The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Unit

At a holiday party over the weekend, I met a guy who works on the CBS show The Unit. Conversations got around to the odd situation with the lead casting, and the black soldier (Demore Barnes) suddenly killed off just after screwing a white woman…
Interesting. The word is that he got killed because the company needed to save forty thousand dollars a week on his salary. Wretchedly, they didn’t inform him until he read the script. There are definitely some things about this that make me feel uneasy…

1) The whole Regina Taylor/ Dennis Haysbert casting thing. The show clearly wants to sex things up. Every other actor was lean and sensual…except the leads, who were dumpy. Haysbert slimmed down over last summer break, and Regina Taylor has…a bit. But it was rather grotesquely obvious who the sexy and unsexy people were on that show. And the original casting was by David Mamet. He was getting what he wanted. My guess? That unconscious aversion thing.
2) The Unit guy I met mentioned an “unwritten law” at CBS against interracial relationships. A woman was cast on one show, and the producers were trying to get a certain guest star to play her character’s boyfriend. He finally signed on…and they realized that they’d cast the woman white. He was black. She was fired, but got paid anyway.
3) Having “Hector” spending the weekend with a white woman was, in my mind, a signal that he was about to die. Anchoring pain to inappropriate behaviors is an old, old dramatic technique. Probably as old as mankind.
4) The CBS guy talked about the fact that the writers on the Unit aren’t comfortable writing Black characters making love to each other. They can imagine a black man making love to a Latina (which happened with Haysbert. She died), but not to a black woman.

Man, that is weird. I never anticipated that it would get to be more common and acceptable for black people to have sex with non-blacks than with people their own skin color. I think it’s that sociobiological thing: “we’d rather they didn’t breed at all, but if they must, at least make light-skinned babies.”

I’ve seen studies on rape patterns among conquered people, and there is definitely a primal urge to breed your foes out of existence.
The CBS guy affirmed that, as individuals the writers and producers consider themselves enlightened and socially Liberal. And that their behavior in these arenas is BETTER than white Americans in general across the country. But that the result is the same.
Got into an interesting discussion with a black Conservative recently, where the subject of torture came up. He couldn’t, literally couldn’t stay on the question of whether torture was efficient. He strenuously and assertively kept trying to turn it into the question of whether it was necessary or moral to torture in order to win, and discussing how dire our current situation is. When I pointed out that that was a different discussion, he went a little bonko on me. Disturbing, really. Not sure what I was looking at there.
Happy New Year! Who has their goals for 2008 ready?


Anonymous said...

I haven't done
"New Year's Resdolutions"
in years
why should anyne be limited to one day out of the year
to make a plan
and as we all know
by two weeks after
most NYResolutions have gone
by the boards

now having said that
to write my fine ass off
over the next 12 months
and beyond . . .



a couple of weeks ago
I began eliminating cigarettes from my life

went from 3 packs a day
to between 1/2 and 1 pack a day
without meds or any help other than WILL

I hoepe to have either
eliminate them

the harder thing,
have 1 or 2 a day
and that's it

Anonymous said...

"... as individuals the writers and producers consider themselves enlightened and socially Liberal ..."

And I consider myself the joint reincarnation of Albert Einstein, Kurt Goedel, and John von Neumann.

--Erich Schwarz

Dan Gambiera said...

Long time back we had the discussion about whether a movie can have a Black man in a love scene and break $20 million. "Set it Off" made $36 million ten years ago. It had a pretty standard R-rated sex scene between a Black man and a Black woman (and one between two Black women, but that's another discussion).

It never broke the top anything. And the man was an accessory since the story was about the women. Does it count?

Unknown said...

Y'know, I saw the episode where the black guy looked like he was gonna be getting some, and I thought, hey, see? Things are getting better. Then, at the end of that episode, they showed the previews for next week's episode, the voiceover saying, "five men go on a mission, only four come back", or some such. And Steve Barnes' voice snickered sorrowfully in my head--which was disconcerting, to put it mildly--and I thought, well, crap. Black guy's toast. Watched the next episode, hoping that they would surprise me...hoping...nope. It IS amazing how well that little equation (black guy + sex = dead black guy) can predict the future in movies and tv. Damn.


