Torture is not quite the hot button issue it was just a couple of years ago. One of President Obama’s first acts on becoming President was to ban the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” or torture. Unfortunately he was also persuaded not to pursue a full investigation into CIA torture. The television program 24 played into the culture of torture after September 11, 2001. As popular entertainment is apt to do, the program was a reflection of certain attitudes at the time. Those attitudes have not gone away. When President Obama and Attorney General Holder suggested an investigation into the CIA’s violation of the Convention Against Torture there was a hail storm of whining from the torture/Bush-Cheney supporters. The scope of the investigation proposed was limited. So much so that it offered a tacit agreement that no one would likely be prosecuted if they said the magic words – they were acting with the best intentions under what they thought was the legal umbrella of the Bush DOJ legal counsel – i.e. torture aficionados John Yoo and David Addington. Holder did hire a special investigator to look into whether there is evidence that CIA agents or contractors violated the law when they used brutal methods to interrogate terror detainees. That investigation is not complete. There has been some prosecution of low level military personnel for torture, but much like a political thriller, the CIA has quite a bit more pull than your average grunt. Did 24 have any affect on whether citizens of the United States tortured anyone. Sans research, in a casual conversation I would say that many people took 24 too seriously. Moe and Curley did not cause a wave of blindness from people sticking their fingers into other people’s eyes. There are some strange videos of self abuse on YouTube, but few people are strapping themselves into rocket packs a-la Wiley Coyote. Then there are the modern horror movies like the Saw series. Torture porn. I tend to think the standards for proving cause and effect between media – books, TV, movies, magazines and comic books and criminal acts should be very high. One of the problems I have come to appreciate is that some people have a lower threshold for being influenced by popular culture than others. That’s quite a problem in a liberal democratic republic likes the United States. Our heritage via the Founders and the Constitution places a very high value on free speech and freedom of expression. It is not coincidence they are guaranteed in the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights. Without those basic rights the rest of democracy is on a poor foundation at best. If some people watch 24 and come away approving of torture that is part of the price paid for freedom of expression. If people torture other people the same standards apply. Though it may not reach the legal standard of culpability that does not mean one is free from the cultural ramifications of portraying immoral and illegal behavior in a glamorized fashion. Does 24 deserve cultural condemnation for setting and exploiting a certain national tone. Since some those people with a low threshold for assimilating what they see and hear did act out what they saw, the criticism of 24 has some validity, The Ever-Ticking Bomb: Examining 24’s Promotion of Torture against the Background of 9/11
One of the key methods used in 24 to achieve security is torture. Over the course of the first six seasons, more than eighty-nine scenes of torture were shown. With the exception of season seven, the general level of violence has gradually risen with each season (Danzig). In season four, the majority of episodes focus on torture in one way or another (Howard 137). The series’s ‘hero’ alone has killed more than 185 people within six days, i.e. seasons one to six (Kruttschnitt), including several civilians and colleagues.3 Since 9/11, the general display of torture on prime-time television has risen dramatically (Miller). According to the Parents Television Council, there were only 102 scenes of torture from 1996 to 2001, but that number rose to 624 between 2002 and 2005, with 24 showing more torture than any other television program (qtd. in Miller). This includes Jack Bauer torturing not only suspected terrorists but also innocent citizens (Howard 138). Additionally, these unethical and illegal activities are, at times, executed under official command. In one scene of season two, the torture of an NSA official is explicitly authorized by the President, although this radical decision is merely based on the suspicion that he might have information about a bomb (Caldwell and Chambers 104). In a similar scene during the third season, the President asks Jack Bauer to kill his supervisor at CTU, which he does without hesitating (Monahan 112).
Some of the researchers who are in this research papers foot notes also noted that viewers of 24 tended to justify these acts of torture and murder as justifiable under the circumstance. Popular entertainment, much like your average Sunday sermon, is manipulative by it’s very nature. The producers of that manipulation may not be cynical, but the exploitation is there never the less. As an audience, people want to be manipulated. Failure to do so can result in bad movie sales by word of mouth or changing houses of worship to someone more charismatic. We expect our heroes and heroines to win. If they have to bend the rules, and we generally hope they do – part of our inner 6 year old – they are justified in doing so. The audience of a popular film has the advantage of having a god’s eye view of events. And not being under any stress ourselves, not having to answer for simply wishing for the victory of the protagonist, or dealing with the consequences what they do, we are free from any complex moral judgments. We are both caught up in the action and yet distanced from it. If the action – murder, torture or break down of authority makes sense within the narrative than the average person can justify the actions taken. Even more so if we find the persona of the actor likable. If Matt Damon or Angelina Jolie does it, it was probably justified.
