The reality (TV) of torture

One of the most seductive misperceptions that humans tend to be inclined toward, is the belief that they would not be capable of committing atrocity. 

Especially today, in post World War Europe. There is an unerring confidence that we would not have allowed the horrors to be committed in front of our eyes unquestioned, let alone be party to the perpetration. Not us, not now.  

Ignorance is bliss. The revelation that contestants on a French reality TV programme this very week, had all agreed to inflict pain on another human, calmly and with alarmingly little persuasion, should be a wake up call to us all. The contestants were told that they could deliver an electric shock to a man, who they could see on the screen. They obeyed and pushed the button. Without exception. 

This revelation is nothing new. It mimics a renowned psychological experiment by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s, in which subjects were told they were required to deliver a shock to another participant. It was anticipated that around one per cent of people would agree to administering the pain. In fact, 65 per cent of the participants did. 

That is a huge number. It is massively depressing. This means that by far and away, the majority of us, would obey the authority figure without challenge, and placidly submit to a course of action we would not have chosen for ourselves, rather than rock the boat. Both the experiment, which explored human behavioural patterns in a scientific context, and the French television programme, which existed for the purpose of entertainment, simulated situations in the real world. The contestants believed that they were expected to deliver the shock. They saw that other people around them were condoning it as a course of action, and their instinct was to obey, and comply. 

And I can understand why. I am sympathetic. I know that I might have done so myself. One of the contestants even protested that he had only gone along with it, because he did not want to ruin the show. We have seen enough people degrading themselves on British television with this same justification to know that to be a common mindset. 

The implications for an organisation like Amnesty are huge. As long as societies have existed, people have witnessed the suffering of others and, in many cases, they have also been implicated in inflicting it. Largely, because it is the rarer action to question than comply. We are programmed to obey. We are prepared to accept more than we would like to think.  

This need not be as desolate a thought as it appears though. A comment piece in the Independent, points to the fact that, in knowing about the experiment, we are instantly less likely to comply in any situation. By virtue of knowing our own fallibility and inclination toward obedience, we are automatically removed from the ranks of people who blindly obey. If only our number was infinite. I hope this blog, and the coverage from this week, goes some way to encouraging people to question the next instruction they are given.  

Just how far one is allowed to go when it comes to torture and interrogation practices is also a subject that’s been raised this week with regard to the UK security services. This question includes more than just the direct actions of, say, agents of MI5 and MI6; it also includes complicity in abuse. Is it OK to allow, for example, Pakistani security staff to torture a detainee for hours before you walk into the cell and ask your questions? Should the UK even be accepting intelligence that may well be the product of the torture chamber? 

Just where the government draws the line remains unclear – we’ve been promised the new, ‘consolidated’ torture guidelines for over a year now and they still haven’t been released, avoiding any discussion in today’s parliamentary debate on the report of the Intelligence and Security Committee, the body that is tasked with overseeing the actions of the UK security services. The report doesn’t once mention torture, interrogation practices or complicity in human rights abuses – despite these issues being raised over and over again in the last year, in the context of the Binyam Mohamed and other ‘War on Terror’ cases. 

Accountability and transparency are nowhere to be found – it’s been left to the courts, media and campaigners to investigate the extent of the UK’s complicity in abuses like torture, rendition and secret detention. The case for an Inquiry gets stronger day by day. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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