The other day I was chatting about New Avengers #22 with with my friend Christine of the fantastic Daredevil blog The Other Murdock Papers. I mentioned how how out-of-character it seemed that Daredevil would exclaim "Toss her!" when the New Avengers are trying to extract information from Victoria Hand. (Remember that New Avengers scribe Brian Michael Bendis wrote a lengthy and highly acclaimed run on Daredevil.) Wolverine does in fact toss her--out the window--after which the non-powered Hand falls at least a dozen stories onto a car below.
My concerns about characterization--at least in terms of dialogue--were somewhat alleviated, however, when the whole affair was revealed to be an magical illusion shown to Hand by Dr. Strange in order to get the desired information. Christine was appalled, nonetheless, that Matt (along with the rest of the team) simply stood and watched while Dr. Strange tortured Ms. Hand. (At least Matt exclaims "God!" as she screamed in agony. I wonder, is that better than Grant Morrison having Superman exclaiming "GD" in a recent issue of Action Comics? Judges?) Strange's spell is even called "The Death Illusion Spell on the Shadow," lest there be any doubt regarding its intended effect.
Here we go again, kids! I still remember vividly the controversy over the torture of supervillains at the hands of Ray Palmer, Hal Jordan, and (yes) Oliver Queen during Justice League: Cry for Freedom several years ago. (See issues 3 and 4 in particular for some good dialogue on the topic.) I even addressed the torture debate in an op-ed I coauthored drawing a parallel with the issue of whether Batman should kill the Joker, based on the first chapter of Batman and Philosophy (and itself a topic recently revisited by Comics Alliance).
Are Dr. Strange's actions any different because they were the result of an illusion, a magical spell, rather than actually tossing her out of the window? Clearly not: in the legal/political sense, torture is usually defined as inflicting physical or mental suffering for the express purpose of obtaining information. (Ssee, for instance, Jeremy Waldron's book Torture, Terror, and Trade-Offs, pp. 191-4, in which he surveys the various prohibitions of torture in official government documents around the world.) The whole point of waterboarding, after all, to make people think they are drowning, not actually drown them. Just because Strange has the ability to make Ms. Hand think she is dying without actually threatening her life doesn't make her subjective experience any less horrible--or any less torturous.
So it was torture--but was it justified? When it comes to the use of torture, someone people say no categorically, and others would allow for some exceptions, such as "ticking time-bomb scenarios." Let's say we grant exceptions in such rare emergencies: does the situation faced by the New Avengers qualify? In what seems like the start of a new Dark Reign, Norman Osborn has once again put together his own faux Avengers team and has masterfully manipulated public sentiment and the media against the Avengers (both Steve Roger's A-team and the New Avengers). They suspect Ms. Hand--the team's liaison with Rogers--is also working for her old H.A.M.M.E.R. boss, and they want her to lead them to him.
Osborn is bad news, of course, but does this represent a "ticking time-bomb," a threat so severe and immediate that (to some people) it justifies nearly any means taken to prevent it, including torture? It's a judgment call, of course, but I hardly think so, unless they uncover evidence indicating immediate and catastrophic plans of Osborn's. As of yet, however, all they know is that he's made them look like chumps--and they certainly aren't helping themselves either.
Of course, Mockingbird clocked Hand before Strange put the whammy on her--and Daredevil himself has certainly used his fists to empty many a bar of lowlifes when trying to get information on a case. Maybe it's just because, as comics fans, we're used to seeing heroes beat up bad guys, but we usualy don't think of this as torture--though, when a real life police officer or detective does it, we take it more seriously. Victoria Hand is an experienced and trained former S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.A.M.M.E.R. agent; she probably wouldn't crack merely from being beaten up. She didn't crack under Dr. Strange's spell either--but was he justified in using it in the first place?
I don't think so. Do you?
By the way, Christopher Robichaud touches on the torture issue in his chapter "Fighting the Good Fight: Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War," in The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers, now available for pre-order.