Is Grand Theft Auto V the most relevant story about torture since Zero Dark Thirty?

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The following article is about a mission in Grand Theft Auto V called “By the Book”. It contains spoilers about the game up to that point, but not beyond.

The root is still hanging on right at the gumline. I pull with the pliers while Mr. K screams and gurgles. Am I supposed to pull the tooth straight out, or just keeping yanking it side to side? I shouldn’t have hidden my eyes during this part of Marathon Man. Ah, I see my problem. The controls indicate that I needed to apply a circular motion, like trying to loosen a fence post.

Then, a comment behind me: “Eww.”

It’s my roommate. He has walked into the living room on the way to the kitchen, and there I am, with a pair of pliers plunged into some screaming guy’s bloody mouth, yanking the tooth back and forth. Well, not me, but Trevor, who I’m controlling. Torture by proxy. My official representative is torturing someone while I look on, pressing the buttons to let him do this, and suddenly someone is looking at me. Why does this feel strangely familiar?

After the jump, Rockstar is talking to us, America

As soon as By the Book begins, it establishes itself as something new, different, and gross. Trevor is squatting behind a dumpster, taking a shit. By the sound design, it is a particularly smelly shit. When Michael sees him and asks what he was doing, Trevor is unashamed. Is this prologue to the mission related to the actual mission? Is there a metaphor here? Or is Rockstar just a bunch of dudes who think shitting behind a dumpster is funny and a torture scene will get guys like me to write long articles?

During By the Book, you have four methods to torture a man identified only as Mr. K. You can administer a shock through battery clamps attached to his nipples, you can strike him with an enormous plumber’s wrench, you can pull out a tooth with pliers, or you can waterboard him. What makes this mission so uncomfortable in a game from a genre in which you’ve brutalized lots of people? Why do you wince when Trevor swings the wrench into Mr. K’s knee, but you giggled when your character in Saints Row IV did the same thing to a random pedestrian? Both clearly show the impact of the blow. Both victims are helpless. Both instances are violence against innocents. In fact, the one where you wince at least offers the implication that the victim could be guilty of some atrocity, or at least colluding with terrorists who committed some atrocity.

One big difference is that the victim in one case ragdolls away, but the victim in the other case cries and begs for mercy. There’s also the matter of tone. Saints Row IV is a cartoon, but Grand Theft Auto V, for all it’s goofy satire, isn’t joking right now. Another big difference is that By the Book is politically relevant to your country. I’m talking to folks in the US right now. Also, Poland, Romania, Pakistan, Morocco, and Egypt. You guys get to sit in the section marked “extraordinary rendition” over there on the right.

The Houser brothers, whose creative fingerprints are all over Rockstar’s quintessentially American games, are British. Their country paid the price for cozying up to the neoconservative response to 9/11. The costs ranged from the 52 dead in the 7/7 bombings to Tony Blair’s fall from grace to an intelligence community cowed by its failings. Rockstar North is in Scotland, a country whose main claim to fame on the global stage is that it’s under the flight path of Pan Am Flight 103. These are countries with a keen interest in what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. These are countries intimately familiar with the FBI and CIA, for better and worse. In By the Book, the interrogation is conducted by the CIA. The resulting field work is conducted by the FBI. Almost. In both cases, your character is the layer between the agency and its victim. Trevor performs the actual torture on the subject. Michael pulls the actual trigger on the target. You are pawns, doing what you’re told, whether you approve or not, whether you enjoy it or not. You are doing it because you’ve done it before. The animation of Trevor choosing a method of torture indicates he knows exactly what each of these does and how to use it. It’s the same type of animation as a character selecting a weapon from the wall at Ammu Nation. It’s how you select a pair of socks from a dresser drawer every morning.

Trevor’s torture leaves marks. If you use the car battery and clamps, Mr. K’s chest is burned bright red. Depending on where you hit him with the wrench, his pants will be bloodstained. If you pull his tooth, his mouth is bloodied and his speech is slurred. Although if you waterboard him, he just gets wet. Waterboarding is chilling for how harmless it seems to someone who hasn’t been waterboarded. “It’s torture,” Mr. K insists as you hold the right trigger to flip his chair back. He’s been through this before. You’re not his first torturer today. “It shouldn’t be legal!” he cries as you put the rag over his face. Push up on the left stick to pour the water. Intellectually, I know how it works; it creates the sensation of drowning. But I still don’t understand the effectiveness. I’m one of those guys who’s all, “I’ve put a wet washcloth on my face while taking a bath and I didn’t freak out…” One of the most admirable things Christopher Hitchens did was see for himself whether waterboarding was terrible. I’m just going to take his and everyone else’s word for it.

While Trevor tortures Mr. K, the mission cuts to Michael training a sniper scope on a houseful of people. In Chris Hecker’s upcoming two-player mini-game, Spy Party, one player is a sniper trying to pick out a target at a cocktail party. The sniper observes details such as how party goers sip their drinks. This is how he determines who he will shoot. There’s no context for this. That’s just the gameplay. But in By the Book, Michael and FBI Agent Dave are fed intel directly from the interrogation, giving them increasingly specific details about the target, who must be identified through a sniper scope.