This kind of affirmation in a show as popular as 24 facilitates the public discourse on the legitimacy of torture by proxy of casual conversations about 24. In a similar vein, Monahan notes that the legitimization of transgressions of law through government agencies might be “increasingly normalised by entertainment programmes such as 24” (110). Unsurprisingly, this advocacy for torture is a focal point of the criticism the show has received. On the other hand, it may come as a surprise that a small group of experts from the US military are some of the most vocal critics. Surnow, who has sardonically called himself a “right-wing nut job,” has mentioned that his show is very popular with the US military and members of the former Bush administration (qtd. in Mayer). As the criticism coming from the military proves, this popularity carries a negative influence. According to former US Army specialist Tony Lagouranis, many interrogators are young, relatively untrained, and frequently under pressure to extract information as quickly as possible (qtd. in Bauder). While questioning prisoners in Abu Ghraib and other facilities in Iraq, Lagouranis witnessed 24-esque mock executions as well as fellow interrogators copying strategies they had just watched on DVD (qtd. in Bauder). The fact that there is “no official doctrine about what to do” (Lagouranis qtd. in Human Rights First) has led to people copying ideas from television and movies. Lagouranis, however, notes that he has never seen “pain produce intelligence” (qtd. in Mayer) while he worked in Iraq. Another former member of the armed forces, Colonel Stuart Herrington, notes that if Jack Bauer had worked for him, Bauer would have faced a military court for his actions, and adds that he is “distressed by the fact that the good guys are depicted as successfully employing […] illegal, immoral and stupid tactics” (qtd. in Bauder). Gary Solis, a retired law professor who has taught the law of war to US Army commanders for years, also emphasizes that Jack Bauer would be a criminal in real life under both US and international laws, but that many of his students sympathize with Jack Bauer. Solis says that he “tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill” (qtd. in Mayer).
Gordon responded to criticism by saying that 24 is “not a documentary or a manual on interrogation […] not a primer on the war on terror. [It is] a television show” (qtd. in Bauder). However, Solis and Lagouranis are not the only experts who witness the direct impact of the show on soldiers, intelligence agents, and the viewing public. General Patrick Finnegan, dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, feels that the show “promote[s] unethical and illegal behavior and […] adversely affect[s] the training and performance of real American soldiers.” When it comes to international viewers, Finnegan fears that 24 may reinforce negative stereotypes about the US and that it “hurts the country’s image” (qtd. in Mayer). A government report released in 2004 also confirms the imitation of techniques shown in popular culture by the US military in Iraq (Human Rights First). According to Jane Mayer, the 2006 Intelligence Science Board (ISB) alludes to several scenarios shown on 24 and their implications for intelligence professionals. The ISB’s consensus is that the public opinion as to how and how fast threats need to be averted is directly influenced by television.
Maybe these military experts, intelligence experts and human rights weenies are taking this all too seriously. John Yoo, the former Bush appointee at the Department of Justice used Jack Bauer as an example of scenarios in which torture was justified(the logic deficit ticking time bomb cliche) in his book, War by Other Means: An Insider’s Account of the War on Terror. When questioned about the legality of torture at a speech Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles . . . He saved hundreds of thousands of lives […] [a]re you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Radio goofball Laura Ingraham said that the popularity/ratings of Jack Bauer was proof of a national consensus that torture was OK. Apparently these well educated supporters of torture are part of that low threshold crowd who believe fictional characters do indeed have an influence beyond entertainment and two dimensional characters on a screen. This would seem to conflict with many of the same conservatives in recent weeks who have claimed that violent imagery and rhetoric has no effect on creating a violence charged atmosphere. I continue to think it is complex. It is like some people who seem to be able to eat all the sugar they want without gaining weight or getting cavities, while others pack on pounds and rack up dental bills. So this is the point where it is expected, and it would be nice to have a simple final answer. Western democracies would surely become nightmarish dystopias if we put government sanctioned baby safety latches on every bit of media for fear it would be a bad influence on someone. That does not relive the producers and cheerleaders of shows like 24 ( there are rumors of a movie based on the series which ended last year) from their moral responsibilities.
“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair. … This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.” ( Bertrand Russell -1967)