Last night, the eighth season of the Fox hit 24 debuted. The show is ridiculous from top to bottom, but I'll admit it – I enjoy it. And I feel bad about it.
24 isn't just a guilty pleasure. When I plow through a pint of Coffee Heath Bar Crunch, I may not be doing my waistline any favors, but I'm not really hurting America. When I watch 24, on the other hand, I feel like I’m doing Dick Cheney's work for him.
The issue, of course, is torture – the endless and repeated use of torture by the show's heroes. In real life, the "ticking time bomb" scenario virtually never occurs. On 24, on the other hand, the time bomb is always ticking. And that means that it won't ever be long before Jack Bauer screams "Tell me where the nuke is!!!" and puts a bullet in somebody's knee, or gives them a nice jolt of electricity. Weirdly, though, last night's premier contained not a single torture scene (even though one person did get impolitely interrogated). But it can't be long before viewers will be seeing some totally enhanced interrogation.
The key fact about the torture that takes place over and over on 24 is this: It always works. Always. And not only that, it works fast. Jack Bauer can take a highly trained terrorist operative who has devoted his life to a part in an intricate conspiracy meant to kill millions or bring down the American government, and get the guy to talk in under 30 seconds. On the show, when you torture a terrorist, not only does he tell you everything right away, everything he tells you turns out to be true.
As The New Yorker's Jane Mayer reported in late 2006, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, went to Los Angeles to meet with the producers of the show and ask them to reexamine the approach they were taking:
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."
Last season, the characters on 24 spent a lot of time agonizing about torture. But this didn't really represent a change in the show's fundamental perspective. At various points, Jack expressed the belief that all the terrible things he had done had changed him for the worse. Most of the soul-searching, however, happened through the character of Jack's partner-for-the-day, FBI agent Renee Walker. When the season began, she was horrified at Jack's methods. Then she did some torturing herself, and felt really bad about it. Then she did some more torturing, and felt perfectly fine about it. Then at the end of the season, she felt kinda bad about everything that had gone on.
The clear message is that while torture isn't very good for the torturer, it's absolutely necessary for the country. It'll make you feel dirty, so you might want to have somebody else do it. But make sure somebody does.
Yes, it's just a TV program, and drama is a heightened reality. The problem is that there are more than a few people, even those who should know enough to know better, who think things really are like they appear on 24 – that the clock is always ticking, there's no such thing as blowback, and a little torture is all you need to find out the information that will keep us all safe. Who knows – 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.
-- Paul Waldman