The first bit of information is that the target is Azerbaijani. Do you even know that Azerbaijan isn’t a place in World of Warcraft? Could you tell an Azerbaijani from a Kurd or a Turk or an Albanian? Dave and Michael certainly can’t. I know I can’t. My only frame of reference for Azerbaijan is that the Armenians used them as whipping boys in the early 90s. The Armenians! Imagine getting your ass kicked by Armenia. But I wouldn’t know an Azerbaijani from an Armenian without poring over their respective passports. How am I going to tell that through a sniper scope? If you’ve seen the denizen of one former Soviet republic, you’ve seen them all, amirite? Hashtag uglyamerican.

Fortunately, the interrogation yields more information, even if it’s obvious the victim is inventing details to satisfy his torturers. The first address he gives is wrong. How can anything come of this? Is he just going to invent another address? But when the CIA suggests a name, Mr. K readily admits to knowing that person. He’d installed a sound system at that person’s house! There’s a party there today! Maybe that’s what they want to know! Maybe that’s behind the six weeks of suffering he’s endured! Maybe the end is near! You can see the synapses firing behind his eyes as his brain clutches at hope.

So you have a location, which is conveniently a Malibu house, all windows and balconies, with about fifteen people milling about. Now to narrow it down to a specific target. The target is average height, average build, average age, Mr. K offers desperately. The interrogators need more. He has a beard, Mr. K offers. Several people at the party who could be Azerbaijani have beards. What kind of beard? A big beard, the torture victim offers after another round of brutality. Ah, the sort of beard a terrorist would grow. But they/you still need more information, so more torture happens. The target smokes cigarettes. Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s not easy to find smokers in Los Angeles, but if you’re going to find someone smoking, a hipster party in Malibu is a good place to look. The FBI agent needs still more specific information. More torture. The target is left handed. That’s it! You now have a target. A left handed smoker with a beard. Who’s Azerbaijani, but whatever. You’ve got enough information to kill someone. The torture victim — or interrogation subject, if you prefer — was plucked out of a skyscraper based on what must have been reliable intel, maybe from someone tortured up the intel stream. Of course he’d know who to shoot.

I don’t believe the men interrogated by the US government, whether by the CIA or at the hands of Eastern European or Egyptian officials, were chosen at random. I don’t believe the men held at Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib were simply swept up like so many fish in a broad trawling net. I believe the men and women who captured and imprisoned them had mostly good reasons. I therefore believe that some of them are very bad people. And I even accept that some of them might be innocent of significant wrongdoing. Although it’s unfortunate, I accept that some of them were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am willing to accept the collateral damage of the occasional Afghan taxi driver or travelling Moroccan when it comes to dismantling terrorist networks, just as I am willing to accept that a Predator drone strike might kill all the family members in a strike against an al Qaeda safehouse. I am — and I admit this without shame — a realist.

But what I am not willing to accept is that the victims of interrogation and the targets of drone strikes and the men held indefinitely in extralegal facilities aren’t there by a carefully established due process. The insight of By the Book is that it recreates the absurd lack of due process in a chain of events that goes from gathering intel with enhanced interrogation to using that intel to determine a target to actually executing that target. It is a grotesque bit of satire about a failed and disavowed American policy, much like Dr. Strangelove is a commentary on the Cold War, Apocalypse Now is a commentary on Vietnam, and In the Loop is a commentary on the invasion of Iraq. These are all important chapters in our national identity, and they all deserve the close examination that comes with satire, black humor, and even ridicule.

Zero Dark Thirty is an examination of the same topic as By the Book, but with an important difference. Kathryn Bigelow’s and Mark Boal’s movie carefully skirts editorial opinion. One of the things I deeply appreciate about Zero Dark Thirty’s narrative arc from 9/11 to the cathartic killing of Osama bin Laden is that it leaves me to examine how I feel. It does not tell me how to feel. It does not exaggerate torture. It doesn’t even demonize the torturers. It is a dispassionate procedural that leaves viewers to decide what they feel. Discussions about Zero Dark Thirty say more about the people having the discussion than the movie. That’s its genius.

Something you might discover while watching the movie, if you didn’t know it already, is the uncomfortable reality that retribution is arguably better than having never been wronged. The term “satisfaction” implies as much. In Pulp Fiction, John Travolta’s character Vincent Vega is talking about someone having keyed his car. “Boy, I wish I could’ve caught him doing it,” he says. “I’d have given anything to catch that asshole doing it. It would have been worth him doing it just so I could have caught him doing it.”

I don’t apply that reasoning to 9/11, of course. But I do apply it to the killing of Osama bin Laden. If he’d been killed by Navy SEALs after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen back in 2000, I wouldn’t have felt that weird heady concoction of emotions when he was killed by Navy SEALs after 9/11. I wouldn’t have gotten the same buzz. I could have easily remained above that ineluctable sense of satisfaction — the satisfaction of duels of honor and legal courts and avenging angels — that came from a man’s death. The bombing of the Cole was easy to process and keep in a little emotional box, because servicemen dying in the line of duty is as venerable and familiar as the concept of duty. But the secret shame I confront about myself and the thrill I felt when bin Laden was killed, the thrill I relive at the conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty, is that the thrill wouldn’t exist without 9/11, and I don’t dislike the thrill for the event that caused it. Revenge does weird things to people. Zero Dark Thirty holds up that weird thing for you to consider, and it folds into the weird compartments of that emotional box the idea of torture. Time was you would immediately know the answer if you were asked if torture is a bad thing. Now you pause before answering.

