Network Sadism

Is Fox's 24 an Advertisement for Torture?

by Chris Barsanti

6 March 2006


When the debate was raging over the airwaves and in the Washington halls of power over whether or not Cheney and his shadow government pals should be allowed to circumvent torture prohibitions, the argument often seemed not so much “Is torture right?” but “Does torture work?” It’s a kind of grim calculus that skirts morality and asks instead how much immorality must one accept and pragmatically embrace in the world. As columnist Anne Applebaum pointed out in “The Torture Myth”, the debate breaks down along pretty predictable party lines, with humanitarian liberals assuming that torture never works (ignoring any evidence to the contrary), and “realists,” whether liberal or conservative, who tended to eagerly accept fake accounts of effective torture. Testosterone-soaked pundits played the realist card while prominent veteran John McCain kindly pointed out that when he was tortured by the North Vietnamese wanting the names of other men in his unit, he gave them the names of the Green Bay Packers starting line, just to stop the pain. According to some media critics, there’s another constituency that believes full well that torture works, namely the viewers of 24.

Fox’s series — which loads 24 hours of real-time apocalypse scenarios into each season — just kicked off its fifth season (or “day”) with a tension-junkie four-hour, two-night spread of the worst their writers could come up with to throw at jaded viewers. A former president is assassinated, terrorists take hostages at an airport and hey, where did all that nerve gas come from? This is all in a typical season for a show that dishes out the terror like sitcoms do canned laughter. On 24, favorite characters get killed off, the country’s leadership seems weak and disorganized, and the apocalypse is nigh. One of the only standards that their writers didn’t include in the first four hours (though they got to it soon after) was a torture scene, which previously had been showing up with dreary regularity in a show which has more than once — and not without reason — been referred to as “torture porn”.

The reason for this is simple. Fairly often during the show, an agent of CTU (the show’s fictitious Counter Terrorism Unit, which has shockingly poor employee screening techniques but otherwise acts like the efficient and elite evil-fighting force we all wish existed but deep down know doesn’t) attempts to pry information from a recalcitrant suspect. The CTU agent (usually Jack Bauer, the show’s grim-visaged star played by Kiefer Sutherland) then resorts to violently gruesome methods which often yield the required information.

This wouldn’t be so troubling — nastier things happen in film and TV all the time — were it not for the fact that the show counts among its fan base plenty of rabid conservatives (including, rumor has it, many White House staffers) who one can easily imagine on the couch, cheering Jack on as he acts out all their darker impulses which the Democrat wimps want to curtail. Right-wing bulldogs like The National Review and The Washington Times praise the show for its “realism” and (what they see as) its refusal to play the game of Hollywood liberals. The show’s complement of consultants is peppered with ex-government Intel types and Tom Clancy-esque writers like Vince Flynn who are adept at coming up with scenarios in which the bad guys (Russian separatists this season, Muslim fundamentalists in the last one) push the limits of what can be combated with humane methods.

A classic example of these ethically gray areas came up in a recent episode. Agent Bauer is trying to get information out of a highly-placed White House mole who refuses to talk — that is, until Bauer holds a knife to his eye and says, “You’ve read my file” as a way of intimating what he’ll do. Surprise, surprise, the mole antes up. This is the classic “ticking-clock” scenario that the pro-torture realists always speak of in which the ethical compromise of torture is weighed against the need to gain information immediately to prevent imminent harm against others. Alan Dershowitz raised holy hell a couple years ago when he made the case for torture under these circumstances, even going so far as to suggest getting a judge’s approval for it, through the issuance of a “torture warrant”.

What nobody on either side of this debate has managed to conclusively state is whether or not such ticking-clock scenarios actually happen (likely the people who do know for sure are bound by secrecy laws not to say anything). Being fiction — an important distinction that many of its critics miss — 24 can neatly bypass this uncertainty by the mere fact of its real-time structure: the clock is always ticking. In the real world, even the Israeli government — who have more need of time-sensitive information than any other government in the world, not to mention more experience with interrogating terror suspects — has sworn off the use of interrogation by torture as it hasn’t been proven to yield reliable Intel (refer again to McCain’s Green Bay Packers gambit). It just doesn’t work.