Unknown said...

Agree with Steve on I Am Legend, though I'd probably give it an A, just for Will and the dog. Parts of it were really, really good. But if there was ever a movie that called for some sweaty, desperate, life-affirming nookie, that was the movie. I think everything in those two people, right down to the atomic level, would have been screaming at them to get naked and get busy. And I think that, given the blockbuster nature of the movie, and Will's popularity, they could've maybe risked it, and this could've been the movie to break the barrier. Even if you're right, and the Hollywood execs are just giving the people what they want, I think at some point the people will have moved on a little further down the road, and the execs will be operating out of habit. At some point, somebody's gonna have to show some balls, and take a chance. (See what I did there? "show some balls"--I kill me.)

Unknown said...

As for 2008, my goals for that year were defined pretty well back in March of 2007, so it's just a matter of proceeding apace. I'm well behind the specific goals I had set for March of 2008, for weightlifting, but right on track for diet, health, cardio, etc, so that's good. Don't think I'll be benching my bodyweight x my age on my birthday! But 500 pounds for 87 reps might have been pushing it anyway.


Daniel Keys Moran said...

About 10 years ago I was going to the gym 3-4 times a week. I made a New Year's resolution that I would go every day the mext uear. I went to the gym that year less than once a week and felt bad about myself the whole time. So now I don't make New Year's resolutions any more.

That said -- really enjoying the jump rope. I've been doing interval training for some years -- this hits that spot as well or better than anything else I've tried. If I had a New Year's resolution, it'd be more jump roping.

Best wishes to everyone for 2008.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to take up a new martial art this year (capoeira); I'm going to be the best prepared new father I can be (March 26th can't get here fast enough), and I'm also going to write 1500 words a day, no matter least until the munchkin arrives.


Anonymous said...

As I sit in the airport going back to LA, I am writing my goals for 2008. I feel I learned so much about myself and how to create my life I am bursting at my spiritual destiny seams: )to get going! Thank you all your wisdom and bravery Steve!! HAPPY NEW YEAR to u all!

Unknown said...

They can imagine a black man making love to a Latina (which happened with Haysbert. She died), but not to a black woman.

I don't get this one. Only wanting black characters to have sex with each other I could at least make sense of, because some people still disapprove of interracial relationships. Or wanting a white person in every romantic relationship I could make sense of, even if it ticks off the people who dislike interracial relationships, because it follows the rule of not expecting white people to identify unless there's a white person present. But why do white people care whether it's a black/black or a black/Latina relationship?

Happy New Year! Who has their goals for 2008 ready?

Actual realistic resolutions that I'm binding myself to follow? No. But I have a blue sky list of a dozen things I'd like to do at some time or another next year, some of which I'll actually get done.

It IS amazing how well that little equation (black guy + sex = dead black guy) can predict the future in movies and tv.

Travis Mayweather in Enterprise got laid toward the end of the series without dying (with a white woman), but others in the crew promptly burst in on them, informed him she was a spy, and locked her in the brig.

Pembleton got to have sex with his wife a couple of times and live.

I think there might be slightly more sex happening on TV than in the movies, depending on what kind of shows you look at (soaps maybe?). But I could be wrong.

Elzabet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

"The answer to your question as to whether torture is efficient is "No". Why? Because while torture may get you an answer to your question, there is always the possibility that the "questionee" is giving you any information you want just to stop the pain".

True. However, it's not like you thank your subject for his or her time and send them along their merry way never to be seen again should their info be less than forthcoming and the God's honest. Assurances of heightened repeat performances is the key here. That is barring the information sought isn't too time-sensitive and your subject has successfully ran the clock out with their initial answer to your inquiry.

Anonymous said...

Another thought:

White conservatives go through the same painful side-stepping about torture, almost identical to what you described. I find it amusing and sad all the way around. Your comments make me think there really is no difference, regardless of what the media would like us to believe.

BTW, any possibility of a black mathematician on Numb3rs?


Anonymous said...

If the Democrats win the presidency next year, as I think is likely, we get to test the efficacy of current interrogation techniques. If no significant terrorist attacks take place then the current techniques were uncalled for. But if we lose hundreds or thousands of Americans to a successful attack then we can assume that the current procedures were warranted.

