Posted by Brad @ 1:35 pm on November 25th 2008

Jack Bauer and Torture Propaganda

I’ve written about this before, and offer the usual caveat that I’m not promoting anything but a reflection on the show and its place in American culture (and popular sentiments, and thus policy). Certainly, because I don’t advocate any sort of censorship doesn’t mean I have to balk at making cultural critiques on the negative influence that some speech has. In particular, I find the idea behind 24 to be a masturbatory fantasy that many on the right reflexively cling to and that sadly informs a fairly wide swath of American consciousness on the issue of torture, arguing as it does more than a little explicitly that the “ticking time bomb” scenario is real, justifies torture, and that we oughtn’t be pussies about such things (which is what we are when we oppose torture).

Anyway, Phillippe Sands has a great article up in The Guardian on the matter. He relates this anecdote:

My writings on this subject have generated a decent mailbag over the past few months. But the most interesting correspondence came just last week. “I’m a US actor, living in Los Angeles,” wrote the author. “In September of 2007, I was offered a role on 24.” The actor told his agent to reject the offer, because he objected to the programme’s message. His agent told him that Howard Gordon, the principal executive producer, wanted to speak. The actor sent Gordon an email, expressing his concerns about the positive depictions of torture on the programme. Apparently, a lengthy exchange followed, in which the two debated the morality of torture and the potential impact of 24 on the moral sentiments of its millions of viewers. The actor offered to make the dialogue public, and Gordon apparently responded with “some enthusiasm”, until Fox’s publicity department stepped in and warned him against any exposure of the exchanges.

The actor shared with me some extracts of Gordon’s views. He told the actor that “I lack the conviction that torture is, under any circumstances, an unacceptable option”. He lacked that conviction because “I lack the knowledge, I just don’t know enough about the efficacy of torture”. I’ve no reason to doubt that Gordon is a thoroughly decent man. He’s smart; he went to Princeton. Through his work he would have access to a great number of lawyers, any one of whom would have told him, if he had cared to enquire, that torture is illegal in all circumstances. His own convictions, or lack of knowledge, are a total irrelevance.

Gordon also told the actor about his belief that it was “essentially true that … 24 posits that torture is a necessary evil that works and is therefore acceptable”. There was also an indication of concern. “I would hate to think,” wrote Gordon, “that I’ve somehow been the midwife to some public acceptance of torture.”

Well, the reality for Gordon, on the account given to me by Diane Beaver as well as others, is that he seems to have become the very midwife he feared. And not just to the public acceptance of torture, but to its actual use on real, living human beings.

Perhaps this might give Gordon and his colleagues some pause for thought. Perhaps this might encourage a rethinking of the entire thrust of the programme. Perhaps Day 7 might do the right thing and embrace reality: that torture is not justified, that it can never be lawful, that it produces unreliable information, and that it serves as one of the best recruiting tools for those who seek to do us serious harm. In short, torture doesn’t work, and it’s not a legitimate tool in the fight to protect national security.

Popular culture is, of course, a critical, if not the critical, component as both a reflection and a shaper of national consciousness. And 24, to my mind, is one of the most interesting popular culture brands of the 21st century so far. Its intersection with the thinking that goes into American policy is not hard to find, and even harder to dismiss as harmless popcorn fun.

1 Comment »

  1. For me, the thing to remember here is that senior members of the US military command approached the producers of the show, and asked them to tone down the pro-torture stuff on the grounds that it was making it harder for them to restrain their troops.

    And the producers nodded politely, and went on doing what they were doing. And the very politicians who claim loudest to “support our troops” ended up positioning themselves on the side of a pop-cultural myth, in direct opposition to the policies advocated by the military leadership.

    Comment by Rojas — 11/25/2008 @ 3:12 pm

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