“There Are Four Lights” and the Futility of Torture

2014-12-09 20.39.31

One of my favorite t-shirts is a sideways reference to 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. It is also a statement on the simultaneous immorality and futility of torture. Here is the scene, you can read this article for the set-up:

Growing up watching Star Trek, I learned a lot of things. Women are scientists and captains. Aliens can be friends and enemies. People with power must protect people without it. Torture does not work.

Fiction gives us breathing room to talk about things we can only say through gritted teeth and girded minds offline. It lets us escape, briefly. But good fiction requires us to come back to the world prepared to change it. I was walking home last week with a friend, discussing what we would do if we witnessed police brutality. On the I-5 overpass, shouting over the trucks, I said:

I would have to get in the way, because otherwise Keladry of Mindelan would be ashamed of me.

My friend agreed: Kel being disappointed in us was enough of a reason to be brave, even if we forgot all of our other reasons.

This season has been one a lot of us struggled to know what to do. How to react to state brutality against young black men. How to be an American and white when people proud of those same characteristics were behaving in ways Jean Luc Picard and Keladry of Mindelan and Kathryn Janeway would never approve of. How to react when people do evil in our names.

Like many people who grew up on good stories, I started telling them myself. I told them in fiction. I told them running online communications for a human trafficking nonprofit. I told them to strangers on Greyhound and in front of City Council. I told them for the same reason Senator Feinstein released the Torture Report today: because people remember stories, and those memories shape how they act.

The old story about torture from movies and TV shows and congressional hearings makes it seem simple: if a person who we hate has information, we can cause him pain and he will reveal it. In this story, it is acceptable to hurt someone because the story tells us he is not human. In this story, anguish always produces truth. In this story, there is nothing wrong with us for using torture.

Senator Feinstein’s report tells the truth, which is a new story. It says: torture does not work. What it does not say, but everyone reading this knows, is: torture is immoral.

The report’s executive summary–the only piece made public after 5 years of fighting for disclosure–is brutal. There are words and phrases there I could have gone my whole life without reading. Things I cannot believe people who claimed to be acting to protect me would do or say.

That brutality is necessary, but I cannot fault someone for wanting to turn away. It is hard reading for a Tuesday in December. That is why fiction is so important. It gives us a way to get to those vital viscous questions that slip away from us in the day-to-day. That 1992 episode of Star Trek lets us come to the same conclusions in a safer way: torture does not work and it is immoral.

Not all Star Trek iterations get this right. The clearest and most pointed critique of torture I have read in years came from this comparison of what the author called the “ticking-time-bomb set piece” of torture from the J.J. Abrams’s movies and the demonstration that “torture is an exercise in futility” from Gene Roddenberry’s The Next Generation. In the wrong narrative hands, even Star Trek could get seduced by the false narrative of useful torture.

Whether you got the message from a 500pg legal report or a 42min episode of television, this is the one issue it is easy to act on in this tough and tired season. Tell the story. Know that torture doesn’t work. Don’t believe anyone who says it does. You have proof. Know that torture is immoral. Don’t elect anyone who say it isn’t. You have Picard and Feinstein on your side.

Telling stories is one of the most universal and powerful things we can do. It’s why government agencies lie for years to “shape public opinion.” You know the truth and can tell the story: there are four lights.

Inspirational Quote:

“The bill was inevitable until it became unthinkable.” — Rep Zoe Lofgren

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