Culture At Large

Torture: it's the American way

Nathan Bierma

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.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice