Torture: it’s the American way

On the next episode of 24, according to the previews, tireless hero Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland) will walk into the hospital room of a U.S. senator and threaten to torture him. And I expect I'll be cheering him on. I wonder if that's OK.

Critics have long said that 24 glorifies torture, and it's hard to disagree. Last week the news made that charge more severe, with the release of CIA memos describing the torture of detainees. I remember reading this article a couple years ago about 24 and its right-wing creator—who is a friend of Rush Limbaugh—and thinking to myself, "Uh oh. If Dick Cheney watched prime time TV in his undisclosed location, this would probably be his favorite show." And I pledge to have as little in common with Dick Cheney as possible.

In many ways, 24 is just a garden-variety action thriller, with its brave savior who sometimes has to bend the rules to save the world. But no show has ever done so much with that timeless final exam question from ethics class: if you had a terrorist behind bars who refused to give you information about an upcoming attack that would hurt innocent people, would you approve of torturing him?

This scenario plays out almost weekly on 24. And the result is almost always the same: the bad guy fesses up, Jack gets the information he needs, and he saves the world just in time (only to learn of a new threat he'll have to deal with in next week's episode).

It will be impossible to feel sorry for Senator Jonas Hodges, played brilliantly by Jon Voight, when Jack Bauer shows up in his hospital room tonight. Dissatisfied with the U.S. military, Hodges turned a Blackwater-type private contractor into a rogue operation that secretly developed biological weapons and threatened to turn them on American cities if the President didn't do whatever Hodges said. Now he may be the only one who can tell Jack what the bad guys are going to do next. And time is running out: only four episodes left in the season.

I don't know whether the U.S. military gets inspired by 24 to do inhumane things to prisoners, as critics charge. It wouldn't surprise me. But even if not, last week's CIA memos show us the problem when the military—and the American public—buys at face value the claim that torture can be both justified and effective.

Sometimes it's neither. And yet, I can't think of a single instance on 24 where torture has been shown producing false information that led Jack astray. I can't think of a case where it led to the accidental death of a prisoner. Jack has never tortured an innocent person—a victim of mistaken identity, bad intelligence, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time (which is true of at least some prisoners at Guantanamo Bay). Jack's use of torture has never inspired future terrorists, as Abu Ghraib has.

You could argue that while we all like to live in a tidy world where right and wrong are black and white, 24 shows us the ethical gray area where moral questions aren't so cut-and-dried. At first I felt that way—I'm a near pacifist, I detest Dick Cheney, and yet here I am cheering on Jack Bauer; better double-check my ethical principles. But 24 has long passed the point of useful ethical exploration to exploiting torture for entertainment. And again, when torture always works and is always portrayed as heroic, there really isn't much gray area left—only black and white.

It's true that saviors sometimes have to bend the rules to save the world. But at least one Savior once bent the rules so far that he submitted to torture, in part to end humanity's addiction to death and destruction.

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I don't watch 24 precicely because it glorifies torture and lies about how it is used in the real world.

Also I don't believe that I would ever say that Christ's death was bending the rules to save the world. He was actually following the rules to save the world.

There was yet another study that came out last week or the week before about how people that do good and see themselves as "good doers" actually are more likely to break rules (and break laws) because they think their good deeds justify their bad ones. This is the third or fourth similar study that I have seen over the past couple years. It has very important implications both for those that torture and for Christians. Our good deeds cannot save us. It is only Christ that can save us. And for those that believe in torture (with the goal to save people) the same thing. Bad action will never result in the long term with good results. Torture will always lead to more violence, serious implications to those that do the torturing, and loss of moral authority.
I have a hard time taking a firm stance on this. While I believe (ever so slightly) that this is a necessary evil, or at the least a byproduct of living in a fallen world, I do not believe it should be sensationalized. Reporting this behavior from a news point of view is one thing, but when our society as a whole is having a harder time distinguishing between reality and the fictional world of the entertainment media, it only helps perpetuate the issue.

