discussion goes on between pundits, political junkies, and people who are interested in power and history. Everyone else avoids the issue like the plague, except in fiction.

Modern Fantasy is awash in torture and viciousness in pursuit of “the ends”. From the Book of the New Sun and The Sword of Truth series to The First Law, The Broken Empire, and A Song of Fire and Ice, fantasy authors have definitely stopped shying away from the ugly subject of torture. Interestingly the presentation is not once sided at all, as anyone who has even sampled those works could tell you. The only common denominator in the presentation of torture and the torturer is that it is inescapably present.

So as I sit back, somewhat bitter that very few of my friends and family want to discuss the deep and ugly truths of torture in democracy, I take solace in the idea that maybe people do want to grapple with these ideas, at least in Fantasy and genre fiction. That will eventually blossom into real world action and opinion, I have no doubt.

Until that happens, here is why I think Dick Cheney would make a near-perfect template for a villain in Fantasy Fiction.

  1. The Ends Justify the Means: The idea that the ends justify the means is about the most deplorable intellectual stance that anyone can take. People who feel that the ends justify the means perform a sort of arithmetic which allows them to justify any behavior by saying that the end result was worth those unpleasant bits along the way. For many years writers thought that it was too cliche or unrealistic for a villain to follow this thought process, but hey, here we are. A few examples of the ends justifying the means in Fantasy: A peace loving Kingdom that is raided by Orcs starting a “war of pacification” to finally achieve peace by subduing all Orcs, everywhere; A ruler who wants perfect order and so drugs his people so that they are obedient zombies; A druidic cult that sees that humanity will destroy nature and so decides to destroy humanity first; A
  2. Emotional Appeal trumps Rational Discourse: The idea that it was fine to torture and kill people because it might have prevented another attack is morally indefensible. Torture is not only demonstrably wrong and ineffective, it is also very likely to be used against the nation that supported it; after all, if there is one thing these people fear more than the enemy outside their borders, it is the enemy within. However, instead of trying to rationalize the idea of torture, Mr Cheney directly appeals to strong emotions when defending it. He brings up 9/11 and the safety of American children as a counter to every argument because he knows that that appealing to fear, patriotism, and hatred of the enemy erases the short term capacity for rational thought. Fear is the mind-killer, as a wise man one said. Fear and Hatred lead to the dark side too, I hear. Pastoral fantasy often paints the enemy as inherently evil, like the xenomorphs in aliens, or Tolkien’s orcs. Modern Fantasy demands more complexity from its antagonists, and so nations roused to vile acts through fear and loathing are particularly poignant.
  3. Twisting Words: I often feel that language loses its meaning as people try to muddy the waters to justify ugly actions. Rectal rehydration is a lovely example of this. Here we see a medical technique that is useful only in marginal cases (when IV rehydration is not available or possible, which was never, ever the case here) medically to justify anal rape as a part of a programs of torture. By calling it rectal rehydration they can redirect the public away from the ugly truth of the fact that they are violently sodomizing the people that they detain in order to break them down. The same is true with the modern euphemism for torture: enhanced interrogation. Torture is illegal in every court and standard of law, but if we call it something else then it helps avoid backlash, at least for a while. This kind of propaganda has obvious uses in a Fantasy narrative, since breaking down the very words and ideas that people use to communicate helps isolate opposing factions in nay conflict. If we get stuck on the definition of torture it is very hard to deal with the problems the act presents and put a stop to it, which is kinda the point.
  4. Innocents Don’t Matter: Chances are that if you torture someone, they will end up hating you and fearing you if they live. This kind of action is self perpetuating since even an innocent who goes through the process has a strong chance of being brutalized. It turned out that of the cases reviewed in in the senate report on torture around 20% involved mistaken identity, including deaths. In a Fantasy fiction narrative one can follow this same pattern.
  5. Torture is the Ends: People have known that torture is ineffective at collecting information for as long as people have bothered to study the results. People will simply say anything to stop the pain. The inquisition was well aware of this, and would often use torture to extract the names of people that they wanted to persecute from the lips of their victims. It is well known that The Templars were destroyed after the confessed to blasphemous rites under the duress of torture, including things that were plainly impossible, like raising mummies and demons. Thus torture is not really the means, it is an end itself. If you can create a situation where torture is acceptable then you can really justify anything. Don’t like Frank? torture someone until they name Frank as complicit. Want to stay in power? torture people to name your political opponents. The uses for a Fantasy villain are obvious.

A genre fiction can explore ideas like torture without getting bogged down in the morass of modern politics. In a sense I am glad that Fantasy authors are readers have been willing to delve into these subjects in the way that old media has not. Dick Cheney gets endless TV time, while the victims are virtually ignored in old media. I hope this changes, but until then writers will have to carry the torch. In the end, truth is often uglier and less palatable than fiction.

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