Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Battlestar Galactica and Torture

Za requested a post having something to do with Battlestar Galactica (BG) today. I had so many other things brewing in my mind--not at all helped by this heat that turns all conscious thoughts into soup--but, I will tie some of my thoughts on torture to BG. Last night I watched the last episode on the Season 2 series, entitled Pegasus. In this episode, Galactica discovers not only that another major military ship has survived, but also something about the way this ship is run. the Admiral has a team of Cylon interrogators who are vicious (hence the tie-in to torture).

In one particularly emotionally difficult scene--involving cuts back and forth from Sharon in the cell with the interrogators and cocky Pegasus pilots bragging about raping their captured Cylon--the viewer is confronted with the barbarity of military interrogation tactics that involve torture. What I am learning to really love about SciFi is the way in which contemporary moral problems are transplanted to utterly foreign terrain to give us just enough distance from them that we might view our practices with different eyes.

As someone who regularly teaches Contemporary Moral Issues courses and therefore gets students into heated debates over abortion, capital punishment, environmental issues . . .I am often exhausted and disappointed by how poorly issues are discussed. The problem is that most of these issues have become so politicized that when you ask students to think critically and carefully through the nuances of, let's say torture, they end up spouting out sound bites they have absorbed from either their peers, pundits or parents. It takes way too much work to get them back to the moral question at hand. You find them making red herrings, ad hominems--you know the typical fare they find on 1/2 hour news programs that they unfortunately come to think represents debate.

SciFi forces readers/viewers out of the familiar. We are transported to other worlds, other times, and cultures that don't even exist. Sure, aspects of these things are familiar, but in general, enough is foreign that we don't tend to make judgments on characters or their actions as easily as we would if the story was rooted in the familiar.

BG has been doing a fantastic job of pointing the real moral dangers of war and particularly war with brutal enemies willing to wipe out the entire human race. The Cylons are manipulative, fierce, relentless, as well as religious fanatics, devoted to monotheism, as opposed to the polytheistic traditions of the humans. Cylons tend to see humans as foolish and destructive. Nonetheless, despite their fierceness as foes, the Cylons, we have thus far learned, are capable of loving humans. Humans invented Cylons--always an apt parable in SciFi. It is our own hubris that has spurred their hatred.

Keeping in mind that the Cylons are determined to destroy the human race, it is hard to wach the episode "Pegasus" and not be affected by how restorting to torture, even in the face of brutal enemies, will turn the torturers into barbarians. No matter how justified people believe torture is, you cannot ever lose sight of what torture does to not only those responsible for carrying it out, but everyone complicit in it. The torturers turn the interrogated subject into a thing. They call their subject "it."

In a military setting where torture is an acceptable practice, the entire regimen becomes more ferocious and reliant on a fascist-like leader. Insubordinance is intolerable; no one is allowed to question the actions of the leader. Those who are insubordinate, who by their protests remind everyone that perhaps what is going on is inhumane, will be silenced one way or another. When you begin to partake in evil you don't want anyone around to act something like a conscience. When we "mainstream" torture, we, in turn, require the most rigid incarnation of military chain of command. These are orders. To cope with the heinousness of these orders, you must kill off a part of yourself. If you see anyone who represents that sentient, empathetic part of yourself you killed, then you kill them off too.

Hence, the moral of the story on BG is that resorting to torture--even when you are dealing with manaical enemies--deprives you of the very values that you thought were worth fighting for.