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Everything I Learned About Torture I Learned From Star Trek


Everything I learned about torture I learned from watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. There was one particular episode, Chain Of Command, where Captain Picard, played by Patrick Stewart, was capture by the Cardassians and was the subject of torture. As captain of the USS Enterprise, the flagship of Star Fleet, the Cardassians figured Captain Picard would play a pivotal role in any military action against the Cardassian Empire. It made sense to the Cardassians that any plans to defend Federation territory, or to attack Cardassian space would involve the Enterprise and Captain Picard. The Cardassians created an elaborate scheme to lure the captain into Cardassian space and interrogate him for the information.

But the captain tried to explain that there were no plans for the Federation to invade Cardassian space. And if there were any plans to defend Federation territory he was not privy to them. However, the Cardassians weren’t buying it. They drugged the captain to get the information. But you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip and even in his drugged stupor the captain remained ignorant. Next, they embedded a device into his chest that generated intense pain by remote control. The interrogator was very devious. He asked the captain how many light bulbs were hanging on the wall. The captain saw four and said four. The interrogator insisted there were five and would push the button.

The first time it happened, the captain screamed and fell to the floor, unprepared for the amount of agony the device produced. As he recovered, the captain tried reasoning with his tormentor. There was a treaty between the Cardassians and the Federation that protected prisoners of war. But technically, the Cardassians and the Federation were not at war which meant that Captain Picard was not a prisoner of war and therefore was not entitled to any protection under the treaty. The Cardassians were free to treat him any way they presumed necessary. The captain admitted he knew nothing of any military plans. The Cardassian interrogator said he didn’t ask about any plans. He wanted to know how many lights were on the wall. The captain replied four. The interrogator said five. The intensity of the pain increased. This torture went on and on.

There was one scene where the interrogator invited Captain Picard to eat with him. A place was set with eating utensils and a napkin and the Captain was given what looked like a huge ostrich egg. When the captain cracked the shell, the egg was raw and uncooked. The captain looked at his interrogator for just a moment and then drank the egg before the interrogator could change his mind. The interrogator smiled and explained that the egg was a Cardassian delicacy. He told the story of how when he was just a little boy growing up hungry in a Cardassian ghetto, somebody broke his arm when they took a similar egg away from him. Captain Picard looked up from his own egg as if he had a sudden revelation. The captain told the interrogator that it must be gratifying to inflict so much pain on another. From this point on he would see the interrogator as a helpless child, weak, and unable to defend himself. This got to the interrogator. Suddenly, he dialed the remote control to maximum and pushed the button. Captain Picard was writhing in pain but was screaming through tears that his interrogator was weak and helpless. I think the captain passed out from that episode of torture.

Eventually, the captain was released. Through a maneuver that put the entire Cardassian fleet at risk the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Jellico, played by Ronny Cox, had negotiated for the captain’s safe return. When the interrogator heard the news that Captain Picard was to be released he tried one last time to break the captain’s will. He told an elaborate story about how the military altercation between the Federation and the Empire was over and the Empire had won. The Enterprise was left adrift with its hull a burnt ruin. The only way the captain could save himself from spending the remainder of his life in a torture induced hell was to acquiesce. The captain was asked one last time, how many lights were there. A few seconds later a couple of Cardassian guards burst into the room. The interrogator told the captain that they were coming for him. The captain had only seconds before his fate would be sealed.

But the two guards ignored Captain Picard. They turned to the interrogator. The interrogator was berated for not getting the human ready. The Cardassian turned to Captain Picard and apologized for any misunderstanding and that if he would just come with them they would escort him back to Federation space. Before the captain left he looked at his interrogator and yelled at the top of his lungs and in his most belligerent voice, THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS!

When Captain Picard finally returned to the Enterprise he took Counselor Deanna Troi to his ready room for a confession. The captain told the counselor that when he was ready to tell his interrogator that there were four lights on that wall. The counselor tried to put his mind at ease saying that anyone under such pressure would submit. But what was most surprising was when the captain told the counselor that when he was asked how many lights he saw, he confessed that he actually saw five lights when he knew there were four.

The fictitious Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise is one of my favorite role models. He is the epitome of integrity. The idea that such a man could be convinced that it was in his best interest to appease his interrogator for nothing more than the sake of ending torture was troubling and yet understandable. I know if I was being tortured, I’d fold faster than Superman on laundry day. The first time I was told that I saw five lights I’d be more than happy to tell you there were five lights. I wished I had just a smidgen of the veracity of somebody like Captain Picard.

But even the good captain of the Enterprise has his limits. We all do. It is just a matter of applying just the right pressure at just the right point to break anything. Constant pain, starvation, sleep deprivation, and/or sensory deprivation would break even the strongest will. So when I hear stories of people being tortured in the name of the United States, I have the sinking impression that the pain being induced to keep us safe is nothing more than somebody’s retribution for being hurt back in the day.

Threaten me with pain or with pain on one of my loved ones and I’ll sign whatever. I’ll confess to being Jack the Ripper if I had to. Just make it stop. All you want to hear is that there are five lights when there are really four? I’ll make it six if that’ll make you happy.

Monday, April 27, 2009 - Posted by | Life, Star Trek, Thoughts


  1. Though I never saw this episode, Star Trek was a very successsful show, and in cases like this, captured our emotions by reinforcing what a majority of people in the USA would tend to agree are the best of our values and instincts. I’m sure when you watched it you never thought: “That interrogator has a valid point here.”

    In fact, in most of our literature and entertainment, the act of torture is the sure mark of the bad guy. And yet we see that over history torture has been widely used, and it fascinates people in an uncomfortable way, whether it’s at; an inquisition museum or in an episode of Star Trek or in the recent portrayal of the Joker by Heath Ledger. This fascination may explain more why torture is used than any usefulness it might have in interrogation.

    Comment by Bettina Hansel | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | Reply

  2. Everything I learned about torture came from living in the same house as my sister!!!

    Comment by Mike Lovell | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | Reply

    • Now that’s comedy!!!

      But quick question; Were you the torturer or the tortured?


      Comment by brotherpeacemaker | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | Reply

  3. Um, well, errrr…the tortured???

    While I’m sure I may have been involved in acts of torture as the aggressor, per se, I do not openly admit to anything per my 5th ammendment rights. That question was once posed to my sister and I while visiting the Cosmos in South Dakota, on its version of the lie detector. Two people, two chairs on a window ledge…the liar was said to be determined by who fell forward. I passed with flying colors while my sister’s chair went forward. Now, this either means I was a believable liar, knew how to control the physics of the experiment, or the system is flawed. YOU MAKE THE CALL!

    Comment by Mike Lovell | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. I really liked the episode that you are talking about. It was one of the really good ones. I personally don’t think that torture is very reliable. Because if it were me being tortured I would tell them any and everything to make whatever they are doing stop. Or agree to whatever they want.

    And I am sure that this is what a lot of people do as well. And it is a shame that we are trying to base our safety on this flawed system.

    And Mike, you were probably a really believable liar, as most brothers are. HA! Just kidding.


    Comment by theblacksentinel | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | Reply

  5. This is my 2nd favorite STNG episode. My first is when Data was captured and treated as a pet for a supposedly superior being.

    Comment by asabagna | Tuesday, April 28, 2009 | Reply

  6. Asa,

    I remember that one too. I love Data and that was a good episode. The guy thought he could buy anything and was such a jacka$$.


    Comment by theblacksentinel | Wednesday, April 29, 2009 | Reply

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