Johnny, Have You Ever Hung Around in a Turkish Prison?

I finally saw “Midnight Express” last night – the 1978 movie about the American kid who tries to smuggle hash out of Turkey and ends up in a tough prison with a life sentence. When I was in high school my classmates cited that movie as *the* reason not to ever try to smuggle drugs out of a foreign country. (I’m sure there are other reasons, too. But when you’re young, concrete penalties really stick out.)

Two things struck me. One was that aside from John Hurt, the acting was terrible. Brad Davis just wasn’t convincing, which was a problem because he was on camera almost the whole time. Even Randy Quaid, who went on to do some decent work, seemed able to inhabit his character only for brief snatches of time; the rest of his performance felt very actor-ish. So that was a shame.

Much more important than the acting, though: When “Midnight Express” was made, torture was something *other* countries did. The whole tone of the movie was “Wow — some countries are really primitive. Look how the Turks treat this naïve American boy.”

In the five-minute “featurette” accompanying the movie on the DVD, also made in 1978, this tone was made explicit. Over pictures of a crowded Manhattan street, the narrator said that none of these people would be imprisoned without due process. With amazement in his voice, he said that other countries sometimes imprisoned people after shoddy trials, and even — gasp — *tortured* people.

As Frank Rich noted yesterday, the United States under George W. Bush has become a nation that tortures people. Most of its citizens look the other way. We think extreme measures are necessary, just as the citiznes of Turkey undoubtedly did in 1970. Just as the citizens of Germany undoubtedly did during the Second World War.

It would make little sense to make “Midnight Express” today. Americans wouldn’t be shocked by the rough way justice is meted out in other countries — or shouldn’t be. We’ve seen the photos of Abu Ghraib, and have heard about Guantanamo. We know that our own people, in U.S. uniforms, paid with our tax dollars, are capable of everything that was done in the movie’s Turkish prison — and worse.

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