Thursday, February 5, 2009

What Getting Older and National Security Have In Common

Something dawned on me reading through AlterNet this morning.

On the one hand, we have an article on how 24 has numbed the populace to the interrogation practices ShrubCo espoused in the GWoT, complete with a dissection of the rationale for such straight out of the Army Field Manual.

On the other, we have a heart-rending story of someone who helped his terminally ill parents with their assisted suicide.

There's a commonality in both the first article itself and some of the commentary to the second. In both cases someone has suggested that the end does justify the means; that the popular acceptance of the truism is rational; that there are people who deserve no better than the worst we can inflict on them.

In the former, naturally the GWoT apologists are saying that the methods used to date by US interrogators are necessary to prevent further terrorist acts, useful in producing actionable intelligence, and legal under US law. The article itself takes apart each of these items, so I won't get into the details. The article DOES, however, do a very good job of connecting Bush [mal]administration policy with the character of Jack Bauer in 24: without a popular illustration of the "ticking bomb scenario" it would be somewhat less easy to sell our interrogation tactics.

The second instance highlights a theme I've begun to see far more often in the crime shows of the last several years. That theme is that greed will drive even the most loving family to murder within its own ranks given half a chance. Law & Order, CSI and a host of other shows have used this plot point repeatedly, and it is fast becoming accepted as conventional wisdom. Of course the kids killed their wealthy parents: how else would they get their inheritance before they turned 65? Of course the wife kills her husband: she needs that life insurance policy, and he's healthy and a safe driver. The idea that a family is only as secure and solid an institution as the money, and when that's an issue bloodshed can't be far away, is repeated almost daily on the small screen.

The commenters making the latter point are, of course, very careful not to actually make that claim outright. They just think it's suspicious that we're learning about the assisted suicide of two people years after the fact. That's hardly surprising given how hard it is to lose a parent in any circumstance, and particularly if one is directly involved: it takes years before one can discuss a loss like that coherently. It's also unsurprising given how much pressure there is to prevent assisted suicide: only a handful of states have brought up the issue, and only two - Oregon and Washington - have made it legal. But the hint that the narrator of the story did what he did because his parents were (presumably: both were respected professionals with Doctorates) wealthy and well insured, not out of any love for them or respect for their wishes, is at least noticeable if not stated outright. To the commenters, it seems impossible that someone would want to save his family pain and suffering if they asked - only the money talks.

I'm left with two horrific impressions, both of which are plastered across the small screen (and frequently the big one as well) with alarming regularity. The first is the demonstrable falsehood that torture works as an interrogation tool. The second, questionable position is that the family is too weak to withstand mammon, and that all it takes to turn any of us into murderers is the whiff of material gain.

The question is not whether either of these items has not carried through as described at all. I'm sure something someone said following a waterboarding was true, as I am that some children kill their parents. The point is that we have been presented both of these items (in some form of entertainment) as normal: each presentation depicts these items as the way the world works.

For those who would say that television and film are entertainment and not to be taken seriously, I would normally agree that recognizing them as such and not giving them the weight of fact would be correct. However, in an age when half the US citizens polled cannot find their home state on a map of the US, cannot find Iraq or Afganistan on a map of the world, recall their favorite characters on TV better than their elected representatives to Congress and think Joe the Plumber is just like them, it's much harder to make that argument. Too many in the US are victims of both the failures of the education system and the constant media bombardment, and are more willing to believe the images - and concepts - flung at them by the broadcasters than not. In a situation like that, what we see on television is indeed formative: it has weight with the populace, and we need to address both that fact itself and the messages the medium sends if we expect to improve public discourse on any governmental policy.

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