The UWIRE Forum

Do youth think of torture in terms of ’24’ or ‘West Wing’?
June 8, 2009, 3:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
Michael Warren

Michael Warren

The case for ’24’     (The case for ‘The West Wing’ after the jump)

In the current American discussion about enhanced interrogation techniques and torture, one element of the debate has been conspicuously absent:  FOX’s smash hit television program, “24.”

I am a recent convert to the show, having watched every episode this season.

I am also in the middle of catching up chronologically via DVD. I have only seen Seasons 1 and 2 so far, but three seasons are certainly enough to generate an understanding about the show and its straight-from-the-headlines content.

Actor Kiefer Sutherland has insisted that “24” is just a television show, calling the sort of interrogations his character Jack Bauer performs as a “dramatic device to show the urgency of the situation.” Sutherland’s point is that the show is meant simply for entertainment.

Still, it is quite good entertainment. The show features excellent writing, solid performances from both lead and supporting actors and just enough believability to keep viewers wondering if some of this espionage really does happen. Small wonder that “24” has maintained and increased its audience nearly every season, a feat unmatched by other recent serialized dramas like “Lost” or “Heroes.” In the smorgasbord of television program choices, the show is a consistent standby for that fickle 18-24 male demographic.

The entertainment factor is critical to the success of “24”, but perhaps that success speaks to a larger cultural point about Americans’ views on the use of torture. Plenty of people from Jon Stewart to Barack Obama consider the use of enhanced interrogation techniques as a betrayal of American values. The accompanying assumption is that perhaps most Americans believed such methods were necessary soon after September 2001 but “on a bright, sunny, safe day” in 2009, we naturally and unequivocally oppose this torture.

On the one hand, this seems like a reasonable assumption, given the political fallout from the Bush administration appears on the surface to be a repudiation of the Republican presidency and several of its policies. The country may be beyond the point where pointing out the problems with assumptions like these, such as the dishonest conflation of the Abu Ghraib torture crimes and the official happenings at Gitmo, does any good in the debate. President Obama, Democrats and many liberals within the media establishment would have Americans believe that the debate over torture is over. To quote Jon Stewart at his most emphatic, “we do not torture.”

Does the continued popularity of “24” suggest that Americans are not in sync with that assessment? Perhaps. Political philosopher and professor Eduardo Velasquez, in his book, “A Consumer’s Guide to the Apocalypse,” suggests that as consumers of media, “we are what was ingest,” meaning that our popular culture reflects our own morals and beliefs. Velasquez uses this assertion to criticize mainstream popular culture, but the same could partly explain why a television show about counter-terrorism is so compelling.

We so desperately want Jack Bauer to do whatever it takes to stop the bomb or to save the president. We keep tuning in even though some of his methods are harsh or even disturbing. When, in the current season, Jack tortures the traitorous congressional staffer Ryan Burnett with a taser (in the White House!), we are so concerned about the imminent attack on the president and the country that we are devastated when the law steps in just before Jack can get the information he needs.

Scenes like these are the secret to the popularity of “24.” The conflict between government protocol and the need to stop attacks creates moments of fantastic suspense. The audience always sides with Jack Bauer because we know what he knows. We trust Jack because, to paraphrase an oft-repeated line in the series, we don’t have another choice. It may not be an across-the-board approval of these unsavory elements of fiction for application in real life, but the show’s success also discounts any complete rejection of enhanced interrogation by mainstream America.

I do not argue that the actions of Jack Bauer and the events of “24” validate one side of the debate. For what it’s worth, I believe the enhanced interrogation techniques employed by intelligence agents in the name of protecting American lives are justifiable. “24” features characters put into these sorts of situations, but while the show may be topical it certainly does not (nor should it) make a clear verdict on what should be official United States intelligence policy.

“24” is popular because it contains all the elements of thrilling television. Still, the show’s continued success could speak to American values many liberals fail to recognize. If and when the United States is under serious threat of an imminent terrorist attack, we would all want someone like Jack Bauer on the case.

