When good guys torture

Martin's given up on the new Battlestar Galactica - because torture's not morally ambiguous, surely?


Am I the only person in the world who stopped watching Battlestar Galactica at the Flesh & Bone episode (season 1, ep.8) where Starbuck tortures a Cylon prisoner for almost the entire runtime of the episode before Roslin finally executes him by blowing him alive out of an airlock?

To the arguments that the prisoner was ‘only a robot’, we might remember that one of the many strengths of science-fiction is its capacity for symbolism and transference; in history there are notable examples such as the case of extraterrestrial beings representing the communist threat in sci-fi classics such as Don Siegel’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956), and less luminous commie-bashing tracts such as Invaders From Mars (1953). Under the most grievous of fascist or communist regimes, the ability of science-fiction to depoliticise contentious issues by transposing them into a fantastic scenario was the only recourse many serious artists had.

Good science-fiction attacks contemporary issues with signs and ciphers. So forget the ‘robot’ argument, it’s an evasion that doesn’t hold.

Flesh and Bone is about human torture, not about cybernetics, and its tacit acceptance of torture is a ratification. The writing in the episode is typically intelligent, with many quandaries regarding issues of rights, pain, the philosophical essence of what makes an individual sentient…do robots have souls…?

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Starbuck was spiritually troubled throughout the episode, and counselled by the wiser Roslin during the locker-breaks. The one thing remaining unaddressed was whether or not torture in itself was acceptable. Discussed instead was the issue of whether Starbuck herself had the resilience, invention and necessary brutality to do a ‘hard’ thing for the greater good.

The most troubling aspect of torturing a completely humanoid robot for 45 minutes is how closely the scenario resembles the schizophrenic disassociation necessary in order for ‘rational’ people to spend the day interrogating suspects with drills and knives, before going home to kiss their children goodnight.

Excuses for torture abound; in the case of Flesh and Bone, the captive Cylon apparently held information on a nuclear bomb planted in one of the ships in the fleet, a transparent simile for some of the motives behind Rendition in our current society. A search was being conducted, but may have taken more time than the colonials had; the pragmatism of torture offered a possible short-cut to save many lives…

I have discussed this particular episode of Galactica on more than one forum or comments board on the web, and, surer than Godwin’s law, the discussion is never more than ten replies away from someone expressing the following (summarised) sentiment: I’ll tell you buddy, if they had my daughter kidnapped and I had the guy helpless in front of me, I’d reach for my toolbox in a heartbeat.

You know what? So would I, but I’m not looking to write it into either English law or the constitution of the United States; because that hypothetical case posits an example of instinct overcoming reason, and its rightful destination is a trial in a courtroom. Maybe they’d let me off with mitigating circumstances, maybe not. That doesn’t mean I want to be able to dial 999 and let the police do the work for me in specially-built cellars.

That isn’t a society I want to live in, or to send a child into. Civilisation is not defined by iPods, skyscrapers or websites, but by the ability to empathise. What you sell for the practical advantage of torture is everything you were seeking to protect. It is an instant and complete victory for your opponents, because they have murdered you with a mere idea, and ruined the world you were trying to protect for your children.

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What most offended me about Flesh And Bone was not that it sought to rationalise torture but that it took the validity of such an interrogation procedure for granted and immediately went on to lesser issues. And this is the most insidious type of propaganda there is: when you wake up and find the status quo has been subtly rewritten.

The science-fiction of George Orwell, H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and many other writers (even as unlikely as Douglas Adams) has a long history of vigilance against the rationalisation and philosophies-of-expediency that breed fascism and fear, and it was dispiriting to see the genre employed to do what the current culture seems bent on – making the notion and presence of torture a kind of banal muzak that no-one notices anymore.

I continue to hear a lot of good things about Battlestar Galactica, but – though I miss it a little – I don’t watch it anymore. Ultimately my rift with the show is analogous to dating a beautiful and charming woman, who one evening puts her National Front membership card on the table whilst searching for the ringing mobile in her handbag. There’s just no going back.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.