Anonymous said...

Gostei muito desse post e seu blog é muito interessante, vou passar por aqui sempre =) Depois dá uma passada lá no meu site, que é sobre o CresceNet, espero que goste. O endereço dele é . Um abraço.

Anonymous said...

If Bush, Cheney, Gonzalez, Yu and the rest are willing to be tortured when we question them about their crimes I'll be willing to think of them as something other than power-mad sadistic cowards.

Steven Barnes said...

Again, it's not a matter of whether torture is warrented, it's whether it is efficient. That has to be established FIRST. And it hasn't been.
I talk about the 100 million mark, because it is impossible to get across it without crossing over. 20 million? Black audiences alone can do that. No test.
Can Will Smith do it? I would think so. Will he? I suspect that he will, cautiously.
The question of why a black man and a Latina more than two black people? I can only speculate. But I've seen it often enough to warrent discussion. Weird, huh?

Unknown said...

"But if we lose hundreds or thousands of Americans to a successful attack then we can assume that the current procedures were warranted."

Or we could assume that the odds had caught up with us. Or we could refrain from assuming until we had the facts. Or...if I were a terrorist, I would read statements like the above, and lick my chops. If I were a terrorist, wanting to see America devour itself, I might count on assumptions like the above.

I've supported the Iraq war from the beginning. But I've supported it because I hate tyranny. Torture is an act of tyranny. How much of America do we want to lose in order to protect America? I'm not sure it's a good thing, to go from "Give me Liberty or give me death!" to "Keep me alive at any cost!"

Unknown said...

And besides the question of torture's effectiveness at gathering information--which is a HUGE question, and most of the historical evidence and expert testimony that I've seen suggests that it sucks at gathering good information--there are other questions. Torture isn't just being used for information-gathering, but also as part of judicial process. A free and moral country depends a great deal upon a good justice system, and upon people having a certain degree of faith in that system. Not complete faith, but at least some faith. Given that we know that torture is absolutely and inarguably effective at producing false confessions, what does the implementation of torture do to our justice system? Who could possibly believe a confession derived by torture? Who could have any faith in a system that wrings verdicts out of torture? If the damage you're causing exceeds the damage you're preventing, are you still winning?

Unknown said...

I suspect that one reason your conservative might go a little loopy when confronted with the torture question is that, by embracing torture as legal process, he is embracing something that his traditional heroes have always abhorred, and that his traditional enemies have always embraced.

“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportional to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause… for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.” - George Washington, charge to the Northern Expeditionary Force, Sept. 14, 1775

Steven Barnes said...

Amen. IF torture produced information valuable and unobtainable by any other means, THEN the question of morality and strategic efficiency would next be asked. I fear that many of those who support it got their impressions of torture by watching "24". I am open to hearing more positive testimony on the subject, but there has been very very little. I also fear that an underlying truth is that people want revenge against those they fear and hate. That a certain percentage of people--and perhaps a certain part of most of us--likes the idea of people being hurt, even if the pain isn't productive.

Unknown said...

Also, regarding torquemada's comments, which conclude with "That is barring the information sought isn't too time-sensitive and your subject has successfully ran the clock out with their initial answer to your inquiry."

This is interesting, given that this would seem to negate the primary argument that is being used these days to support torture, which is the ticking time-bomb scenario, in which the information needed is extremely time-sensitive.

Anonymous said...

having recently watched
the DVD of Heroes Season One
and of
all available seasons of
The Shield
I have to say both are remarkable
for the inclusion of STRONG characters
of all races and sexes/genders

and in heroes the black guy
has lve scenes with his white wife
and neither of them die . . .

I expect both these shows are popular too

I know I was crazy about them
even though they aren't Deadwood


Elzabet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Barnes said...

I've never said that black guys don't have sex on television. I do wonder if it drops the popularity of the show, though...but have no way to measure that right now. Always wondered if the black guy ever had a scene with his white wife--the few episodes of Heroes I've seen they never touched. What episodes would that be? I might look 'em up.

pecunium said...

My plans are being re-arranged. Not so much as to be inrecognisable, but greatly different from what they were.

