Media, the American Public, and Changing Attitudes Toward Torture
In her review of Screening Torture: Media Representations of State Terror and Political Domination, Debra Merskin notes that, in the past, media portrayals of torture aligned audience sympathies with the tortured. Since 9/11, media portrayals increasingly create audience alliances with the torturer and "little to no attention is paid to the physical or psychological consequences to the victim or torturer."
Although torture was banned in 1948 by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, television programs and films around the globe link torture to masculinity and sex in ways that sensationalize and glamorize "enhanced interrogation" techniques that we likely would have looked upon with horror a mere decade ago. Current media portrayals of torture seem to have affected public understanding of torture, with some accepting it as a legitimate tool to obtain useful and accurate information in a timely manner. In addition, Merskin notes,
[a] 2004 Washington Post/ABC News poll taken immediately after the Abu Ghraib scandal found that many consider physical and psychological torture as separate. Although 63 percent of the Americans surveyed opposed torture, they supported the use of sleep deprivation, stress positions, and noise bombardment (Morin & Deane, 2004).As a society that has championed human rights and the rule of law, how have we come to this? Is it just the media, or is it our need to justify the actions of our military and other government agencies? How can psychology assist the media-consuming public to understand that the harms of psychological torture are as real and abhorrent as those of physical torture?
By Debra Merskin
PsycCRITIQUES, 2013 Vol 58(27)