February 10, 2007
Stranger than Fiction: Does 24 Inspire Real Life Torture?By Rick Moran
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 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:
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:
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:
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.