Even though I'm a progressive, I love "24." Torture away, Jack, I'll say to myself as my man, counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, shoots a bad guy in the knee and screams Talk!
But now I'm looking at the show in a new light. The dean of West Point says that "24" isn't just entertainment. It's taken as real by our soldiers around the world. And that's hurting the American military.
In a fascinating The New Yorker article, "Whatever it takes, Jane Mayer writes:
This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind "24." Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan—wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals—aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his "call" was.
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."
You can listen to Mayer discuss her article, while watching "24" clips, courtesy of a The New Yorker online extra, "Making them talk."
She points out that on one episode Jack Bauer declines medical help for a gunshot victim until the person tells where a bomb is. This reportedly is the same technique that was actually used on an Al Qaeda suspect who'd been shot in the groin.
In these fearful days, a lot of citizens say "So what?" If torture saves lives by getting terrorists to reveal their "ticking clock" plans, what's the problem?
Well, this is the problem: torture makes us less safe, in part because it rarely works. A former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq, Tony Lagouranis, accompanied Finnegan on his visit to Hollywood. Mayer writes:
"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."
I won't stop watching "24." Got to see how Jack deals with his dad, and whether the President escapes an upcoming assassination attempt.
But I hope the show's right-wing co-creator and executive producer, Joel Surnow, listens to Gen. Finnegan and his interrogation experts. They know that operational details hardly ever are revealed under torture. It's better to establish rapport with a subject instead of water-boarding him.
Plus, on "24" you almost always know that the person being tortured is part of a nefarious plot. After all, a scene or two before you saw them working on a suitcase nuclear bomb.
Real life is a lot different. A man can be whisked up by U.S. agents, sent off to Syria to be tortured for 10 months, and then released as an innocent with not even a "Sorry, we made a mistake."
That's bad enough for the image of the United States. All the "24" DVDs floating around the globe makes things worse.
Mayer says, "We can talk all we want about the Geneva Convention. Yet what the world sees is Jack Bauer. And Jack Bauer is torture."