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    Torture is not Missing from TV

    Finale Spoiler! My wife insisted that I had to watch the ABC primetime show Missing, in which former spy Becca Winstone (Ashley Judd), married to supposedly dead spy, Paul Winstone (Sean Bean), is always searching for their kidnapped son Michael (Nick Eversman). She was sometimes hindered and sometimes assisted by Dax Miller (Cliff Curtis) at the CIA and Giancarlo Rossi (Adriano Giannini) at Interpol. There were lots of evil-looking Eastern European types wielding black semiautos, friendly but cutthroat double agent Martin Newman (Keith Carradine) and cute but deadly double agent Violet Heath (Laura Donnelly). And of course Paul was not really dead, or the walrus.

    As in most series with a lot of shooting, people hardly ever run out of bullets, and major characters usually manage to avoid getting shot. Like Emma Peel, or April Dancer, or Ziva David, Becca and Violet were the sorts of slender women that could, and did, regularly beat the crap out of much larger men, often two or three at a time. Maybe that's why my wife liked it. Hmmm. I'm sure Judd would have liked to beat the crap out of critics who called her face too puffy for a female lead.

    It wasn't a bad series, but ABC canceled it last week. And given the plot of the finale, I'm not that sorry. Becca kept flashing back to an assignment in the  Chechen warzone, 1997, when she and Paul delivered a man to torturers. Within ten minutes she decided that torture was not what she signed up for, and convinced Paul to help her rescue the man. Which was a piece of cake.

    But in real time, it comes down to only attractive but evil Violet (right) knowing where Michael is being held, and she ain't talking, so torture is back on the table. Becca explicitly explains the breaking of fingers, pulling of teeth and electrocution that is about to happen, but Violet assumes she is bluffing. Becca cracks a pinky with pliers, and before you can say melted butter, Violet gives her exactly the information she needs. Becca tells Paul, “I found our son.” And it all works out because it is TV.

    Once again, torture is being sold on television as an unpleasant but necessary tactic in a world of criminals and terrorists that kidnap, kill, blow things up, but never lie to their torturer. Sometimes they hold out, but they always spill just in time.

    The reality that torture is actually a means of making people confess to real or imagined crimes is what is actually Missing.


    You should begin with a SPOILER ALERT! warning…

    (I've already watched the show, so no problem on my account.)

    To answer your main point, I'm of two views:

    1. I enjoy the show, and I know better than to think that torture works. For me personally, it's like watching Star Trek and ignoring the many ways they get physics wrong.
    2. Others don't understand that torture doesn't work that way, and this show reinforces their beliefs. This is arguably more troubling than people getting a poor understanding of physics (unless they go on to be engineers).

    Actually, worse than torture is killing someone in cold blood. It's unfortunate that the dignity of human life, is dismissed here.

    All people are an admixture of good and evil. None of us has a right to deny the potential for redemption and change, in any one of us; and most certainly not by choosing to extinguish another's life.

    To justify killing someone in cold blood because of "love of family," and act as though it is some completely justified revenge, instead, reveals a complete absence of moral and human courage--and is indeed the epitome of human evil.



    If indeed Becca shot Martin, as was strongly implied, that was bad. But given that this is TV, I wouldn't have been surprised to see Martin back next season. The torture was pretty clear.

    My opinion on torture always goes back to the opinion I heard many moons ago by an Israeli agent who had been an interrogator. When asked about the ticking nuke scenario he responded: torture should always remain illegal.  if the interrogator believes that torture is the actual moral path then he or she should then stand trial and make his or her case before a jury of their peers.  Rather than state sanctioned torture, it becomes an individual acting alone.

    Along these lines I would ask anonymous of his or her opinion on a woman who kills her husband and uses the battered wife syndrome defense? 

    I bring this up because the "out" a show like Missing takes is that the Judd character is acting not as an agent of the state when she grabs those pliers.  She is a mother looking for her son.  The audience places her actions into this context. 

