Books: A Point of View: Torture on <i>24</i> |
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Torture on 24 : on torture and the media

(S01E09, broadcast 30th March and 1st April 2007)

"The clock's ticking on torture"
— torture tactics

Somewhere in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles there is a nondescript building where the giant creative brains get together who are responsible for creating the TV show 24. The show stars Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorist who has only one day, spread over twenty-four episodes each an hour long, to stave off the latest threat to civilization mounted by terrorists whose sole trace of human consideration is their willingness to mount threats that will exactly fit the production company’s format of twenty-four hour-long episodes minus time for commercials.

Richly rewarded in their task by a huge flow of international revenue and the admiration of ultra-right-wing boneheads everywhere who think the show is an educational tool, the masterminds who produce 24 have been having a more than usually good time recently, because their show, which has always been prominent in the TV preview pages wherever it screens in the world, is now in the news pages as well. The news stories focus on the show’s alleged fondness for torture scenes in which counter-terrorist Bauer extracts from the terrorists the necessary information to disarm the ticking atomic bomb or the ticking bio-war canister or whatever else is ticking. Alert to any ticking threat, Bauer would drive a Humvee through your bedroom wall to disarm your alarm clock. Bauer doesn’t really want to torture the heavies but he has to or else the microbe bomb will go off right there in Los Angeles and there will be no more seasons of 24 or hope for mankind.

The torture scenes where Bauer has to get ruthless and grit his teeth even more than usual — and there’s another question. How hard can an actor grit his teeth before they shatter? Kiefer Sutherland’s father had long teeth even when he was young but he merely bared them, he didn’t grit them. Kiefer grits them to the point where you imagine a Ming vase in a vice. When will they explode? Twenty-four hours from now? — But back to the first question.

The torture scenes where Bauer has to get ruthless and grit his teeth even more than usual have always been a standard gimmick in 24 but recently they’ve been headline news because the West Point military academy has asked the producers of 24 to tone the torture theme down. Apparently West Point cadets think the show represents their country’s real situation in a dangerous world and they have started to envisage themselves as counter-terrorists first, soldiers second, giving scant thought to the exam question about what Custer should have done at the Little Big Horn and looking forward instead to the first time when they will be obliged to grit their teeth and torture one or more ethnically named terrorists in order to find, or locate as the Americans say, the microbe bomb that will go off in twenty-four hours.

Even more disturbing than the possibility that officer cadets might be thinking like this is that the men they command might be thinking like this. American troops are apparently surging into Iraq with DVDs of 24 stashed in their kit. It was this last part that made my jaw drop. You mean there are still people who actually care enough about 24 to carry a DVD of it? I thought that anyone with a brain in his head quit watching 24 after the first season, when it had already become clear that Jack Bauer’s daughter was going to go on getting kidnapped as often as she escaped. Admittedly she wasn’t always kidnapped by exactly the same bunch of kidnappers, but that was what was so strange. She would get away from one bunch of kidnappers and run towards another bunch of kidnappers. Eventually you figured out that this was what united all the world’s terrorist groups whatever their professed religious loyalties or political aims: the desire to kidnap Jack Bauer’s daughter.

When it got to the point where Bauer could never pick up the phone without being told all over again that his daughter had been kidnapped, I gradually stopped watching 24. After half a dozen seasons had gone by, I was tuning in only for the final hour when Bauer, having determined the location of the anthrax missile after torturing everyone else in the cast who was still alive, arrived in slow-motion counterpoint against the last seconds of the countdown with his gritted teeth poised to cut the red wire instead of the blue wire, or the blue wire instead of the red wire, but anyway it was bound to be the right wire because the information had been yielded to him along with the last agonized breath of the chief terrorist and therefore had to be true.

That last part is open to question even on the practical level. People in the business of extracting information are united in the belief that pain is a clumsy inducement and that persuasion works better. People questioned under torture will make up the wrong answer if they don’t know the right one. And they can be quite resistant to torture, and even welcome it, if they think that the fact that you are torturing them proves that you are indeed the devil painted in their propaganda. It really is a better plan to try proving to prisoners that they will eat better in your prison than they do at home. The only conceivable circumstances when torture is the only way is when time is tight, and the creatively fertile writers of 24 have to invent those circumstances because the ticking clock scenario is unlikely in real life. Terrorists usually take their time. The real problem is with people who want to be torturers.

