Stranger than Fiction: Does 24 Inspire Real Life Torture?

I have called Jack Bauer a thug, someone who would be in jail if he weren't out saving the country every week. And yet the fact that Jack seems to be remarkably untroubled by the methods he uses to battle the terrorists has always been one of his more attractive attributes. We want the kind of certitude exhibited by Jack. We long for it. We crave it. A black and white world where we don't have to wrestle with our consciences about what to do with real terrorists and where the choices made by our government to protect us would meet with universal approval is something most Americans would give their right arm for. This, more than anything else, helps explain the popularity of the show.

The moral choices made by characters on 24 do not necessarily shed light on contemporary America so much as they illustrate time-honored thematic constructs from great literature and drama of the past. By definition, these themes are "conservative" in that they reflect a traditional approach to drama while offering a point of view regarding the threat of terrorism that more conservatives seem to be comfortable with than liberals. But at the same time, the show seeks to redefine the moral universe inhabited by the characters who are asked to sacrifice traditional values for the greater good of saving the country.

But we don't live in Jack's world. The world we live in is a many layered, textured nightmare of progressively darker shades of grey. What is torture? Is it right to make someone stand for 12 hours straight? Can you "waterboard" someone? Beyond the moral choices regarding torture, does it work? Is it necessary? The rest of the world is appalled at some of our answers. Shouldn't we be?

And so, 24 remains what it is; a television show with a devoted following among the political class in America with the consequence that its impact on our culture and politics travels far beyond the 15 million people who watch the show every week.

In this serious and thoughtful piece in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer explores the personal politics of 24 creator and producer Joel Surnow. In the process of dissecting Surnow's beliefs, we discover that some of our country's most authoritative sources on matters of interrogation and torture feel that the character of Jack Bauer is a bad influence on the troops and that the show may even be responsible for the mistreatment of some prisoners.

Mayer gives details of a visit to the set last November by U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, along with several senior FBI and CIA agents who have conducted thousands of interrogations in their careers. Their verdict was simple and straightforward; the torture scenes in the show were affecting the way that cadets at West Point as well as troops in the field were approaching the interrogation of prisoners:
Finnegan told the producers that "24," by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country's image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors-cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by "24," which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, "The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about "24"?' " He continued, "The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do..."

The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show's staff that DVDs of shows such as "24" circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen." He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture "victim," in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.
Finnegan said that he'd like to see a show "where torture backfired." All the experts agreed that torture, even when used in the show's "ticking bomb" context, would never work. They pointed out that the fanatics, knowing that the bomb would go off soon, would simply hold out, secure in the knowledge that their suffering couldn't last much longer.

They also pointed out that terrorist prisoners actually looked forward to torture as the first step towards martyrdom. An interrogation professional would never use it and would, instead, take the opposite tack of trying to build a relationship with the prisoner, drawing him out gradually by gaining his trust. Besides, the "ticking bomb" scenario itself was totally unrealistic and would never happen in the real world.

Of course, changing the parameters of the show by taking away the clock and interrogating prisoners the right way would make for lousy television which is why the producers would never agree to pursue such a storyline. More interesting is the idea that our troops actually think that this is the best way to get information from a suspect. Is what Finnegan and the others say true? Can our young men and women be so stupid as to reject their training and simply copy what a character on a fictional television show does, thinking that it is both legal and will get the job done?

I have no doubt that General Finnegan and the agents are genuinely concerned about the show's impact on the troops. But the idea that some of the abuse of prisoners meted out by American soldiers is the result of watching a television show is absurd on its face. Blame it on our not giving the prisoners Geneva Convention protections or on poor discipline or leadership. But the intelligence professionals who carry out the overwhelming number of interrogations on prisoners can't all be that stupid.

In fact, in an article in City Journal, Heather McDonald described how truly professional these dedicated men and women are and what they were up against when it came to interrogating al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners:
Army doctrine gives interrogators 16 "approaches" to induce prisoners of war to divulge critical information. Sporting names like "Pride and Ego Down" and "Fear Up Harsh," these approaches aim to exploit a detainee's self-love, allegiance to or resentment of comrades, or sense of futility. Applied in the right combination, they will work on nearly everyone, the intelligence soldiers had learned in their training.

But the Kandahar prisoners were not playing by the army rule book. They divulged nothing. "Prisoners overcame the [traditional] model almost effortlessly," writes Chris Mackey in The Interrogators, his gripping account of his interrogation service in Afghanistan. The prisoners confounded their captors "not with clever cover stories but with simple refusal to cooperate. They offered lame stories, pretended not to remember even the most basic of details, and then waited for consequences that never really came."