    The question is whether they would feel the same way if the character with the pliers was just a police detective investigating the disappearance of a boy, and Violet was someone the evidence indicated knew something about his where abouts?  There would be some who wouldn't have a problem, and some who would take pleasure in such a scene, applauding giving it to a bad guy (or in this case gal).

    Another out that the writers took with the scene was make it clear (as it would seem from your blog - I haven't watched this show) that Violet did know where her son was.  The reason torture is unreliable as an information source in so many cases is that the people being torture may or may not know the answers to the questions being asked.  Or they may think they know the right answer, but don't.  

    So the entire set up - a mother seeking information about her son is questioning someone who knows the answer to where her son is, but is simply refusing to spill the beans (does the show give any real reason why she wouldn't spill other than being a bad soul?).  If she was ever brought to court, would a jury convict her of assault? I doubt it.

    Is this scenario anything remotely like the torture being conducted by governments. No.  Will many viewers conflate the two? Yes.  Context is everything. 

    Even in this case where there was very good reason to believe that Violet knew where the boy was, there's every reason to believe that the information she gave would have been incorrect, since even providing incorrect information would at least temporarily stop the torture…

    (I still enjoyed the show.)

    I enjoyed the show, until the torture. I just found that TV Tropes has a Torture Always Works trope:

    In the magical world of fiction, if torture isn't being just used to prove that the Big Bad is indeed big and bad (or that the Anti-Hero is indeed anti), it works as an instant source of 100% reliable information. The information extracted under torture is always accurate and important, even if the interrogator himself starts with no information at all and so has no way to know if the prisoner is telling the truth or lying. The possibility of having the wrong person, who will say anything under torture whether they know anything or not, will be excluded. Often as not, the victim is then released with no consequences to them if they lied. The only times when torture doesn't work is when the tortured is just too Badass to be broken, and doesn't say anything at all. When characters object to torture, they are often portrayed as weak liberal Strawmen who "don't have what it takes" or "don't realize what's at stake". They only make moral criticisms, and never bother to point out that it's unreliable, presumably because they too know that it Always Works. Even when it doesn't work, characters who should know better assume that it will. In Real Life, torture rarely provides reliable information. (Which is why the real reason it is used is almost always to instill fear rather than obtain information.) The only way to get truly trustworthy information using torture is to check it somehow before you use it. Actual torturers often use torture not to get information, but to get people to tell them facts they already know from other sources (but that the victim doesn't know they know), in detail, and then get them to tell them more information. Of course, there are those who may not exactly be looking for the truth, in which case a False Confession or other plausible lie may be exactly what they want. The most common form when used by villains is probably Electric Torture. When heroes torture their enemies, they usually use Enhanced Interrogation Techniques, because they Always Work but have a different title and are thus Not Torture. Compare Jack Bauer Interrogation Technique.

    I won't defend the torture scene. I think the show would've been much better if they had Violet giving false information and it slowing down Becca's search. It would've added to the suspense and the realism.

    Not having watched the show, I don't know the background of Violet, if there was some circumstance - such as if the other bad guys find out she told of the boy's whereabouts, they would kill her family - that would motivate her to lie.  Otherwise it would be: get tortured, lie, have them discover it is a lie, get tortured some more, tell the truth.  If one sees the inevitability of telling truth, why go through the whole ordeal?  But it is these other circumstances, including political and religious fanaticism, that makes torture from a purely information gathering perspective, so unreliable.

    We never know why she was being so loyal to Martin in the first place. However, she had already demonstrated extraordinary loyalty, so it strained credulity that she wouldn't at least try lying to Becca. Given that she knew how unlikely Becca was to torture in the first place, Violet would have had every reason to believe (possibly incorrectly, given that Becca appeared to have killed Martin in cold blood) that if she could lead Becca on a wild goose chase long enough for Martin to kill her son, there would be no more "ticking time bomb" scenario (as the bomb would've already gone off) to justify more torture.

    The torture must end now, Missing has been canceled.  So, guess torture 'kills' high ratings at least.

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