If you’ve been following the Netflix produced Daredevil series and the conversations around it (make sure to catch Trie’s coverage of it if you haven’t already), the biggest source of controversy so far has come from how freely our hero- Matt Murdock Attorney at Law by day, masked vigilante by night- uses torture against his enemies as a means of extracting information. It isn’t so much that this is the first time a popular street level superhero has resorted to these measures, it’s most likely that the sheer level of physical violence he employs has reached a threshold that is universally recognized as torture by the audience. This presents what could definitely be a watershed moment for the discussion around the use of torture in comics, as a kind of baseline that can be expanded on has been set. Over the course of this three part series I intend to delve into the psychology behind Matt’s use of torture and how both the writers of the series and real world governments create an environment permissive of torture as a means of intelligence gathering, but none of that can be achieved without first establishing a clear definition of torture. I’m going to endeavor to avoid graphic descriptions of specific acts of physical violence, but all three parts in this series will involve discussion of physical violence, psychological torture, police brutality, and descriptions of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anyone with sensitivities around those topics are encouraged to proceed with caution.
One of my first discoveries when I set out to investigate the true human cost of torture and the psychology behind it’s real world use was that the most frequently cited legal definitions of torture are not informed by empirical studies, all are considerably different in scope, and are in many cases counterproductive in trying to treat the victims of torture. One study suggests that up to two thirds of medical and psychological research on the topic does not specify what definition of “torture” was used, so it’s an uphill battle just to properly define the full range of acts that ought to be under consideration as examples of torture used in superhero fiction. With that said, the three major legal definitions of torture used to qualify funding for survivors of torture are The World Medical Association’s Declaration of Tokyo of 1975, The United Nations Convention Against Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment of 1984, and the United States Torture Victims Relief Act of 1998. The WMA Declaration of Tokyo defines torture as:
deliberate, systematic or wanton inﬂiction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason (World Medical Association, 1975).
the UN Convention Against Torture defines it as:
any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inﬂicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person,or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inﬂicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public ofﬁcial or other person acting in an ofﬁcial capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions (Ofﬁce of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 1984).
and finally the United States Torture Victims Relief Act:
‘‘torture’’ means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law speciﬁcally intended to inﬂict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or lawful control (18 U.S.C. 23490(1) 1998).
Of those three, only the WMA Declaration of Tokyo would classify what Daredevil, Batman, The Punisher, or any similar superhero have been observed doing as torture based on the fact that they were not acting in an official capacity. In 2010, the TVRA was further narrowed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement that governs it to only count as torture victims people who were in the custody of the perpetrator and in a limited number of settings:
At the time the acts were committed, was the applicant under the custody or control of the perpetrator (i.e., prison, holding facility, compound, camp, hospital, or school) (Ofﬁce of Refugee Resettlement, 2010).
It’s been estimated that amendment would cut out roughly a quarter of the people who would qualify as torture victims under any other definition including the TVRA prior to 2010. Thus, the current dominant legal definitions fall woefully short from being useful to the current discussion, and more distressingly, many real world torture victims. Instead, the definition of torture I intend to use for this discussion is an evidence based definition of torture proposed by Metin Basoĝlu, MD, PhD at the King’s College London and Istanbul Center for Behavior Research and Therapy:
This formulation points to certain contextual characteristics of torture that distinguish it from other stressful events. These include (a) intent; (b) purpose (e.g., to extract information/confession or as an act of punishment or vengeance); (c) exposures to often multiple, unpredictable, uncontrollable, and potentially traumatic stressors likely to induce intense distress in most people; and (d) deliberate and systematic attempts to remove all forms of control from the person to maximize stressor impact and induce a state of total helplessness. This formulation implies that, when the first two criteria are met, a particular stressor constitutes torture to the extent that it serves to remove control from the person to induce total helplessness.
This, finally, is a definition inclusive of the kinds of torture likely to be observed not only in the Netflix Daredevil series but media featuring characters who operate in a similar manner such as Batman or The Punisher. One of the objectives of the study that operated on this definition of torture was to interrogate the common belief that Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CIDT) typically results in a level of psychological trauma significantly lower than (physical) torture does and is thus more permittable or ethical. The same mentality that causes us to pick out the torture in Daredevil as being of particular note when compared to the more common, less physically violent examples that are generally considered to be unremarkable. In conducting the study the range of “stressors” that were studied to determine the comparative rates of PTSD included a broad range of treatments classified as CIDT that are frequently cited in “enhanced interrogation techniques” from deprivation of food, water, or sleep to exposure to extreme temperatures as well as a range of acts of physical violence more typically understood to be torture. Creating a shopping list of the stressors to cross reference with depictions in the relevant media is tempting, but hardly productive as it’s the perceived severity of the stressor to the victim that determines the severity of trauma. Determining which particular stressors are the most damaging would require a massive sample controlling for a myriad of environmental and cultural factors. Suffice to say that routine acts like suspending someone by their feet off a roof, blindfolding, and sensory deprivation combined with verbal or physical assault (either threatened or actualized) ought to be included in what constitutes torture in superhero fiction. Hell, that scene in the Tom Jane lead Punisher movie with the popsicle was absolutely torture by the criteria set down in this study.