As to the torture question, I don't think he's willing to face up to the question of it's effectiveness. If he can palm that off on those who do it, he can look at, "the bigger picture" and so not think about what torture is.

I've seen a lot of variations on this, in the course of lots of discussions on the subject; to include people trying to make constrained choices equivalent to tortures (plea bargains being the favorite "analogy" to the mental coercion forbidden by Geneva).

If torture doesn't work, then all the other arguments have to be abandonded, or recast. Challenging the efficacy of torture puts the person who advocates it into the place of having to say, "If it doesn't work, we have to give it up... Does it work?" or, on the flip side, "It doesn't matter if it works, we oughta just torture them."

torquemada: So the ticking bomb isn't the justification? Any information is worth torturing to attain?

The Inquisition was (contrarty to popular perception) loathe to torture, because they thought the information so attained was attainted. One had to allocute to the confession when one was free of torture (this was compromised by the knowledge that recanting would lead to being returned to the ministrations of the lictor).

But the Inquisition had a moral out (which they used), those whom they falsely condemned, would fly to heaven, and the souls of the rest of christendom were better off because of the example.

Even with that, they were loathe to torture.

Torure, as a means of collecting information doesn't work. It doesn't work because it corrupts the information stream. It creates blind alleys.

Once someone who is ignorant has been trained (through pain) that the truth is an inadequate response, and been taught to lie (through the release from pain), the lies will come.

He has already been convinced that pleading his ignorance will not keep him from pain.

When the next poor schlubb of an ignorant wretch is hauled in, and pleads he doesn't know about "x", and is tortured, he will will, sooner or later, confess to "x", which corroborates the bad info the first poor guy lied about.

The feedback loop is now complete.

1: Lie is introduced.
2: Interrogator has "gotten info"
3: Lie is, "independently" confirmed, thus "proving" the validity of torture as a means to collect info.

It's not a question of if this chain of events will happen, it's a question of when. Worse, the collection effort will be shaped by it. All of a sudden the false positives (which will be sexier than the real positives) will hide the real info.

As a collector, I'll put up with having to work, really hard, to get info from the guy who knows; and even accept that some of them might not break.

I do that with a clean conscience (and easy sleeping) because I know that the information stream is as clean as I can keep it. If it's being corrupted (which gets people killed, more than having gaps on the map) it's not being corrupted because of me.

As a hypothetical, say I torture a guy, and he tells me of an impending attack. I report it. Some other guys get "questioned" and they confirm the attack.

We move assets to deal with it. We pull some cordon and search ops to find the equipment. We find some (not as much as we thought, but hey, maybe the bad guys figured out the guys we, "flipped" had broken, and this was all they couldn't clear out yet? Maybe.), but it wasn't a real threat. We've just pissed off a bunch of people who weren't mad at us (and we'll grab some of them up, and they will confess to being part of a foiled attack. Brownie points for everyone!!!!).

We also get hit somewhere else, because we were suddenly vulnerable from the shift of assets, and attention, caused by the bad info.

Torture, on a practical level, isn't worth it.

On a moral level, it ought never be being asked.

Anonymous said...

I would highly prefer that we not indulge ourselves in torturing people. I do not however believe we have any way of knowing whether or not whatever techniques have actually been used have avoided additional attacks since 9/11. Stopping some of these interrogation techniques and perhaps also some of the more questionable surveillance techniques would be noble experiment. I am of the opinion that should this noble experiment be followed in a short time by a successful terrorist attack that that attack would be excellent evidence that these techniques did accomplish their goal. This does not mean that I expect such an attack will occur. My current feeling is that its a coin flip.
The question I have for all those on their moral high horse about the use of torture as an interogation is. Is it more moral to not torture and let hundreds or thousands of innocent people die than it is to torture a person who is a part of a plot to kill these innocent people?

Unknown said...

If that were a realistic scenario, if it began and ended then and there, the answer, to a pragmatist like me, would be pretty clear. I'd torture the guy's ass off.

But what you're postulating--that torturing this person will absolutely, without question, save those lives--seems unlikely, to say the least. The real question, in this world, is more like: Is it moral to torture hundreds or thousands of people who may be a part of a plot, but who may be among the innocent people you mention above, in the hopes that it MIGHT, against all odds, in the face of most of what we know about torture, help us prevent the murders of hundreds or thousands of other people?

