The torture show
Jack Bauer and 24 have made torture mainstream in American homes and psyches.
Not long ago torture scenes were rare on TV, and both TV and the movies portrayed torturers as villains—sadists, terrorists, or Nazis who had surrendered their membership in the human race.
But since 9/11 TV audiences and the heroes of prime-time dramas seem to have overcome their distaste for torture. The Parents Television Council reports there were 42 torture scenes on prime-time TV in 2000. By 2003 the number had jumped to 228. And most of this new torture was being done by “good guys” trying to save us from evil plots. TV torturers were suddenly heroes and patriots ready to do whatever was necessary to protect our country and children. And just as suddenly torture, which had never worked on TV or movie heroes, was 100 percent effective against every sort of villain.
Front and center in the Hollywood campaign to rescue torture’s soiled reputation has been FOX’s hit thriller 24 and its no-holds-barred hero, Agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a 21st-century James Bond with a license not just to kill but also to maim, savage, and torture.
In the six seasons since it premiered (the month after 9/11), 24 has been a runaway hit for FOX, drawing as many as 17 million fans a week. It has also been a surrogate for Washington’s war on terror, with Jack Bauer and his imaginary Counter Terrorism Unit uncovering sleeper cells and defeating nuclear attacks unfettered by the Constitution or international law.
Jack has no time for such niceties. Each season he has just 24 hours to ensure that a terrorist conspiracy burrowed deep into our government doesn’t become a mushroom cloud over America. In this Joe McCarthy paranoid fantasy, Bauer dare not pause for due process or the Geneva Conventions but must take immediate action—however unseemly. What’s a lawless hero to do?
One of the things Jack seems to do best is mimic terrorist tactics—especially when it comes to interrogation. As TV torturers go, Jack is the best (or worst—as the Parents Television Council, Human Rights First, and the dean of West Point see it). With 67 torture scenes in its first five seasons, 24 deserves the torture Emmy, and Jack has proven to be the maestro of torturers. He has electrocuted, decapitated, and smothered people; shattered and ground their wrists; forced them to watch the (rigged) execution of their children; and tortured his own brother.
The disturbing appeal of Jack the Torturer reflects a wounded and frightened national psyche, a desire to lash out at those responsible for 9/11, and the frustration of a superpower unable to defeat a ragged band of terrorists. After our government succumbed to the temptation to “take the gloves off” and violate the rights of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, did we really expect TV characters to behave any better?
But FOX’s torture show is a fantasy. On 24 terrorists break immediately and spill accurate, lifesaving information just in time for Jack the Inquisitor to foil the terrorist plot. And on this show torture has little or no long-term effect on those who engage in or suffer this horrible assault on their body and personhood. Within hours even those who have been wrongly tortured (a not infrequent occurrence on 24) return to work and resume friendly relations with those who have ordered or carried out their torture.
The reality is that torture is unreliable, destructive, and monstrous—a truth we are (gratefully) being reminded of more and more in some recent films. In Rendition (New Line Cinema) and the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side (THINKFilm), we see the moral horror and folly of torture as we watch this process from the point of view of its victim. In In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent Pictures), we catch a glimpse of the damage this practice inflicts upon the soldiers or agents who are expected to carry out such brutality.
Andy Warhol once said everybody in America get 15 minutes of fame. Torture has had 24 hours—and that has been too much.
Patrick McCormick is professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.