Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Memo From the Dark Side

"Jack, you want to prosecute a member of the Bush administration for assaulting suspected terrorists?"

"The word is 'torturing.' And yes — it's about time somebody did."

Law and Order's season premiere a few weeks back, "Memo From the Dark Side," deals with the torture authorized by the Bush administration. I thought it was pretty impressive overall, with some powerful moments.

Scott Horton has a good "six questions" interview with the show's excutive producer and head writer, René Balcer. If you haven't seen the episode yet, the interview doesn't give too much away. This was probably my favorite interchange, about one of my favorite moments in the show:

4. In one of the most dramatic courtroom moments, you have a defense lawyer confront an interrogation expert with the famous “ticking bomb” scenario, who answers it quite simply. Are we hearing Ali Soufan combined with Matthew Alexander?

You heard what I’ve been hearing for years from a variety of professional interrogators—torture, physical abuse, and mental abuse don’t yield reliable information. I’ve been interested in the subject of interrogations for many years, principally because of my friendship with the noted forensic psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz, who has used with consistent success an empathic approach to elicit admissions and information from the most depraved and recalcitrant offenders. Putting aside for a moment whether torture is legal or ethical or consistent with our values, if we are interested in a results-based strategy to gain actionable information, the overwhelming evidence—including the recent Trinity College neuroscience study—seems to indicate that torture isn’t the way to go.

Among the guest stars, David Alan Basche was particularly effective as Kevin Franklin, a John Yoo-like figure (but much smarter and slicker).

The show does allow - or push - one unfortunate conflation. It deals with events at Abu Ghraib, yet D.A. Michael Cutter (Linus Roache, pictured above) mentions the World Trade Center and 9/11 in a conversation with Jack McCoy (Sam Waterston) about vengeance. While one can only do so much in scripted TV, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 - that was a lie and deceptive implication used by the Bush administration to sell their unnecessary Iraq War. (Alan Shore in Boston Legal would have pointed this out in court, but they're different shows.) Still, "Memo from the Dark Side" was an impressive piece of work overall, gutsy, memorable and commendable.

I'm dismayed, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, to see some comment boards decrying the episode as unpatriotic. Torture is illegal. The real events behind the episode are pretty dramatic. It's a natural for the show, and they handled the issue pretty responsibly. Law and Order actually went to lengths to try to make the episode "balanced," with a few people accusing McCoy of being a traitor and Cutter conflicted about his role in the trial. Remember when opposing torture was not attacked as a "liberal" issue?

The fact is that many law and order conservatives oppose torture as well, and did so in the Bush administration, but they were overruled, bypassed, lied to, ignored or punished. It's not surprising that military personnel would oppose torture, especially if they know how it was used against American troops in WWII and Vietnam. I understand members of the general public being confused or conflicted by horrible coverage of the issue. But I just don't think any sane, honest, honorable person who studies the subject in any depth can support torture.

Anthony Romero of the ACLU and Glenn Greenwald have more on the episode.

Unfortunately, you need to pay to see the episode online (Scott Horton provies the links for that). It's worth recording it the next time it airs.

The site All Things Law and Order has a very detailed recap, if you want to read about it in the meantime. The comments include a transcription of one exchange, and All Things Law and Order has also put together these clips:

As Romero says in his piece:

Toward the end of the episode, the assistant D.A. declares, "[I]t is not disloyal to hold our officials to the highest standards of conduct."

Indeed. In fact, it is the epitome of loyalty and patriotism to do so. Now the question is, in real life, will Attorney General Holder rise to the occasion?


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Now the question is, in real life, will Attorney General Holder rise to the occasion?

Well, duh! NO! Any other stupid questions?

Anonymous said...

Since WWII it has been known that torture does not work to extract actionable intelligence a question remains unanswered. Why do they insist on torturing prisoners?

May I suggest that there are two reasons:

to extract confessions for crimes that were not committed by those being interrogated

to intimidate America's civilian population

Batocchio said...

Anonymous, yes, but that knowledge also goes back to Roman times, and as to why they tortured, specifically, there's this.

Distributorcap said...

i am surprised the rightwing wasnt picketing with tea bags in front of NBC

Batocchio said...

DCap, wow, I didn't know that. That's really sad, and dumb.