And will the hundreds or thousands truly be safer living in a country whose government can kidnap and torture them indefinitely, and do so without having to present evidence or justification? Aren't we replacing one threat--the terrorists--with two--the terrorists and our own government?

I think it helps in this kind of thing to assume that the person in power will not have the same values as you. Imagine that the next president is whichever candidate you least like and least trust and least agree with. Do you want to give that person the power to torture those whom he or she deems threats? Say I'm a right-wing, anti-abortion, evangelical: do I really want a leftie president to have the power to seize and hold and torture any evangelical anti-abortion activist who might know somebody who might be linked to a plot to blow up an abortion clinic? And to be able to do that indefinitely, without having to present evidence or justification for their actions--just on a "take our word for it" basis? Would that scenario make anyone on the right feel safer? Believe me, I'm as scared of the left when it comes to this kind of thing as the right. You give your leaders the power to torture, you not only give up the moral high ground, you not only give up a piece of your soul, but you also give up a huge chunk of your safety. You give up the strategic high ground. People in torture states might be safer from certain things--but I really can't see how they are safer.

Foxessa said...

"The Wire" initiated a romantic-sexual relationship between a black man and a white woman in its 3rd season, which is continuing through the 4th season. I haven't seen the 5th and final season though.

We see them in bed, embracing, kissing, also just being silly, like couples are. They are both professionals, the same age, etc.

This is HBO though, not network television.

Love, C.

pecunium said...

Marty S:The question I have for all those on their moral high horse about the use of torture as an interogation is. Is it more moral to not torture and let hundreds or thousands of innocent people die than it is to torture a person who is a part of a plot to kill these innocent people?

Short answer, it's more moral to let them die.

Longer answer... where's your cut-off? You have a really swell number there. After all, who can argue with the difference in value between "hundreds of thousands" and the one poor guy who gets tortured.

It's very convenient when you can make all the rules.

You don't like toture, oh no. It's, at best, a horrid necessity, but when the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at stake.... a man's gotta do, what a man's gotta do, right?


Is one hundred worth it? How about ten? Abraham tried to bargain God down to one honest man to save Sodom and Gommorah.

How many honest men are you willing to torture to "save" those other innocents.

If (and this is a big if), you can show me that torture works (and I've got fifteen years interrogating people, and hundreds of years of evidence which say it doesn't; for all the reasons you ignored above), and you can show me how you won't be torturing the innocent, then the question of who's life is more valuable can be entertained.

And I'll still side with More, from, "A Man for all Seasons,"


Wife: Arrest him!

More: For what?

Wife: He's dangerous!

Roper: For all we know he's a spy!

Daughter: Father, that man's bad!

More: There's no law against that!

Roper: There is, God's law!

More: Then let God arrest him!

Wife: While you talk he's gone!

More: And go he should, if he were the Devil himself, until he broke the law!

Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?

This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down (and you're just the man to do it!), do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

As I said above, the short answer is yes, I'd rather let the plot go forward, then stoop to torture, because that means we have abandoned the rule of law, for the rule of men.

Steven Barnes said...

I'd say we could be pretty certain of the POSSIBILITY that events since 9/11 MIGHT have been averted by torture by looking in history, and finding instances over the last hundreds of years in which such methods have been successful, and looking at the quality of information acquired. My guess is that such instances are very hard to come by (though not impossible). The question of torturing innocent people has to enter, seriously. How many innocent people do you think a society should sanction torturing in order to save what number of others? And do you imagine yourself caught up in the net? Yes? No? This is serious stuff to consider--you're asking loyal men and women to place their souls at risk, folks. Better be damned certain you've really thought it through.

Anonymous said...

I really got into this because of the statement that what the Bush administration is doing is a horrible crime. I feel statements such as this fail to realize that everything in life is a trade off and sometimes we have to go with the lesser of two evils. It is perfectly possible that two honorable men can disagree on which of two awful choices is the lesser of two evils, but we should accept that the other person is acting out of honorable beliefs even if we don’t agree. In 1945 Truman dropped two A-bombs on Japan killing about a quarter of a million Japanese. Most of these were innocent civilians and a large number of them died of radiation poisoning, which from what I have read may be more painful than waterboarding. Not only did we not impeach him for this “crime against god and humanity” we reelected him in 1948. If we are going to talk about crimes I think Bush is a piker compared to Truman

La Reyna said...