One of the most relevant- and ironic- findings was that the severity of physical violence had little to no effect on the likelihood of victims to develop symptoms of PTSD. Instead, what they found was that the perceived intensity of CIDT that torture victims were subjected to had a much bigger impact on their likelihood to develop symptoms of PTSD. The respondents who reported a lower level of perceived physical torture in conjunction with a higher perceived severity of CIDT had the highest rate of PTSD, while respondents who reported a higher severity of physical violence in conjunction with a lower severity of CIDT had the lowest rate of PTSD. What this means is that while the acts of severe physical violence that Matt employs are more readily recognized as torture to the average viewer, it’s actually less likely to permanently traumatize the victim than the more common acts seen in similar fiction that don’t produce as strong a reaction in the audience. That shouldn’t be interpreted as an exoneration, but as a recognition that less severe forms of physical violence coupled with cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment are potentially even more destructive. It has very serious real world implications, given that when torture occurs in democratic countries, it tends to take the form of CIDT and types of physical violence that are least likely to be leave marks, although the death of Freddie Gray is more than likely a reminder that isn’t always the case.
In reality, it takes considerably less than what most people imagine to permanently traumatize someone. Generally speaking, the physical and economic ramifications of severe physical torture resulting in broken bones, soft tissue damage, and the like are fairly well understood, but the ostensibly “invisible” effects of mental trauma remain dangerously underappreciated by the general public. One study in particular (Ray, Odenwald, Neuner, Schauer, Ruf, Weinbruch, Rockstroh, and Elbert 2006) that sought to pioneer a neuroscientific understanding of the effects of torture examined victims of severe torture who reported episodes of dissociation (a major symptom of PTSD). Many were found to have abnormal slow wave generators in the left ventral region of the anterior cortical structures of the brain which are typically found as a result of subdural hematomas, tumors, or contusions. What this effectively means is that torture is theorized to produce mental trauma so severe that it can cause physical damage to the brain equivalent to a serious brain injury.
Not that physical damage to the brain ought to be necessary in order to accept a serious disability as such. The respondents in that particular study reported recurrent episodes of dissociation that included gaps in memory and loss of time, which are concurrent with a diagnosis of PTSD. Other symptoms of PTSD as laid out by the Mayo Clinic include reliving the traumatic event, self destructive behavior, irritability, insomnia, and severe emotional distress caused by something that recalls the event (the avoidance of which was the original intent of “trigger warnings”). Vice has been reporting extensively on the current crisis of PTSD among veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq that is being exacerbated by the overprescription of opioids and the resulting dependence, which presents a compelling example of just how ruinous a diagnosis of PTSD can be.
It’s long been a staple of the progressive critique of Batman (and other vigilante superheroes who intervene violently in street crime) that his violent assaults of criminals intensifies the effects of poverty on already precariously positioned populations, but rarely if ever are the full spectrum of the effects of having large incidences of PTSD and related trauma in those same groups taken into account. Compounding the potential trauma of an encounter with Batman with the potential for being victimized by one of the bat villains or the hopelessly corrupt GCPD leads to the conclusion that Scott Snyder’s construction of post-Flashpoint Gotham City in the midst of a severe public health crisis could very well be the most uncompromisingly realistic take on the city there’s ever been.
Given that Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen and Batman’s Gotham City are fictional constructs, it may seem unproductive to hypothesize what a highly traumatized urban American population might look like, but it certainly has correlations with highly traumatized populations both at home and abroad. While the crisis among recent veterans and the data that suggests drone operators develop symptoms of PTSD at roughly the same rate as conventional pilots who see combat are cause enough to take it seriously, there are credible fears that the population of Wazirstan is suffering an unprecedented PTSD crisis attributed to drone strikes in the region, and in light of the media attention on the rape crisis on US college campuses, it’s believed that one in three rape victims develop symptoms of PTSD, making it necessary to consider confronting PTSD a part of action on a number of current social justice issues.
I don’t consider this portion of my series as any kind of moral or ethical stance on the use of torture, but a means of beginning a more honest dialogue about it. I don’t believe that any kind of meaningful conversation on the topic can occur without a clear definition of torture and a full understanding of the effects of it’s use. In the next segment of this series, I’ll be assessing the psychology behind willingness to support and implement torture in an attempt to uncover why the Netflix iteration of Daredevil employs it to the degree that he does.
Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman from the wilds of Canada, most recently spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She is a two time IWC Women’s World Champion and has written about comics for the web since 2005 for sites including Playboy, Bitch Media, and Graphic Policy.