These include nearly all terrorists, but they also include, unless we’re careful, far too many people in the home team. Abu Ghraib under the Americans would have been regarded as paradise by anyone who was in the same place under Saddam Hussein, but it has to be faced that the soldiers who were subsequently convicted of abuse weren’t alone in their dumb eagerness to turn up for work there. There is always a supply of sadists in any army. The thing to avoid is creating the demand. Instructive, then, that West Point doesn’t want the maniacs to be encouraged. When democratic states favour torture, either directly by themselves or indirectly by rendition — a fancy word for handing over people you suspect of loathing you to people you know you loathe — it not only destroys the credibility of any claim you might have to be defending a value, it also encourages the formation of a gung-ho, pseudo-realist, would-be-warrior caste that thinks the ruthless is not just permitted, but desirable, in order to rule by fear.

But rule by fear works only if it’s total. In the old Soviet Union, whose regime did rule by fear right to the end, there would have been no question of the Red Army politely asking a Moscow television station to tone down its twenty-four-part show about Janko Baurovitch torturing the captured CIA agent in order to locate the nerve-gas capsule buried under Red Square. The state would simply have declared its will. The US, despite what its countless enemies think, is not a state that can simply declare its will, which is the very reason why we aren’t wasting our time when we vocalize our scorn after Vice-President Cheney’s wife plays hostess to the creators of 24 as if they were a school of philosophers.

For the US, flirtation with torture would be a terrible strategy simply for the way it squanders the last of the goodwill that the Americans still had going for them at the end of World War II, when the Germans surrendered in their direction and even the Japanese got the point instantly when the first stick of gum appeared. In the US there has always been torture on the screen, both large and small. In NYPD Blue, a genuine television creation in a way that 24 conspicuously isn’t, Andy Sipowicz routinely battered the truth out of the villains.

Whether what happens on the screen is a trigger for what happens in real life is a big question, but it turns out that even West Point thinks it might be. West Point representatives, when they go to Los Angeles to plead their case, have no weapon available to them except persuasion. They are up against one of the many drawbacks of a free society, which wouldn’t be free if it weren’t full of things we didn’t like. In a free society, creative types are free to explore possibilities. One of the possibilities the 24 masterminds feel free to explore is the possibility that a state based on legality might not be strong enough to defend itself. The same possibility preoccupied Lincoln. The question might never be settled. But the question about torture was settled more than two hundred years ago, by Montesquieu. The first great exponent of multiculturalism, Montesquieu hailed its variety as a fact but also saw its drawback as an ideology. He could quite see that torture might be functional in some cultures, but he said it was wrong in all of them.

So it is, and we’ll just have to find another way of getting at the truth if we are to foil the most frightening plan of the Universal Blessed Jihad against Jack Bauer’s Daughter — to develop a microbe bomb that will blow up in twenty-three hours.


During World War II the British never officially tortured their prisoners, but obtained a lot of information just by putting them together in the one place and listening surreptitiously to what they said. It was the imaginative option. Eventually the imaginative option becomes too widely known to be useful, but a liberal society can be partly described as one that goes on finding the imaginative option without lapsing into the common delusion that cruelty is the only answer. Even supposing a ticking-bomb scenario did occur, it would surely be more effective to threaten the jihadists with luxury than with agony. An earthly paradise could easily be arranged, complete with the promised seventy-two virgins. A dozen such squads of interrogators could be recruited in Las Vegas alone. Surely it would take only a few hours of concentrated blasphemy before the desperate young men would be saying anything to stop the pleasure. One doesn’t like to be flippant on the subject, but the posturing pseudo-realism of the torture fans seems even more flippant: an ugly reminder that although the left wing has dissipated into fatuity, the right wing retains its concentrated virulence. As for the lamentable 24, it looked like the height of frivolity even at the time, when the bitter facts of insurgency and counter-insurgency (or, much more commonly, terror and counter-terror) were fully on display in Iraq. It was mainly a matter of thousands of soldiers having to be brave all at once and every day, with no chance of help from a super-hero. If it took dreams of a super-hero to boost morale, then there was no point in sneering, but nor was there any point in pretending that Kiefer Sutherland was satisfactory in the role. He impressed Dick Cheney’s wife, though.