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September 14, 2004

Fear Factor: Torture?

Yesterday I heard that Seymour Hersch, the New Yorker columnist who made his fame breaking the My Lai Massacre has now published a book which indicts the Bush Administration for Abu Ghraib tortures.

I've said before that the elements of torture revealed to me were not surprising, or particularly horrific and that most of them appeared to fall into two categories. One: Going over a known line in the usual course of interrogations. Two: Amaturish pranks by weekend warriors. Most attention has been focused on the second category. Of them I have said that the reason they are not surprising is because of the content of American vulgar pop culture as exemplified by our jocularity about prison rape ("Don't drop the soap" - Martha Stewart's bunkmates, etc) and television and movies, particularly 'Fear Factor'.

I watched Fear Factor again the other night. There were three stunts. On the other side of these stunts were $50,000 of prize money.

1. Climbing to a height of 110 feet over concrete pavement, leap 8 feet to a cargo net. (Subject is tethered).

2. Eat after thorough chewing 5 live earthworms & 1 live centipede.

3. Crawl 200 yards through a sewage pipe in pitch darkness.

Is this torture? If we made prisoners of war do this, would we be cited by human rights organizations? Does the $50,000 make a difference? Does volunteering make a difference?

Somebody please explain to me exactly how this qualifies as entertainment.

Posted by mbowen at September 14, 2004 08:42 AM

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Tracked on September 14, 2004 11:02 AM


The fact that people watch it?

(I agree with you, though.)

Posted by: Laura at September 14, 2004 10:11 AM

Its torture disguised as entertainment. We hacken back Roman times! I am surprised there has been no fatality/law suits on the show.

Posted by: tmex12 at September 14, 2004 10:45 AM

of course there are no lawsuits because you have to sign a multi-page waiver declaring Fear Factor and NBC to be responsible for NOTHING, including their own negligence......

I myself refuse to watch it because it is just televised, sponsored prostitution. I mean, if you go on the show then you are selling your body right?

Posted by: caltechgirl at September 14, 2004 12:53 PM

It doesn't count as torture,because the people are willingly putting themselves into those situations. Maybe I'm a callous individual,but what I saw happening at Abu Ghraib wasn't particularly shocking. When you consider what these barbarians did to others,marching them around naked is tame, and a bit funny.

Posted by: Eric at September 14, 2004 02:00 PM

I've seen little evidence in the notorious CBS Abu Ghraib photos (which magically appeared at the onset of May Sweeps) of genuine torture. This in no way excuses our guards' behavior.

But the network "reality" (heh...) shows have been around longer than Operation Iraqi Freedom. What the networks don't want you to recognize is their own culpability, via these stupid shows, in creating the mindset that allowed Abu Ghraib to happen.

Posted by: True_Liberal at September 14, 2004 08:30 PM


I might be simple minded, but I see both in about the same light.

I see one being sex portrayed as entertainment and I see the other one being sex portrayed as torture.

In the first, we generally have scantily clad women and men doing who cares what. In the other we have stories surrounded by underware on heads and naked pyramids. Take out the "sex" and both become blase.

Posted by: Joel Gaines at September 14, 2004 09:10 PM

When you ask about the degree of torture, you've already admitted it's torture.

Or maybe I don't get it.

Posted by: DarkStar at September 15, 2004 07:09 PM


I know lazy SOBs who think getting up before 10AM is torture, and an alarm clock is as bad as a rack. Reading the instruction book is sheer agony.

Moral relativism? Perhaps. Perspective sure makes a difference.

Posted by: True_Liberal at September 16, 2004 08:14 PM

I am a Fear Factor afficianado. Am taking a break from the FX Fear Factor Marathon as we speak.

There is a significant difference between Fear Factor and Abu Ghraib. And this difference can be boiled down to a few simple questions:

1. Will I die (experience significant pain) undergoing this?

2. Do I know when it is going to end?

3. Do I have a choice?

Posted by: Lester Spence at September 17, 2004 07:54 PM

Lester Spence is right-on. Contestants on "Fear Factor" volunteer and they can opt-out at any time. They control their situation. The prisoners at Abu Graib have very little control over their situation. There is a large experimental literature on pain and one of the consistent findings is that control over whatever it is that is causing you pain allows you to endure more of it. The two situations -- Abu Graib prisoner abuse and torture and Fear Factor stunts -- are not comparable.

Posted by: Bill Benzon at September 20, 2004 01:53 PM

Understandable. Nevertheless the actual duress is what I'm talking about. I mean anyone who is a prisoner of war is not in control and has no ability to opt out anyway. You have no control over the state of mind of your prisoner and I don't see how someone establishing standards for treatment of prisoners is going to estimate ahead of time the effect of captivity on the prisoner. Ultimately this is is about physical stress and pain, is it not?

I mean if I panic and run my car off the road because a cop is behind me, I can't sue the LAPD because of my state of mind.

Posted by: Cobb at September 20, 2004 01:59 PM