Torture TV

It was not a sight for the faint of heart: The woman was shackled to a chair. And then her tormentor picked up several needles and drove them into her arm until they came out the other side. The woman grimaced in pain and began to sweat profusely. Blood dripped from her arm. How much more could she take before she broke? Torture is a terrible thing, and we've heard a lot of talk lately about whether we should torture al-Qaeda terrorists. And just this week in Germany it was reported that a policeman will be prosecuted for threatening to torture a kidnapper to find out where the child he kidnapped was being held. Most commentators say that we should never resort to torture. But ironically, the torture scene I was just describing was not involving terrorists or kidnappers. It was torture being administered for the entertainment of a television audience -- another indication of how degraded our culture has become. No one had to watch, of course; they watched willingly. The woman in the chair was a "guest" on the NBC program Fear Factor, the latest and perhaps vilest of so-called "reality" TV. It was bad enough when, in past weeks, Fear Factor contestants ate cockroaches or allowed themselves to be bitten by rats to win big money. And chowing down on liquified pig livers and reindeer testicles is beyond gross even if you get your "fifteen minutes of fame." More than one reality TV reviewer says that, while he is revolted by what he is watching, he can't tear his eyes away. And that ought to sound a warning bell for Christians. The early Church faced a similar situation when it confronted the bloody and murderous gladiatorial contests. In the second century, the Bishop Tertullian criticized Christians who enjoyed these spectacles and warned that their own degradation would result from nourishing a "passion for murderous pleasure." A story from Augustine's Confessions helps us to understand why. Augustine's friend Alypius vowed that he would never again witness a gladiatorial contest. But one day he was dragged by some friends into the arena. Augustine writes that "Alypius shut his eyes tightly. . . . [But] if only he had shut his ears as well! For an incident in the fight drew a great roar from the crowd." Alypius couldn't contain his curiosity. He opened his eyes, and, Augustine says, "His soul was stabbed with a wound more deadly than any which the gladiator had received in his body." He reveled in the gore, drunk with bloodlust. Alypius was hooked. The secular Roman playwright Seneca warned that when we make a sport of maiming and killing human beings, we render ourselves less humane. We destroy the respectful kindness, the humanitas, characteristic of the virtuous person. Research bears him out. Criminologist James Q. Wilson describes research that links violent television with real-life copycat crimes. Most commentators believe that torture is something in which no civilized people should engage. That includes the torture of terrorists or kidnappers for information. But can we, on the one hand, oppose that, and then enjoy torture in entertainment? TV shows that offer torture for fun destroy our humanity -- our compassion toward our fellow creatures for whom Christ died. For further reading and information: Lynette Rice, "When Reality Attacks" (a roundtable discussion with TV executives), Entertainment Weekly, 10 March 2003. Judith Martin, "Reality TV as a Teaching Tool," Washington Post, 2 February 2003, F03. Ethan Campbell, "Running Man Revisited," Boundless, 21 June 2001. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030213, "Reality or Something Like It: Reality TV and Boredom." BreakPoint Commentary No. 020208, "Must-Close-Your-Eyes TV: The Chair and The Chamber." Lisa Leigh Connors, "A bloody cutting edge," Orange County Register, 9 March 2003. Gregory M. Lamb, "TV's higher threshold of pain," Christian Science Monitor, 23 August 2002. Read Tertullian's De Spectaculis (The Shows), as translated by Rev. S. Thelwall in 1869. St. Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine (Whitaker House, 1996). Richard Winter, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering Passion and Wonder(InterVarsity, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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