Arshield made a comment reminding us that our good deeds cannot save us, it is through Christ alone. More than that even, I think trying to help or save others is what truly blinds us from our own rule breaking.
Seems to miss some critical thinking regarding the breech of covenant by Man, and the Judge who rightly executes justice against the covenant breakers, and the State he has given to man to punish the unjust and reward the just. Claiming that "torture" is "bad" and "wicked" seems a VERY slippery slope: on what basis can imprisonment be justified. Is it just? What PUNISHMENT is just in order to protect society. Let's use our critical thinking, and expand the issue to its due extent. Torture is part of an argument for justice, and justice is given to Man by God.

But hey, you brought that part up ;)
My first one didn't get through and I'm pretty sure this one will not either. That's okay, because it's really for Nathan and not the others at this time. Have you ever met Mr. Cheney? Do you know him, his wife and children? Do you believe that all people are children of God. Let me tell you that Mr. Cheney is a good person. He loves this country and has on many occasions done without so that you may have the freedom you have. I can only assume that you received this bad attitude about Mr. Cheney from friends and the news media, but I have had personal experience and he is a fine American who loves this country and has done what was necessary to keep our freedoms. Now to the torture aspect of this. Have you ever been tortured even in training so that you know what you would be doing to the other person? Have you ever been placed in a metal wallocker buried in a whole, then have someone urinate on you (for training it was water), but in real life they urinate on you. Do you realize that if you are a Christian that in the Middle East you can't carry a bible out in the open. In some places it's a death sentence and in others just a beating then prison for a couple of decades. Do you realize that the Americans who fights to keep your freedom know first hand that if they are captured they will most likely die, but not before their appendages are cut off, all fingers and toes and maybe a leg or two, to extract information. They we are considered infidels and if your are a Christian then you deserve to die a horrable death, because you don't believe in Islam. Like I said before, I don't know you nor do I know how you grew up. But what you have said has and most likely will cause many to laugh at those who would fight to protect you. I can only hope that you understand that there is a fight going on between good and evil. Can we get information by giving them the same rights we have? Maybe, but most likely not, because they will not let you have any rights at all. You to them are the enemy of Alah and therefore not deserving to live. I don't know why you addressed this aspect of torture in this colum, except to say that you have on idea what you are talking about. Didn't God say to love all and to attempt to bring all to Christ Jesus, you can't do that by what you said in this colum. In God's Grace John
Nathan, thanks for the commentary, however, your association of the CIA memos with the Military need to be corrected (and subsequently the lumping of all under the same banner).

The military has been reforming its treatment of terrorist prisoners since the Abu Ghraib "incident". Even with Abu, there is a difference between the policy of the DoD and the execution by commanders. Obviously, the commander of Abu Gharib broke the rules. As someone who works in the Air Force and in Intelligence, I feel it is important to correct your inaccuracies and mis-associations.

The Department of Defense and CIA exist under separate lines of command. Military intelligence and national intelligence (CIA, etc) are different. The CIA, and it's operatives, went to congress to determine its policy on certain "extreme" interrogation techniques, these are the memos that have recently been declassified and brought under public scrutiny. These letters are a discussion on CIA and it's activities, not the DoD.

As an example for further proof, it is known through these memos that the FBI chose not to participate in these activities precisely because of leadership had ethical qualms with the approach by the CIA. On the other hand, the FBI and DoD share a tighter relationship that has shown a lot of success in Iraq, and one that hasn't taken methods to the same extremes.

I also wanted to make sure that is well understood that the CIA WENT TO CONGRESS before conducting these activities and received approval by our elected officials to conduct these extreme methods. So when folks call for a witch-hunt on CIA operatives who put their life on the line day in and day out, remember where their authority came from.

As for 24, I don't agree that it glorifies torture, but rather it asks all the gray questions. I'll admit it seems to favor the side of torture as being effective, but downplays this by how you can tell it tortures Jack that he is who he is.

