Dirty Harry & Enhanced Techniques

September 18th, 2009


I was watching one of my favorite films from the ’70s not long ago and that got me thinking about our use of torture to extract information from detainees during the dark days of the Bush administration. First, as kind of an aside, I have to say Dirty Harry is a great film. Wonderful music by Lalo Schifrin, beautiful wide angle camera work by cinematographer Bruce Surtees, and of course the iconic title character portrayed by Clint Eastwood. Anyway, back to the topic of torture: The Bush administration claimed its use was justified because detainees possessed knowledge of imminent terrorist attacks. This is the “Ticking Time Bomb” rational best illustrated by any episode of 24. You know the scenario, Jack Bauer has some terrorist tied to a chair and he’s going after them with a power drill and spatula in order to get a confession — usually involving the location of a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. And Dirty Harry used a similar tactic to extract the location of a kidnapped girl from the Scorpio Killer. But in the case Bush era detainees, there was never a documented instance of a ticking time bomb scenario. Detainees seemed to be interrogated at random, with torture tactics used in no discernible pattern. In some cases, contractors carried out the interrogations. In other cases it was the CIA. Some detainees were tortured, forgotten about, then tortured again weeks later — nothing suggesting an imminent terrorist attack was on our minds.


I think the whole ticking time bomb rational is just barely justifiable from a moral standpoint. It’s on of those things where you don’t want to encourage or even publicly condone it, but I think we’re collectively willing to look the other way when it’s used by someone operating just a little outside of the system (like Dirty Harry or Jack Bauer). However, the torture used against detainees was institutionalized and authorized at the highest level of government. In fact, the FBI felt information could be more effectively squeezed out of detainees using conventional law enforcement style interrogation tactics instead of ad hoc torture methods, so it’s really strange the administration would just ignore the advice of those who had the most experience at the interrogation game. While I don’t necessarily think we need some kind of witch hunt to go after those who approved the use of torture, I do think we need to take steps to make sure we don’t do it again. The last thing we need is another Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib to weigh heavy on our collective minds.

Entry Filed under: Film, Randomness

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Brain  |  September 23rd, 2009 at 6:58 pm

    Lalo Schifrin is THE man! Prolific and talented.

    Yes; I got flooded. Only the crawlspace, however.

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