Various folks in the comics blogosphere have been talking about a recent Spider-Man issue where the titular hero tortures Sandman for information about Doctor Octopus and the Sinister Six, by allowing Silver Sable to pour on him and threatening to destroy the single sand-grain which contains his consciousness.
I'll admit that the scene didn't even register with me when I read the issue, but I've been pretty cursory when it comes to my comic reading lately. But I agree that it's a pretty indefensible scene.
Okay, not entirely indefensible. "Ends of the Earth" isn't over yet, and there's the chance that there will be some fallout from this (though sadly, it doesn't look like a big chance). The charitable view is that Peter's been put in a position where the distrust of the global community and his own certainty that Doctor Octopus is one of the baddies, is forcing him to take desperate measures that he wouldn't otherwise take. I'm reminded of "Maximum Carnage," of all things, where Peter was almost driven to let Firestar kill Carnage. He calls her off, but it's a difficult decision, and as Peter is the Marvel Universe everyman superhero, it's not surprising that he'd make mistakes and struggle with the difficult decisions, as anyone would.
Unfortunately, I don't think this is being portrayed as Peter struggling with a difficult decision. It's Peter allowing someone to torture his enemy for information, and bluffing that he'd allow it to go further. It's especially problematic given who he's torturing. The Sandman isn't just some run-of-the-mill villain. He's a former Avenger. In fact, he used to work for Silver Sable, who's pouring the acid. Sandman's not a good guy, but he's not relentlessly evil or insane; there is literally no reason that Peter shouldn't be able to reason with him.
But he doesn't reason, he interrogates. And in a storyline that's been all about Peter Parker using his brains to outsmart and out-tech the enemy, this doesn't feel like a use of his intellect. A smart guy like Peter should know that torture doesn't produce reliable results. A smart guy like Peter should appeal to Sandman's humanity and general decency and his own intellect. A smart guy like Peter shouldn't be resorting to this base thuggery.
And yet I have a hard time finding the major difference between Peter's actions here and the steps that Batman takes on a regular basis to extract information from criminals. Is there a difference between "acidboarding" and dangling a criminal off a rooftop or breaking a few bones to find out where the Joker's hideout is? Or for that matter, Superman jumping off a building with a criminal way back in Action Comics (vol. 1) #1? Is the main difference that Batman's character is built around inciting fear, while Spider-Man's is not?
We accept, as the central conceit of superhero stories, that there are some people in these fictional universes who we allow to have privileges and freedoms that we do not permit in the real world, specifically to act outside or above (and sometimes against) the law in order to achieve a greater good. If, say, a real-world police officer went after criminals the way that Batman does, we would censure him for excessive force, false arrest, and violation of any number of Constitutional rights. We would strip him of his badge and possibly lock him up, no matter what greater good he may have thought he was serving.
And yet, we allow Batman to do that within the context of his fictional world, and Superman, and Spider-Man, and Wonder Woman, and every other superhero. In fact, in many cases, we would consider them deficient if they didn't act above, outside, and sometimes against the law. It is a bad thing when Peter Parker tosses his tights in the trash, when Superman hangs up his cape, because we feel they are shirking their responsibilities.
In part, I suppose this is because these superheroes typically have greater abilities than mortal humans, they have more power to do good than the average people, even than the real-world authorities, and so we expect them to do a commensurate amount of good.
In part, it's because the superheroes, in the context of their universes, are necessary in ways that they are not in the real world. They are required to work for the greater good in part because there is a greater evil. The police can't stop the Joker or Brainiac, the army can't take down Dr. Doom or the Skrulls, and so we leave those extraordinary jobs to the extraordinary individuals who populate those fictional universes.
But I think we also accept this in part because we know, based on the conventions of the medium, that the heroes are right. We often have even more information than the heroes do, and given our status as well-informed outside observers, we can tell that the hero is on the right side and working toward a greater good.
And I think that presents a problem when we have larger-than-life heroes employing tactics that, in the real world, are problematic at best and morally reprehensible at worst. Based on the story, we know that they're right, they're working for the greater good, but we also accept that there are lines--sometimes wholly arbitrary ones--that heroes shouldn't cross.
The other problem is one of outside applicability, the "Jack Bauer problem." When the torture debates were raging in the political arena a few years back, one scenario that kept popping up was the typical action movie one--there's a ticking time bomb somewhere in the city, and the hero has a terrorist/henchman/whatever in custody who knows where the bomb is. He just has to extract the information somehow, and as time slips away, the honorable methods just aren't working quickly enough. The only choice is to torture the villain, so he'll give up the information.
This may be good for narrative (though I think it's awfully lazy), and it works in the context of the action flick. But it works because of factors that do not exist in reality. We know that the prisoner has the information because we saw him get the information, but the hero didn't see that (if he did, he wouldn't need to torture him, only to remember what he saw). We know that the torture will produce reliable information because otherwise they wouldn't waste screen time on it (unless the point of the scene is to show that torture produces unreliable information, but then we usually have a very different film).
In reality, we have none of those assurances. We don't have the luxury of an omniscient camera that periodically peeks in on the villain's hideout. We don't have the luxury of being assured that any methods used are reliable and useful, because otherwise they'd be edited out. We don't have the narrative certainty that the good guys are good guys and the bad guys are bad guys. And so we can't apply these fictional tactics to the real world, not if we expect to keep the fictional morality intact.
And so when Spider-Man uses real-world(ish) torture in that typical fictional scenario, we're left with the conflict between the real world and the narrative world, a conflict that primarily exists because the narrative world wants to emulate the real world. I don't know how exactly to solve this conflict, not in a way that's actually applicable in any kind of universal sense, but I think a good step would be to keep the moral paragon characters from engaging in torture. It's a thought, at least.