Rave : 2014 : Marvel Comics and Torture

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With the release, on 10 December 2014, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee has released its report on CIA torture practices. It's a 500-page executive summary of a much longer, but classified document. Vox.com boils the whole thing down to four sentences:

  • "The CIA's 'enhanced interrogation techniques' were not effective."
  • "The CIA provided extensive inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to policymakers and the public."
  • "The CIA's management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed."
  • "The CIA program was far more brutal than the CIA represented to policymakers and the American public."

To make that even shorter: the CIA tortured people in a brutal but clumsy fashion; didn't get anything useful out of it; and lied about what they'd done and what they'd gained.

This is a ghastly revelation, and I hope every American - and people like me, who have a deep affection for that country and its citizens - is ashamed today.

I hope Marvel Entertainment is ashamed too, because through their comics, they've lent tacit support to this behaviour, by having their own superheroes torture captives.

Want proof? See Amazing Spider-Man #685, published in 2012. In that issue, Spider-Man captures the Sandman, who’s been working for Doctor Octopus. Spidey wants to know the location of Doc Ock’s secret base, but the Sandman won’t talk, so your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man says this:

“I think six billion lives are on the line! And if I have to waterboard you, or acidboard you, to save them -- I’ll do it! Don’t think I won’t!”

Privately, Spider-Man admits he’s not prepared to go through with this threat… yet. Given enough time, he will be.

Or see 2010’s Ultimate Enemy #4, in which Carol Danvers needs to get information from a captured alien terrorist. She admits that she doesn't have the toughness to torture anyone, but that she knows people who do. Enter Nick Fury, who beats on the helpless alien with a baseball bat. When the alien still refuses to talk, they turn to Hawkeye. Whatever Hawkeye does to the alien is mercifully not shown, but by the time he’s finished, the alien is talking.

In a later issue, Ultimate Mystery #4, the same heroes have taken Captain Marvel into custody. Marvel had briefly been mind-controlled by the hostile forces, which has led the heroes to believe, mistakenly, that he’s on their side. They want to know where what Marvel knows, but Captain Marvel insists he doesn’t know anything. This happens to be true, but the heroes aren’t buying it. So the Human Torch uses his flame powers to burn Marvel’s flesh. Nick Fury doesn’t have powers, so he is forced to shoot the Captain with a pistol. Captain Marvel, of course, still can’t tell them what he doesn’t know, so the torture is set to continue when the heroes are interrupted by the Invisible Woman, who has found out what the heroes need to know through other means.

The fact that the heroes had used torture on one of their allies, who knew nothing and was innocent, is passed over in silence. Whether Captain Marvel recovered from what the heroes did to him, or even if the heroes acknowledged their mistake, isn't shown.

As recently as September 2014, Marvel Comics was still on board with torture, as shown in Original Sin #5. In that issue, readers learn that Nick Fury has spent decades torturing aliens - as well as committing other war crimes - in order to keep the galaxy destabilized and hence unable to take hostile action against Earth. As I said at the time, in my rant Original Sin #5 and Dirty Hands, these sorts of portrayals appeal

"...to adolescents and people with adolescent sensibilities, which is why, I suppose, it's appearing in this comic-book story. Look, I get my hands dirty! I do terrible things so you don't have to! I'm the one who keeps you safe, but don't ask me how I do it! It allows one to feel like a dangerous badass, while also being virtuous and moral. I get the appeal.

"But in the real world, this approach doesn't keep people safe. It leads to blowback, anti-American sentiment, and future terrorism. And along the way, it results in the spilling of buckets of innocent blood...

"At least Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight film acknowledged that this sort of behaviour is at best only a simulacrum of heroism. If Original Sin glorifies this style of politics and warfare, but fails to acknowledge how deeply morally blameworthy, as well as ineffective at achieving its stated goals, it is, then the miniseries is contemptible."

And the same goes for the other titles I mention. The first thing to understand about torture is that it destroys the human dignity of the people who suffer it and the people who practice it. The second thing to understand is that it doesn’t work: torture is only useful for eliciting false confessions, for making people admit to whatever they think their captors want to hear. It’s not only wrong, it doesn't even succeed at its avowed goal, to get useful intelligence out of one’s prisoners.

I read today on Andrew Sullivan's blog that support among Americans for torture has increased over the past ten years. In 2005 about 32% of Americans said torture of prisoners is "never" justified; by 2012 only 25% percent said this, while support for torture "sometimes" or "often" has risen. That's right - about 18% of Americans say that torture of prisoners should be used "often".

Most of the blame for this shift in opinion falls to the CIA and its defenders, who insisted that torture worked, and was necessary to keep Americans safe. And so do the people who made the TV show 24, which, I understand, regularly showed its protagonists grimly but heroically torturing people. But at least some of the responsibility for the normalization of torture falls to Marvel Comics, and specifically to the writers and editors who showed superheroes torturing their captives. If the heroes are doing it - and not grim and gritty ones like the Punisher, but happy-go-lucky ones like Spider-Man or the Human Torch - well, by definition, it must be okay, right?

No. It's not okay. It never was, and it never will be.

Famously, Joe Quesada laid down the law when he became Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics and decreed that henceforth, Marvel characters would not be depicted using tobacco, because it was a dangerous habit and he didn't want Marvel promoting that behaviour, even indirectly, by showing their characters smoking. That's the moral courage the company needs to display now.

Marvel, do the decent thing and apologize. Better yet, promise that you'll never show heroes torturing their captives again.