Chris Burks

Chris Burks

The case for ‘West Wing’

Did Jack Bauer, the lead character of FOX’s long running hit TV show “24,” foster our modern era of torture?

With new revelations about Bush Administration interrogation tactics seeming to come out every week and dueling speeches by Obama and Cheney on the topic, it’s tempting to question again, as did Adam Green in a perceptive and eerily prescient 2005 review of “24,” whether the popular show normalized torture.

However, as all too many young TV watchers know, “24” is no “West Wing” and the reality of our post modern world where life imitates art, whether understood from FOX fiction or FBI facts, is that torture simply isn’t an effective interrogation tool.

See, Jack Bauer, with his knifepoint questioning and pain inflicting torture, may have been the master of quick questioning and have dampened America’s enthusiasm to rise up against the torture revelations that unfolded in Bush’s second term, but a generation of young progressives were already internalizing a very different reality known to the Bartlett Administration well before Bauer came to fame.

These young progressives, only able to come out in electoral full force in 2006 and 2008, cast votes for a progressive American President, an America like the one led by the Northeastern liberal President Bartlett in the hit show “The West Wing.”

The fictional Bartlett Administration was a model progressive Presidency that embraced an aggressive domestic agenda centering on investing in education.  While its’ foreign policy was robust and no model of pacifism, the “West Wing” sold us on an Administration where might was used for right and compassion was at the core of public service.

So today, while it’s tempting to blame Bauer and a supposedly corroding culture for Abu Ghraib and the like, the hard truth lies much deeper, yet also closer to home.  The impulse to torture, to inflict pain for a supposed greater gain, is a deep and dark human instinct.  It is a base instinct, however, that President Obama thankfully seems to reject.

As evidence of this commitment Barack Obama declared in the campaign for the White House that “torture is how you create enemies, not how you defeat them.”  At the beginning of his Administration, President Obama released Bush Administration memos that redefined torture.  Obama forcefully condemned the tactics outlined in the memos, but sought to move on.

Move on we must because harsher interrogation tactics like waterboarding, as reports on FBI and military tactics suggest, doesn’t produce reliable information.

There are, unfortunately, still many unresolved questions about America’s policy towards torture.  To reconcile with the truth, Obama must continue to stand strong against Cheney and also offer a fuller accounting of past misdeeds.

These misdeeds are aplenty as, with history as our judge, records will reflect the transgressions of those who sacrificed liberty for supposed security.  Torture was committed in America’s name in our time, but will such American actions die the ignoble death they deserve?

At issue is the extent to which liability for the so-called torture memos will extend, if at all.  Suffice it to say that President Obama’s evolving rhetoric on the subject does much less than instill full confidence that such despicable actions won’t happen again.

Such a lack of clarity, such a muddying in the face of a profound choice, is unsettling to many progressives.

For many, a righteous moral indignation burns up from the stomach and says: “Not in my America.  Not in our time.  Never again will we torture.”

The good news is that there are other deeply ingrained humane instincts central to the American experience.  Responsibility, community, and, yes, love, run through history to our time too.  The Bartlett Administration didn’t teach us these, but they did reinforce them to many well before “24” and its’ ticking time bombs of moral paralysis.

Today, the cry from those who oppose torture is clear: Let American ideals not fade away.  Let our firm resolve to not torture last.

President Obama must continue to tend to our American conscience and issue a clarion call to end torture by fully investigating its occurrence in our name.  A generation of young progressives raised on President Bartlett waxing eloquently about our better angles expects no less of the Obama Administration.  America could do much worse than life imitating art on this very real issue.

In the end, young progressives may not fully see a land where torture and personal violence against captive prisoners are finally ended, but, unlike fictional characters on Hitchcockian dramas or sweeping sagas doomed to the inevitable destiny of death by Nielson rating, our ideals will not fade away.


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