This is true. It's been true since TV and movies were invented that people in general don't want to see two Blacks romancing. When it comes to the subject of Black male sexuality, people have the tendency to focus on the IR side of things. If people are uncomfortable seeing two Blacks in a loving relationship or making out, then how can they accept the interracial?

My two cents.

Stephanie B.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a big fan of overt sexuality in movies and TV anyway but I get what your saying. I might be wrong but I don't believe that most white people are still afraid of black sexuality. I think Hollywood is just more conservative than they would like to admit - conservative in the sense that they prefer to do things they way they've always done them instead of doing something "daring" or making big changes. (Apparently gay sex is okay because gay people are cool. Or something like that; I don't know.)

I have especially noticed the lack of interracial relationships in movies and TV. I'm probably more aware of this because there is an interracial couple in my family. (in-laws, actually) One of the many things I really liked about Firefly was that there was a married couple (unusual enough in itself in sci-fi, as if marriage is going to go out of style completely in the next one or two hundred years) and that they were a white man and a black woman and no one else on the show thought that was odd at all.

Steven Barnes said...

Gay sex is alright? What movies have you been watching? I've seen two gay male sex scenes in mainstream films in the entire time I've been going to the movies (consensual, at any rate: "making Love" and "Brokeback Mountain."
Insofar as interracial stuff--even though the actual statistics show MORE black male/white female pairings, you are far more likely to see white male/non-white female relationships on film and television. It's ALWAYS been o.k. for white guys to screw anything. And no doubt Hollywood is more conservative than they'd like to think, in the sense that they may be behind the curve in the creation of racial images. Of course, in other times (like the 60's) they were well ahead of the curve in some ways. They were creating films and television shows that they KNEW would be no-sells in the south and sometimes midwest. So my guess is that they're right about on the button in terms of what America will tolerate in that sense. I currently have no reason to think otherwise.

Tower said...

Steven: I also fear that an underlying truth is that people want revenge against those they fear and hate. That a certain percentage of people--and perhaps a certain part of most of us--likes the idea of people being hurt, even if the pain isn't productive.
A brain imaging study last year did give interesting results along those lines. Basically, the reward centers of the brains were stimulated when bad guys "got what was coming to them." In males anyway.

Germans use the word schadenfreude(which roughly means "taking joy in the misery of others") but there is no word for this feeling in the English language. The phrase "Roman holiday" comes close -- which is generally used to indicate a pleasure derived from watching someone else's suffering (hearkening back to the gladiatorial spectacles in the Colosseum.)

This is not a stand-alone study either. A similar brain-imaging study found that revenge activates neurological centers linked to other strong urges (like for cocaine abuse or sexual attraction.) These are STRONG urges.

Kind of creepy when you think what that could mean in the torture scenario...

Tower said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Oops. I was thinking about relationships, not actual sex scenes so I probably don't belong this conversation. I mostly watch action, sci-fi and occasionally comedies and usually not until at least a year after everyone else has seen them so I'm probably really out of place here. But anyway, I just get the feeling that Hollywood would be more willing to show same sex love scenes, if they thought they could get away with it at the box office. I could be wrong of course.

pecunium said...

Marty S: You can think Bush is a piker, but that's not all that relevant.

This isn't about what someone did (note tense) but about what is being done, and what you certainly seem to be advocating being done.

Because you think Bush isn't as bad as Truman was, you think we ought to torture people?

That's nonsense. Also, it's not relevant to what you said; which is that if we stop torturing people you think an attack will succeed; and that the torturing of people is no small (and perhaps the only) reason we've not seen one in the past six years.

Nothing about torture being worse than bombing (about which I disagree, because they are fundamentally different, both in effect, and intent), nothing about how Bush is being treated unfairly,, but rather, "Stopping some of these interrogation techniques and perhaps also some of the more questionable surveillance techniques would be noble experiment....