Some of the al-Qaida fighters had received resistance training, which taught that Americans were strictly limited in how they could question prisoners. Failure to cooperate, the al-Qaida manuals revealed, carried no penalties and certainly no risk of torture-a sign, gloated the manuals, of American weakness.

The solution was to initiate a series of extraordinary mild "stress techniques" that didn't harm the prisoner but did put doubt in his mind that perhaps what he had heard about the Americans and their restraint wasn't true:

Many of the interrogators argued for a calibrated use of "stress techniques"-long interrogations that would cut into the detainees' sleep schedules, for example, or making a prisoner kneel or stand, or aggressive questioning that would put a detainee on edge.

Joe Martin-a crack interrogator who discovered that a top al-Qaida leader, whom Pakistan claimed to have in custody, was still at large and directing the Afghani resistance-explains the psychological effect of stress: "Let's say a detainee comes into the interrogation booth and he's had resistance training. He knows that I'm completely handcuffed and that I can't do anything to him. If I throw a temper tantrum, lift him onto his knees, and walk out, you can feel his uncertainty level rise dramatically. He's been told: ‘They won't physically touch you,' and now you have. The point is not to beat him up but to introduce the reality into his mind that he doesn't know where your limit is." Grabbing someone by the top of the collar has had a more profound effect on the outcome of questioning than any actual torture could have, Martin maintains. "The guy knows: You just broke your own rules, and that's scary. He might demand to talk to my supervisor. I'll respond: ‘There are no supervisors here,' and give him a maniacal smile.
This is not to say that there hasn't been torture committed by Americans. There have been more than 700 investigations carried out by the Army involving prisoner abuse and 25 detainees have died in American custody that have been ruled homicides. But to posit the notion, even tangentially, that the actions of Jack Bauer on a fictional TV show somehow contributed to this state of affairs strains credulity.

In Mayer's New Yorker piece, she points out that while the show is fantasy, it sometimes crowds reality by depicting torture that actually occurred in real life, citing an incident last year where a terrorist was denied pain medication mirroring a similar event that occurred in Afghanistan. But the show's senior writer Howard Gordon says that he makes up the torture scenes himself:
Howard Gordon, who is the series' "show runner," or lead writer, told me that he concocts many of the torture scenes himself. "Honest to God, I'd call them improvisations in sadism," he said. Several copies of the C.I.A.'s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual can be found at the "24" offices, but Gordon said that, "for the most part, our imaginations are the source. Sometimes these ideas are inspired by a scene's location or come from props-what's on the set." He explained that much of the horror is conjured by the viewer. "To see a scalpel and see it move below the frame of the screen is a lot scarier than watching the whole thing. When you get a camera moving fast, and someone screaming, it really works.
So does the show "enable" torture by sanitizing it while showing that it is necessary? Clearly, the audience is asked to accept the illegal methods used by Jack Bauer as the price that must be paid to save the country. But are we asked to approve of it? Mayer makes the case that in fact, by making the audience complicit in Jack's law breaking and by showing Bauer to be basically untroubled by his use of torture, the show removes any moral complications the audience might feel:
The "24" producers told the military and law-enforcement experts that they were careful not to glamorize torture; they noted that Bauer never enjoys inflicting pain, and that it had clearly exacted a psychological toll on the character. (As Gordon put it to me, "Jack is basically damned.") Finnegan and the others disagreed, pointing out that Bauer remains coolly rational after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state's witness with a hacksaw...

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have angered much of the world, the response of Americans has been more tepid. Finnegan attributes the fact that "we are generally more comfortable and more accepting of this," in part, to the popularity of "24," which has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales.
Frankly, I think that because the show is so popular with the politically active segment of the population that we tend to overestimate its impact on the rest of America. I doubt whether the majority of Americans who may be aware of who Jack Bauer is actually take his methods to heart. And as far as being more accepting of torture, 63% of Americans oppose physical abuse according to an ABC Poll conducted in 2004 with 35% supporting torture. And even higher majorities (75% in a USA Today poll) opposed the kind of treatment meted out to prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This hardly seems "tepid."

In the end, it's just a television show. A rollicking good show to be sure. It is well written, well acted, with production values that are the envy of series television. But basically the show functions as a safe outlet for our fears about terrorism and security. And Jack Bauer may be a goon but his dedication to duty and his patriotism are so attractive that the audience is more than willing to forgive him his shortcomings.

