Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Torture and 24

Is 24 simply a harmless TV show, or is there an insidious element to it? A recent article in the New Yorker by Jane Mayer suggests the latter. She notes the rise of torture on 24, how it nearly always works, and how the military loves the show. Before the 9/11 attacks, there were fewer than four acts of torture seen on prime-time TV each year, all by villains. Now, the number has risen to over a hundred, and it's the heroes of the show who torture people. The danger is that people will become desensitized to torture, much as they are to gun violence.

In 24, the justification for torture is nearly always the fabled "ticking bomb scenario", whereby the hero needs to torture the person to obtain timely information to save lives. And the idea that this is a valid justification is implicit in 24. The right-wing creator of the show gives the game away when he asks:
“Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow—or any other city in this country—that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?”
Well, no, actually it would not, that would be naked consequentialism, the end justifying the means, doing evil so that good may come of it. Funnily, as Mayer points out, the exact same justification was given to the French public during the Algerian war to provide "French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture that..racist explanations". The exact same holds true for defenders of the Bush administration and goes along way to explain both the popularity of 24 and the fact that there has not as yet been an honest open debate on Bush's torture policies in the United States.

Chillingly, the agents on 24 use some of the same "interrogation methods" (or as Bush prefers to call them, "an alternative set of procedures") that the United States has employed on terrorist suspects in real life. Nobody on the show argues that torture does not work. Mayer notes that 24 may even be affecting behavior:

"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, ... was misperceptions spread by '24,' which was exceptionally popular with his students. .. “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.'"

'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. 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.

'In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,' Lagouranis told me. 'I
worked with someone who used waterboarding”—an interrogation method involving
the repeated near-drowning of a suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and
sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.' Some people, he said, 'gave confessions. But they just told us what we already knew. It never opened up a stream of new information.” If anything, he said, 'physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.'
Part of this can be blamed on the media, as it continues to merge news with entertainment. In such an environment, it is no wonder that 24 is seen as a role model for real life behavior. But the real culprit is the evil policies of the Bush administration, who with their supporters continue to defend torture. Mostly, they do so for consequentialist means. But sometimes, through the veneer of the security excuse, the sadistic streak comes out. Mayer quotes right-wing pundit Laura Ingraham saying that while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better". Sick. But then again, when you engage in evil, and use the One Ring, do not be surprised if it corrupts absolutely.

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