Torture and the Devolution of American Heroism
Jack Armstrong to Jack Ryan to Jack Bauer. . .
Jack Armstrong didn't torture. Did Jack Ryan torture? I don't remember. (Readers please comment.) But Jack Bauer sure does! Knee-capping, shocking and finger-breaking, etc., etc.
Rarely has fictional television seemed so entwined with our national political life. Not since Dan Quayle invoked the name Murphy Brown (Aug 1992) have national Republican candidates invoked make-believe candidates from tee-vee's make-believe world in order to score points on the campaign trail. Such is the non-factually-based world of the GOP mindset.
Weimar Republicans celebrate "24" as a vote for patriotism and all things authoritarian. In fact, when Republicans - candidates especially - meet and congregate to discuss national security, you could describe it as a Jack Bauer Hour of Power. Rosa Brooks (LA Times) recently characterized last May's GOP debate as "virtually a Jack Bauer Impersonation Contest". According to Brooks, it was a bunch of middle-aged white guys trying their very best to emulate and identify with Kiefer Sutherland's character Jack Bauer - "torture enthusiast" - in Fox's hit show "24". For my one reader who does not own an operating TV, Jack Bauer is a special agent in the fictitious L.A.-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU).
In the debate Brooks recalls, it was Fox News moderator Brit Hume who brought "24" up. It was almost like chumming bait to starving sharks. Imagine, Hume told the candidates, that hundreds of Americans have been killed in three major suicide bombings. This is
. . .a fictional, but we think plausible, scenario involving terrorism and the response to it. . . a fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured … and taken to Guantanamo…. U.S. intelligence believes that another, larger attack is planned…. How aggressively would you interrogate…?Rudy Giuliani didn't hesitate:
I would tell the [interrogators] to use every method…. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of. . . I would - and I would - well, I'd say every method they could think of.Governor Mitt Romney naturally had to up the ante:
You said the person's going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo…. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo . . . . Enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used.Rep. Duncan Hunter of California boasted that,
in terms of getting information that would save American lives, even if it involves very high-pressure techniques . . . . one sentence: Get the information.And not to be outdone, from my native state, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo:
We're wondering about whether water-boarding would be a - a bad thing to do? I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you.According to Brooks, this remark was greeted by uproarious laughter and sustained applause from the audience.
The notable exceptions were John McCain and Ron Paul, both of whom - interestingly enough - served in the Vietnam campaign. Ex-POW McCain reminded the audience that
. . . it's not about the terrorists, it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are.BTW, actor Kiefer Sutherland denies that "24" is advocating torture as a policy; it's just using torture as a dramatic device:
You torture someone and they'll basically tell you exactly what you want to hear, whether it's true or not, if you put someone in enough pain... Within the context of our show, which is a fantastical show to begin with, the torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is.One thing that bothers me about the show "24" is its jump-ass music in the background; the insistent jungle-beat communicates the pressure of time. The whole 24-episode series of "24" is supposed to be 24 hours in a single, frenetic day of anti-terrorist activity by the "CTU" and the tempo of music reminds even those of us separated from the TV room by a closed door, of the urgency for resolution.
This tempo suggests a question to me: does not all this pervasive sense of urgency suggest a frenzy of stop-gap measures and a reflection of a lack of earlier, systematic and long-term planning? Like the lack of systematic inspection of shipping containers and trucking?
Personally, I am not a loyal fan of many TV series. Week-by-week character development is essential for me to retain interest. I only lasted halfway through the first season of "24". For me, nothing really got past the threshold of Jack's compartmentalized inhumanity/humanity. Every week, 24's writers would pose to me the same question:
Can Jack Bauer retain a semblance of human dignity as a father, lover, citizen and still - within the same hour - reach in, up to his elbows, into blood, bones and flesh?
Long before the end of the first season, I quit "24" with the feeling I was just being played by the show's writers.
But many of my fellow Americans seem to find real world instruction in 24's weekly real-time episodes. I'm talking not only of casual voters, of course, but also even intense political types, like some of my fellow bloggers lurking out there. (You know I know who some of you are!) But what truly stuns me is that Jack Bauer's novitiates can also be found among the highest elites in our government.
Take for example, Mr. Justice Scalia:
Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives.Or take 2008's aspirant First Spouse, Bill Clinton, who seems to be saying that torture could be useful but should be unlawful:
Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? 'You have the right to a jury trial?' Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so.
So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.
If you're the Jack Bauer person, you'll do whatever you do and you should be prepared to take the consequences. . . If you have any kind of a formal exception, people just drive a truck through it, and they'll say, 'Well, I thought it was covered by the exception. . . . When Bauer goes out there on his own and is prepared to live with the consequences, it always seems to work better.Does art imitate life or vice-versa? Whatever the purpose of the torture's content within 24's scenarios, the US military is alarmed about its message. The Pentagon has appealed to the producers of "24" to tone down the torture scenes. The show's message, internalized by its young, impressionable troops, contradicts their formal professional training. Plus, the Jack Bauer ethic produces a national public relations problem abroad. This recalls Gen. David Petraeus' letter last May 10 to all U.S. troops serving under him in Iraq:
Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information…. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary…. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight … is how we behave. In everything we do, we must … treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect.What we been sayin', of course!
It's good news that the Writers' Strike has aborted 24's season. Cancelling just one episode, I hear, vitiates the symmetry of 24 hours in 24 episodes, ruining its 'dramatic conceit'. Now, if we could just get the spineless Congress to go on strike and refuse to write any more checks to pay for this ruinous occupation and its melodramatic conceit. . . .