Does 24 justify torture? Absolutely. The show excuses its characters going beyond the law when necessary in the time-honored tradition of Dirty Harry, in which Clint Eastwood dispensed with legal niceties . So much so that famed New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael labeled the film “fascist”. Just as Dirty Harry Callahan exemplified the right-wing push-back against namby-pamby civil rights in the early years of rulings like Miranda v. Arizona (1966) that curtailed law enforcers’ ability to act with impunity, 24 puts itself pretty squarely on the “pro” side of the torture debate.

One of the show’s more ridiculous scenes came last season when an accomplice of that season’s villain, Marwan, gets brought into CTU for questioning (i.e., torture). Marwan gets on the phone to an ACLU/Amnesty International-esque group called Amnesty Global, and within minutes (this is after midnight in LA, mind you), one of their lawyers shows up and gets the prisoner sprung. Never mind the fact that human rights lawyers have about as much power to do such things as you or I, the primary problem here is that the show gets its clichés wrong. In your standard law-and-order narrative, the sleazy, sports-car-driving, thousand-dollar-suit-wearing attorney is supposed to be a criminal defense lawyer, the kind who gets rich off keeping drug dealers out of jail by any Machiavellian means necessary. In what world do 24‘s writers live in which human rights lawyers drive sports cars and dress like Hugo Boss models instead of puttering around in sticker-covered Volvos and wearing off-the-rack suits from JC Penny? They should at least try to get their clichés right.

That said, 24 also hedges like a good liberal. Because even though Bauer has a predilection for torture — you wince anytime a suspect is brought in, just waiting for the implements to be brought out — viewers’ more Neanderthal tendencies are rarely if ever rewarded with a clean conclusion. The show never provides the kind of expected action-film climax where the chisel-faced hero, having looked into the void of evil and partaken of its dark tools, finally offs the villain to applause from the balcony. For every liberal-baiting scene like the one described just above, there’s several in which CTU and the forces of law and order get it wrong. At least three times last season, either the wrong person was tortured or was tortured and didn’t provide any information. And in the early episodes of the new season, a persnickety CTU official (played by Sean Astin) who looked at first like the kind of spineless desk jockey so often lampooned in testosterone fiction turns out to be better at his job than just about any of the show regulars due to his by-the-book bureaucratic ways.

In a somewhat garbled essay published recently in The Guardian (12 January 2006) called “The Depraved Heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood”, Lacanian psychoanalytic pop culture fulminator Slavoj Zizek compared the show’s “depraved” protagonists to Nazis. Zizek’s basic point is that by portraying the CTU agents as still somehow noble and heroic after performing such inhuman deeds, the show caters to the same deluded lie that Nazi operatives like Eichmann and Himmler believed, “that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragical-ethical grandeur.” Though full of 180-proof ivory-tower exaggeration, there’s some truth in Zizek’s comparison here, but it lacks a solid knowledge of the show itself, especially the way it handles its characters.

To completely buy Zizek’s argument, one would have to claim that 24 lets its characters who partake in such acts off the hook, which is hardly the case. Just as, at the end of Dirty Harry, Clint throws his badge away, by the show’s fifth season, Bauer has utterly ruined himself for his country, losing his family, friends and practically any semblance of humanity. It would be one thing if everything ended happily, with a pained Bauer stalking off into the tragically grand sunset and everyone else celebrating. The torture scenes, as much as they endorse the ticking-clock argument, still leave a bad aftertaste.

All of this could simply be my attempt to rationalize my love of a show whose politics and morals I have good reason to suspect are quite at odds with my own. That is, I want to see that Bauer and his compatriots don’t really want to do the things they have to do, and are spiritually wrecked by it afterward, as a means of justifying how thrilling I find the show, which is like an action soap opera for the post-9/11 era. A friend who’s a near-fanatic 24 devotee and self-identified “old-school liberal,” puts it more clearly: “Do I think 24 romanticizes torture? Heck yeah I do. But it’s a TV show. Its function is to stir me. Scare me. Act out what my imagination’s darkest corners wouldn’t even consider.”

The darkest corner of my imagination is a place where one could commit these horrible acts against another person and yet have nothing to show for it in the end, even after one has gone down that dead-end road. Although I know its patently absurd ticking-clock situations make a mockery of real debate on the torture, in its constant doom-seeking 24 seems a show less about torture than about nightmares, where the most hopeless situation usually gets worse, regardless of how many rules are broken to make it right. If Bauer’s spiritually exhausted, dead-eyed visage means anything to me, it’s is an advertisement for what torture does not just to those it is inflicted on, but also to those who perform it. Nobody gets away clean.

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