"The question I have for all those on their moral high horse about the use of torture as an interogation is. Is it more moral to not torture and let hundreds or thousands of innocent people die than it is to torture a person who is a part of a plot to kill these innocent people?

Which are the questions I answered.

You want to talk about Truman vs. Bush, go right ahead, but since that isn't what you were talking about, I'll stick to the topic at hand; and leave the mind reading to Kreskin.

Unknown said...

On torture, I'm just going to cheer terry karney on, since he's making the argument better than I probably can.

On TV vs. movies, my impression is that women's tastes drive the TV market to a greater degree than they do the movie market. If I apply the Bechdel Test (are there two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man), TV shows pass far more frequently than movies, even when the TV show is in a genre that's stereotyped as "male," like cop shows or science fiction. For instance, Homicide, Law and Order, and the various Star Trek series generally pass this test (with varying degrees of realism in their portrayal of women). Cop and science fiction movies rarely do.

So, my guess would be, women exert more influence over decisions about the remote than over decisions about which movie to watch in the theater. Therefore, probably a black man having sex would have less of a negative impact on a TV series rating than on a movie's profits, because heterosexual white women are going to be more favorably disposed to seeing black men as sex objects than heterosexual white men. But, I don't know that white women and white men would dramatically differ in general racial attitudes, so I wouldn't necessarily expect a dramatic difference between movies and TV in other respects (such as the availability of starring roles for black people).

I'm mostly speculating, though; I haven't done any real comparison. The only thing I'm sure of is that TV shows do pass the Bechdel Test more often than movies do.

pecunium said...

Lynn Gazis-Sax: Thanks. Sadly I've had lots of practice in the past few years.

The sad thing, years ago, when people found out I'm an interrogator, the reactions were simple.

1: No, really. (said with doubt)
2: No, really. (said with interest)
3. No, really. (said with desire).

The last was scary/creepy.

About half the time people would ask about technique, and a question would come up about torture. I could dispose of it with a little bit of the facts, and history.

End of story. Occaisionally they would try to argue that torture might be useful.

These days... I don't think I get to go more than three weeks without seeig someone make the sorts of arguments seen here.

So the finer points of refutation have been polished.

That's more disturbing than (#3) used to be.

Anonymous said...

Okay I’m going to try to explain my world view one more time. This time in terms of my technical expertise as a probabilistic modeler. Many real world problems are attacked using combination of subjective probability assessments as well as hard data. My approach to a question of, to waterboard or not to waterboard, would be some thing like this. I would set up a human pain scale from 0 to 10. I would then assign a pain value to each of the events I was concerned about. Lets say a 3 for torturing a terrorist , an 8 for torturing an innocent and a 7 for the death of an innocent in a terror attack. I would then assess a probability distribution on the relevant variables. Number of terrorists tortured number, number of innocents tortured, number of successful terrorist attacks with torture, number of terrorist attacks without torture, and number of innocents killed per terror attack. I would then compare the expected degree of human pain under a policy of torture and no torture and choose the one that minimized human pain.

It is clear that different people are going to place the acts differently on the pain scale and that different people are going to assign different probabilities to a successful attack with and without torture. The two probabilities 1) of a successful attack with a torture policy and 2) the probability of attack without torture are called conditional probabilities. There is a basic theorem in mathematics for revising a conditional probability based upon an actual instance. So an actual attack while one policy is in effect will revise the relevant conditional probability up, and the lack of an attack will cause it to be revised down. These changes will change our estimate of human pain under each policy and if the change is great enough in one direction may result in a change of policy.

While I haven’t gone though this formal process for myself, as I stated before my gut feel is that if I currently performed such an analysis based on my subjective assessments of the factors that it would be about fifty/fifty between the two policies. I also feel that if a successful attack were to occur shortly after a change in policy the revised conditional probabilities would clearly swing in favor of the policy which prevented a successful attack.

Unknown said...

So you're taking a strictly act-based utilitarian approach to torture, marty s. A big problem I have with this is that I think torture is exactly the sort of scenario where human biases cause act-based utilitarianism not to work in the real world. Torture tends to be done to Those Other People Over There, in circumstances under which we're Very Scare of Them, and in which we're likely to way underestimate the likelihood that the particular people we're torturing are innocent and ignorant. This makes it easy to overestimate the payoff in preventing pain, relative to the downside in causing pain.