Most of us like to think that there is someone out there in real life with that kind of tough, no nonsense approach to protecting America but without the moral baggage that Jack carries. In that sense, the show succeeds in what it sets out to do; entertain us for an hour every week with thrilling, edge-of-your-seat action while making us wish that next week's episode would hurry up and get here.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor to American Thinker and prooprietor of Rightwing Nuthouse.
I have called Jack Bauer a thug, someone who would be in jail if he weren't out saving the country every week. And yet the fact that Jack seems to be remarkably untroubled by the methods he uses to battle the terrorists has always been one of his more attractive attributes. We want the kind of certitude exhibited by Jack. We long for it. We crave it. A black and white world where we don't have to wrestle with our consciences about what to do with real terrorists and where the choices made by our government to protect us would meet with universal approval is something most Americans would give their right arm for. This, more than anything else, helps explain the popularity of the show.

The moral choices made by characters on 24 do not necessarily shed light on contemporary America so much as they illustrate time-honored thematic constructs from great literature and drama of the past. By definition, these themes are "conservative" in that they reflect a traditional approach to drama while offering a point of view regarding the threat of terrorism that more conservatives seem to be comfortable with than liberals. But at the same time, the show seeks to redefine the moral universe inhabited by the characters who are asked to sacrifice traditional values for the greater good of saving the country.

But we don't live in Jack's world. The world we live in is a many layered, textured nightmare of progressively darker shades of grey. What is torture? Is it right to make someone stand for 12 hours straight? Can you "waterboard" someone? Beyond the moral choices regarding torture, does it work? Is it necessary? The rest of the world is appalled at some of our answers. Shouldn't we be?

And so, 24 remains what it is; a television show with a devoted following among the political class in America with the consequence that its impact on our culture and politics travels far beyond the 15 million people who watch the show every week.

In this serious and thoughtful piece in The New Yorker, Jane Mayer explores the personal politics of 24 creator and producer Joel Surnow. In the process of dissecting Surnow's beliefs, we discover that some of our country's most authoritative sources on matters of interrogation and torture feel that the character of Jack Bauer is a bad influence on the troops and that the show may even be responsible for the mistreatment of some prisoners.

Mayer gives details of a visit to the set last November by U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, along with several senior FBI and CIA agents who have conducted thousands of interrogations in their careers. Their verdict was simple and straightforward; the torture scenes in the show were affecting the way that cadets at West Point as well as troops in the field were approaching the interrogation of prisoners:
Finnegan told the producers that "24," by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country's image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors-cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by "24," which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, "The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about "24"?' " He continued, "The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do..."

The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show's staff that DVDs of shows such as "24" circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen." He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture "victim," in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.
Finnegan said that he'd like to see a show "where torture backfired." All the experts agreed that torture, even when used in the show's "ticking bomb" context, would never work. They pointed out that the fanatics, knowing that the bomb would go off soon, would simply hold out, secure in the knowledge that their suffering couldn't last much longer.

They also pointed out that terrorist prisoners actually looked forward to torture as the first step towards martyrdom. An interrogation professional would never use it and would, instead, take the opposite tack of trying to build a relationship with the prisoner, drawing him out gradually by gaining his trust. Besides, the "ticking bomb" scenario itself was totally unrealistic and would never happen in the real world.

Of course, changing the parameters of the show by taking away the clock and interrogating prisoners the right way would make for lousy television which is why the producers would never agree to pursue such a storyline. More interesting is the idea that our troops actually think that this is the best way to get information from a suspect. Is what Finnegan and the others say true? Can our young men and women be so stupid as to reject their training and simply copy what a character on a fictional television show does, thinking that it is both legal and will get the job done?

I have no doubt that General Finnegan and the agents are genuinely concerned about the show's impact on the troops. But the idea that some of the abuse of prisoners meted out by American soldiers is the result of watching a television show is absurd on its face. Blame it on our not giving the prisoners Geneva Convention protections or on poor discipline or leadership. But the intelligence professionals who carry out the overwhelming number of interrogations on prisoners can't all be that stupid.

In fact, in an article in City Journal, Heather McDonald described how truly professional these dedicated men and women are and what they were up against when it came to interrogating al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners:
Army doctrine gives interrogators 16 "approaches" to induce prisoners of war to divulge critical information. Sporting names like "Pride and Ego Down" and "Fear Up Harsh," these approaches aim to exploit a detainee's self-love, allegiance to or resentment of comrades, or sense of futility. Applied in the right combination, they will work on nearly everyone, the intelligence soldiers had learned in their training.

But the Kandahar prisoners were not playing by the army rule book. They divulged nothing. "Prisoners overcame the [traditional] model almost effortlessly," writes Chris Mackey in The Interrogators, his gripping account of his interrogation service in Afghanistan. The prisoners confounded their captors "not with clever cover stories but with simple refusal to cooperate. They offered lame stories, pretended not to remember even the most basic of details, and then waited for consequences that never really came."