It's interesting that you say you are a pacifist. How does this belief gel with the fallen world in which we live? Don't you think that pacifism, while appearing noble, is ultimately a naive concept?

Thanks for the clarifications and un-lumping!

I said I'm a "near pacifist." I can't take that last step; I can't answer the "what about Hitler?" question.

I would say that obsessive violence can also be more naive than wise sometimes, as the Bush Administration's foreign policy showed all too well.

And I would say that Christians, following a Lord who said "Put away the sword," should tend toward pacifism even when earthly empires call them impractical and naive for doing so.
But is torture legal? Aren't we as Christians called to be more moral than those outside the church? What justification does the bible being illegal bring to the discussion? Does someone else's wrong ever allow us to commit a wrong? I know you will find these questions naive but I don't think they are either naive or irrelevant to the discussion. I don't care how good of a person that you think that Cheney or others that order torture are. It doesn't matter how good of a driver you are, if you speed you are violating the law. If our elected officials do not believe in the rule of law then what role do they play in upholding the constitution? These are really fundamental questions to our identity as a country. If we decide that rule of law means nothing then what is the purpose of having laws?
I seriously question the exegesis of "putting away the sword." That same Christ who "put away the sword" is tempered greatly by 2 Thes 1, in which he comes executing judgment upon his enemies.

Nathan, your exegesis is badly flawed here. He put away the sword because "his time had not yet come", as the linguistic refrain constantly shows (e.g., John). He put away the sword, and had his disciples do so, because the sole purpose of the incarnation was to fulfill the Covenant of Redemption, that eternal archetype between Father and Son and Spirit in which the Son agreed to fulfill covenant obligations while yet upheld to do so by his Father, for the sake of his people, the New Israel.

He "put away the sword" because the Cross was the mission, and Easter the appointment of the Son to his Glory (Rom 1.4) that he had with the Father previously (John 17). He "put away the sword" because he had to have the Cross to have Easter, and we had to have both for the benefits of the 2nd Adam to be accrued and imputed to us.

He did NOT "put away the sword" because he was a Pacifist. Such exegesis seriously misconstrues the balance of the character of God.
Thanks for the response. At the risk of getting way-off topic:

I think there is a lot of continued animosity by the public (read: MEDIA), and even the new administration of the Bush administration. Thankfully I've heard President Obama question the value of all this 20/20 hindsight and investigation, and I truly hope puts an authoritative foot down to stop the formation of special committees and the likes to obsess over the mistakes of the past administration (to include all 3 branches). We do not need witch hunts. Congress establishes the law, and they "legalized" extreme interrogation methods for the CIA. If they believe this was a mistake now, and in direct conflict with other legal precedent, then well the fault lies with the lawmakers, not the executing agency.

I seriously question the "obsessive violence" that you indicate was the earmark of the Bush presidency. There have been many lives lost in the OIF/OEF wars, but these pale in comparison to the sacrifice of previous generations. Every life lost in a war is terrible, and there is no war that is not "overtly violent" - for thus is the earmark of conflict and war. Consider that, there has never been an empire or nation in the history of the earth with as much military might at its disposable as the US, that hasn't used this kind of power to their advantage for imperialistic purposes (that of actually seizing new land). Please don't say that we are practicing ideological imperialism as if that is somehow the same thing! Even if this was the case, I feel that "ideological imperialism" is actually something that God calls us to do in a way (READ: not saying the US ideology is 100% Christian).

I know that, for certain, we did not see another 9/11 style attack on US soil during the Bush presidency. Some may think that OIF and OEF is US super-agression, and that our "preemptive strike" actually fueled an increase in ideological extremism, well this is simply not the case either. Islam is in direct conflict with Judaism, and has been for thousands of years. 9/11 occured during a time when the US was not in direct conflict in the Muslim world, what caused such extremist hate then? It was already there! A lot of this all ties back to Israel, but I'm way off topic now.
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