Terrorism, television, and torture : post-9/11 morality in popular culture
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This dissertation analyzes government documents and popular media to explore how 9/11 altered the moral stance on torture in the United States. It considers the emergence of a mainstream consequentialist legitimization of torture, wherein torture is construed as a lesser evil to that of terrorism, in contrast to the deontological position embodied in international law and treaties that torture is always prohibited. Rooted in both political and cultural sociology, this project argues that 9/11 resulted in "cultural trauma" (Sztompka, 2000) in the United States, the evidence of which can be found in a series of government memos from the early 2000s and in the increased portrayal of torturers-as-heroes in popular media. Specifically, a great deal of post-9/11 media that depicts the 'War on Terror' relies on a torturing hero to fight terrorism and thwart terrorist attacks. Jack Bauer of Fox's hit series 24 is the quintessential archetype of this new trope, but the interrogators of Zero Dark Thirty and Showtime's show Homeland also follow suit. Through a content analysis of the above listed media, as well as ABC's torture-heavy primetime series Scandal, this project finds that post-9/11 media represent torture as justifiable, effective at gaining life-saving information, and entertaining. In order to track this moral shift, this project analyzes both government documents and pieces of popular media through ethnographic content analysis. It uses Ekland-Olson's (2011) model for how moral systems change, which argues that boundary drawing and the resolution of dilemmas are at the heart of establishing new moral positions. In the case of the 'War on Terror,' a boundary has been drawn around terrorists and potential terrorists, deeming them Others who are undeserving of protective mechanisms such as the law. The Othering of suspected terrorists draws on the history of antagonism towards Islam as incompatible with democracy and the West (Said, 1977). This project attends to the Islamophobia of torture-heavy media that depict Muslims and Arabs as unassimilable Others posing a persistent threat to the Western way of life. It concludes that torture has become a frequent practice of the U.S. government and a staple of post-9/11 entertainment media.