Some of the al-Qaida fighters had received resistance training, which taught that Americans were strictly limited in how they could question prisoners. Failure to cooperate, the al-Qaida manuals revealed, carried no penalties and certainly no risk of torture-a sign, gloated the manuals, of American weakness.

The solution was to initiate a series of extraordinary mild "stress techniques" that didn't harm the prisoner but did put doubt in his mind that perhaps what he had heard about the Americans and their restraint wasn't true:

Many of the interrogators argued for a calibrated use of "stress techniques"-long interrogations that would cut into the detainees' sleep schedules, for example, or making a prisoner kneel or stand, or aggressive questioning that would put a detainee on edge.

Joe Martin-a crack interrogator who discovered that a top al-Qaida leader, whom Pakistan claimed to have in custody, was still at large and directing the Afghani resistance-explains the psychological effect of stress: "Let's say a detainee comes into the interrogation booth and he's had resistance training. He knows that I'm completely handcuffed and that I can't do anything to him. If I throw a temper tantrum, lift him onto his knees, and walk out, you can feel his uncertainty level rise dramatically. He's been told: ‘They won't physically touch you,' and now you have. The point is not to beat him up but to introduce the reality into his mind that he doesn't know where your limit is." Grabbing someone by the top of the collar has had a more profound effect on the outcome of questioning than any actual torture could have, Martin maintains. "The guy knows: You just broke your own rules, and that's scary. He might demand to talk to my supervisor. I'll respond: ‘There are no supervisors here,' and give him a maniacal smile.
This is not to say that there hasn't been torture committed by Americans. There have been more than 700 investigations carried out by the Army involving prisoner abuse and 25 detainees have died in American custody that have been ruled homicides. But to posit the notion, even tangentially, that the actions of Jack Bauer on a fictional TV show somehow contributed to this state of affairs strains credulity.

In Mayer's New Yorker piece, she points out that while the show is fantasy, it sometimes crowds reality by depicting torture that actually occurred in real life, citing an incident last year where a terrorist was denied pain medication mirroring a similar event that occurred in Afghanistan. But the show's senior writer Howard Gordon says that he makes up the torture scenes himself:
Howard Gordon, who is the series' "show runner," or lead writer, told me that he concocts many of the torture scenes himself. "Honest to God, I'd call them improvisations in sadism," he said. Several copies of the C.I.A.'s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual can be found at the "24" offices, but Gordon said that, "for the most part, our imaginations are the source. Sometimes these ideas are inspired by a scene's location or come from props-what's on the set." He explained that much of the horror is conjured by the viewer. "To see a scalpel and see it move below the frame of the screen is a lot scarier than watching the whole thing. When you get a camera moving fast, and someone screaming, it really works.
So does the show "enable" torture by sanitizing it while showing that it is necessary? Clearly, the audience is asked to accept the illegal methods used by Jack Bauer as the price that must be paid to save the country. But are we asked to approve of it? Mayer makes the case that in fact, by making the audience complicit in Jack's law breaking and by showing Bauer to be basically untroubled by his use of torture, the show removes any moral complications the audience might feel:
The "24" producers told the military and law-enforcement experts that they were careful not to glamorize torture; they noted that Bauer never enjoys inflicting pain, and that it had clearly exacted a psychological toll on the character. (As Gordon put it to me, "Jack is basically damned.") Finnegan and the others disagreed, pointing out that Bauer remains coolly rational after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state's witness with a hacksaw...

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have angered much of the world, the response of Americans has been more tepid. Finnegan attributes the fact that "we are generally more comfortable and more accepting of this," in part, to the popularity of "24," which has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales.
Frankly, I think that because the show is so popular with the politically active segment of the population that we tend to overestimate its impact on the rest of America. I doubt whether the majority of Americans who may be aware of who Jack Bauer is actually take his methods to heart. And as far as being more accepting of torture, 63% of Americans oppose physical abuse according to an ABC Poll conducted in 2004 with 35% supporting torture. And even higher majorities (75% in a USA Today poll) opposed the kind of treatment meted out to prisoners at Abu Ghraib. This hardly seems "tepid."

In the end, it's just a television show. A rollicking good show to be sure. It is well written, well acted, with production values that are the envy of series television. But basically the show functions as a safe outlet for our fears about terrorism and security. And Jack Bauer may be a goon but his dedication to duty and his patriotism are so attractive that the audience is more than willing to forgive him his shortcomings.

Most of us like to think that there is someone out there in real life with that kind of tough, no nonsense approach to protecting America but without the moral baggage that Jack carries. In that sense, the show succeeds in what it sets out to do; entertain us for an hour every week with thrilling, edge-of-your-seat action while making us wish that next week's episode would hurry up and get here.

Rick Moran is a frequent contributor to American Thinker and prooprietor of Rightwing Nuthouse.