When this season of 24 began, I confidently predicted that, as usual, Jack Bauer's eventful day would be chock-full of torture, just as the seasons before had been. "Who knows," I wrote, "maybe the folks at CTU will turn over a new leaf this season, and unearth the nefarious conspiracy without breaking anyone's fingers. But I wouldn't bet on it." How wrong I was. The season is almost over, and torture has been almost totally absent.
This is coming from a program that was the iconic television drama of the George W. Bush era, cited again and again by conservatives as the way things ought to be. When you're dealing with terrorist evildoers, they would say, you don't wait around for a court order; you do what you have to do, like Jack does.
The program gave them plenty to love -- like the episode where a lawyer from "Amnesty Global" walks into CTU and manages to get a terrorist freed in about 60 seconds, just as Jack was about to make the guy talk. Employing some creative law-enforcement techniques, Jack resigns (making him no longer an agent of the government), then takes the suspect to the parking lot, where he breaks his fingers and gets the goods. The high point of 24's adulation from Republican Washington was a 2006 event at the Heritage Foundation, at which Rush Limbaugh, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and some of the show's producers and actors discussed how awesome it was.
Yet until last night, there was only one real torture scene this season. And in stark contrast to the pattern established in the show's previous seasons, it didn't work. The torturee didn't immediately start singing, despite the pain he was subjected to. Not only that, it was Jack himself who was tortured, by some Russian mobsters. And last night's episode ended with the second torture scene of the season about to begin. Even though the person about to be tortured is a vile traitor, we're meant to sympathize with her at this point -- she has been taken by some private-security personnel (shades of Blackwater), brought to a dungeon-like facility, and we have learned that they plan to kill her after they extract information from her. And how are they going to torture her? Waterboarding!
So what happened? It seems obvious: Barack Obama took office, contaminated our precious bodily fluids, and turned the whole nation into a bunch of sissies. Now 24 has not only turned its back on torture, but it's doing so in a way that seems designed to repudiate the Bush policies. I picture Dick Cheney angrily clicking his remote, muttering, "God damn hippies," and reaching for a Tom Clancy novel.
In case you need a reminder of what the old 24 was like, here's an excellent discussion with The New Yorker's Jane Mayer, along with scenes from the show, that explains it all:
-- Paul Waldman