Moreover, though torture is weak in terms of supplying reliable information, it has big payoffs in other respects. And confessions from people we suspect of really being guilty can be really easy to believe, however unreliable they may be. I read a book, once, by a minister who initially supported the Salem Witch Trials, and changed his mind and began to doubt partway through the trials. That book haunts me, mainly for the reason he had for supporting the trials initially - so many people were confessing! It reminds me how easy it is to believe even confession that historical hindsight may later consider ludicrous.

I think, in circumstances where natural human biases are such that act-based utilitarianism is likely to lead people frequently to misjudge the desirability of certain acts, that it's better to hold to hard and firm rules against those acts which will nearly always result in more pain than gain. So, no torture period, is my position.

pecunium said...

marty s: Your system is nonsense. Not least because it rests on a false premise.

Torture isn't stopping plots, Full Stop.

It can't because as a means of gaining information, it's no good.

While you may not like to believe it, give me a week, and no restraints; I can make you confess to anything. I detailed all the problems in the information stream in my first response to you, and torquemada.

You've not addressed any of those points (good luck finding a reliable set of sources to refute them. The CIA guys whom Steve talked about a couple of months ago have a vested interest in concinvincing people that torture works, they're complicit in committing it; so they aren't acceptable, find some studies, with actual evidence, and then we can debate it, but there are centuries of evidence that it provides bad data).

Rather you whipped out some smoke and mirrors about Truman/Bush on the War Crimes scale, and then went to this post hoc nonsense that torture is why we haven't been attacked, and that a "scale" can be used to measure out the usage.

Well, then, where do you draw the line. Whom can we torture to prevent run of the mill murders? How many people are we going to "put to the question" to find Zodiac?

The problem with your, "scale" is that it pretends to rationalise the irrational.

As I said, give me a week, and anyone will confess to anything. At which point the value of torture becomes something other than information.

At which point the moral relativism of torture (absuing "them" to protect "us" is moral. I somehow doubt you think they are right to abuse "us" to protect, "them"selves), points out that it's not a tool for gaining information, but a threat; do the wrong thing, belong to the wrong group, and you too will be half-drowned, sleep deprived, "diet modified", temperature adjusted, electro-shocked, &c., &c., &c.

If the idea of that makes you sleep more easily, well I don't know what to say, pity seems inadequate, scorn seems pointless.

Anonymous said...

For me it's rather simple. The question of whether or not torture works is irrelevant. We shouldn't even be asking it. The only question to ask is, "Do we want to be the kind of people who torture other people?" My answer is no.

What I do have a problem with is where to draw the line. What is torture and what isn't. I have alway thought of torture as causing pain. Making a prisoner uncomfortable, causing humiliation, causing fear without causing actual physical pain - is this really torture? I suppose it is, at least past a certain point but it seems to me that if we want to get information from people who don't want to give us that information we have to put some kind of pressure on them.

Anonymous said...

You keep missing my point and making it at the same time. In my process you assign a probability of 0 to some form of torture resulting information which will stop and attack and I accept that as a point of view and that you are therefore are against any torture at any time. The point I am trying to make is that we don't really know that the probability of obtaining good information from torture is zero. If it is true and I don't believe we have any way knowing that some times we get good information through torture then we need to way the possible good that will come from this information and therefore it is reasonable to believe that sometimes torture is justified. If we accept that some people have this belief that is different from ours then we can accept that they are not irrational or evil. This is the main point I keep trying to get across. I am not saying one side or the other is right or wrong. I am saying we should respect both sides for their views. The whole point of my model was that if you did a survey and asked a 100o people to fill in their numbers you would probably get 1000 different values.

Foxessa said...

The concept of 'torturing a guy to learn about the location of a nuclear device about to explode and kill millions' is exactly that -- a concept of FICTION -- MOVIES -- TELEVISION.

Ask anyone who is involved in intelligence for real and they will tell you this. It just doesn't work that way.

What happens is you get a bunch of balderdash to make the hurting stop and then the so-called good guys go chasing off for phony rabbits and the real rabbit continues on its merry way.

Sheesh. Grow up.

Love, C.

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