I unapologetically love the Fox action show 24. Like many left-of-center people, I tend not to get worried one way or the other about the torture scenes – it's television, it's a plot device, etc. Lately, with the way the show is being turned into a snuff film, the absurdity of it (does Jack have to torture his own brother to save America?!?!?) seems more real than it informing reality.
Evidently not everyone feels this way. This week the New Yorker has an article about the show 24 and torture. The center of it is about a meeting between General Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, who "was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country", and the producers and writers of the show.
What was the meeting about? The army wanted them to stop writing torture scenes in 24. Why? In exhibit A of what is going wrong in the War on Terror, the Army can't find recruits, especially for command and intel jobs, who don't believe 24 is completely accurate and legal – ie, the Military can't find cadets who don't want to go out and immediately start torturing suspects a la 24 (bold mine):
In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show's central political premise–that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country's security–was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."…
At other moments, the discussion was more strained. 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 kids" is condescending rank-and-file military talk, so it is important to clarify that "the kids" are actually the Senior class of West Point – the best of the best, about to head off and fill the leadership and officer roles of our military for the next 50 years.
(I always think people on the pro-, and especially on the ambivalent-towards, torture side should take a quick walk through the chicago reader articles on police torture scandals. For every "ticking-time bomb" scenario you can imagine, the actual implication of your ambivalence is 100,000 "this guy probably doesn't know anything about this low-level felony, but let's make sure" or "he may not have done this crime, but he's guilty of something, let's get a confession" scenarios.)
Read about poor Kiefer, stuck between a great action show, a contract, and his conscience, trying to make "Don't Torture People Young Soldiers!" infomericals for young cadets. Watch an FBI expert who has participated in 12,000 interrogations try explaining how torture doesn't get you anywhere (ie morals aside, it doesn't get you anywhere as an interrogator) while the doughy middle-American staff of 24 goes "sure it doesn't, wink wink." It is good stuff.
The writers and producers are all Rush Limbaugh types (Rush hangs out at the studio). You already know the routine about how elites just don't understand real Americans, who want to feel safe and are willing to compromise. However, this caught me off guard:
["Path to 9/11" writer/producer] Nowrasteh said that he and [co-creator of 24] Surnow regard "24" as a kind of wish fulfillment for America. "Every American wishes we had someone out there quietly taking care of business," he said. "It's a deep, dark ugly world out there. Maybe this is what Ollie North was trying to do. It would be nice to have a secret government that can get the answers and take care of business–even kill people. Jack Bauer fulfills that fantasy."
!?!?!? I'm pretty sure I've heard this one before. I love how quickly the "People are scared and need to be comforted" turns into "it's nice to have a secret government that can kill people secretly" (and to hear it from a LA writer/producer type no less!).
In case you are wondering if you can still like 24, this page of 24 sound clips should ease your conscience. The show is worthwhile if only to watch Kiefer do that thing where he repeats lines, just louder and angrier on the second time.