But unlike Zero Dark Thirty, By the Book has no desire to remain detached. It is as opinionated as Kubrick, Coppola, and Iannucci. It is an editorial and not a document. It is a fully processed, fully articulated opinion on torture and remote assassination. It pulls no punches and brooks no ambiguity. It even presses into service a psychotic to lucidly articulate an opinion on what you’ve just seen. No, not seen. Committed. You did that. You made Trevor do that. You could have quit out of the mission and spent the rest of Grand Theft Auto V doing races and scavenger hunts. You could have taken a stand. When you booted up the game, you never had the luxury of opting out of disturbing scenes, Activision style. You didn’t get a disclaimer about multicultural awareness when the game started, Ubisoft style. So here’s where you can react to the game veering outside your comfort zone. Here is the point Rockstar wants to make with your direct assistance. Now that you’ve mowed down so many bystanders with cars and guns, what do a few more moments of brutality matter?

So you extracted that tooth, shattered that knee, clamped those jumper cables onto that man’s nipples and flipped that switch. You made sure he was in pain and not simply killed. You stabbed him in the heart with an adrenaline syringe to make sure he didn’t die. You shot the bearded, left-handed, smoking man who may or may not have been from Azerbaijan. And now the mission is over and you’ve been instructed to basically shoot the broken sobbing Mr. K and dump his body in the LA river. If this mission were No Russian from Modern Warfare 2, that’s how it would play out.

Evil is a convenient theological construct that serves a purpose every bit as valuable as love, honor, patriotism, duty, respect, and so forth. But it can only offer you so much insight into why people do what they do. British director Simon Rumley’s Red, White, and Blue is a grim slice of Texas gothic about three decent people doing utterly reprehensible things to each other. It’s a slacker mumblecore movie that spins out of control into the grotesque excess of a Jacobean tragedy. Richard Linklater meets Titus Andronicus. But it’s difficult to watch because it demands that you understand why the characters do these reprehensible things. It carefully and relentlessly unfolds the humane motivations behind inhumane deeds. The most psychotic of the three characters, who incidentally claims he’s a torturer for the CIA, is also the most emotionally honest, the most level-headed, the calmest. It’s an unforgettable performance by Noah Taylor, fiercely hollow-eyed and scraggly, with the duct tape dangling from his belt as ominously as any assassin’s pistols.

Similarly, it’s the madman in Grand Theft Auto V who most clearly explains what’s just happened in By the Book. If you want to understand what Rockstar is doing here, you cannot gloss over Trevor’s explanation at the end of the mission. Trevor’s motivation for performing the torture is two-fold. First, he’s psychotic, so he enjoys torture. He says as much, but you already knew he was sadistic from the rest of the game.

But he further explains an additional motivation. Instead of shooting Mr. K and dumping his body in the LA river as per the instructions from the CIA, Trevor instead drives him to the airport, coldly ignoring Mr. K’s plea to go to a hospital, or to see his family again. Instead, Trevor is exiling Mr. K from his country, their country, my country, separating Mr. K from his family, explaining to him that life as he knows it is over. On the drive to the airport, Trevor explains his second and more relevant motivation. He explains that he knows torture doesn’t work. He knows the information he got from Mr. K is useless for anything but placating the CIA. He wants Mr. K to leave the United States and tell the rest of the world what happened here. He brutalizes and then saves Mr. K to expose a government policy. Trevor might be psychotic enough to enjoy torturing people, but he’s also smart enough to know that his government should be better than he is.

That is the crux of the issue. Even if torture works — it doesn’t, but even if it did — my country should be above it. Whether the objection is moral or practical doesn’t matter to the substance of the objection. Is it wrong because it’s wrong, or is it wrong because it’s not effective? Whatever the case, it’s wrong. And now Mr. K is an anti-torture evangelist/martyr, created by Trevor and sent out into the world.

In Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian level, you participated in the massacre of civilians during a terrorist attack on an airport. It was shocking and crass, but also as pointless as someone taking a smelly shit in the middle of the road and then pointing at it while people drive by. But By the Book, which is also shocking and crass, has a point. It has a reason for taking us outside our comfort zone. This is something your country — you, me — have done. It is something we must account for. That we squatted behind a dumpster doesn’t mean we didn’t do it, it doesn’t mean that no one saw, it doesn’t mean there are no repercussions because it already stank back there. By the Book points an accusing finger, it calls us out, it calls out our country, it says something very specific to you and me about something very specific we have done. And it situates Grand Theft Auto V someplace few videogames reach, alongside darkly relevant stories like Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse Now, In the Loop, and Zero Dark Thirty.