The Common Good
June 2007

Tortured Logic

by Jesse Holcomb | June 2007

Do shows like 24 help make torture acceptable?

How many of us condemn state-sanctioned torture by day but watch 24 by night? Apart from God, probably only a few marketing firms know the exact answer.

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We do know that the Emmy award-winning Fox network drama ranks among the top 20 shows watched by the coveted 18- to 49-year-old market, and that recent ratings indicate that nearly 14 million households tune in on Monday nights. This is good news for Fox, but bad news for the American image abroad and, possibly, for the state of the American soul.

In case you're not one of those 14 million, every season counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer confronts a threat to national security in the span of 24 nail-biting hours, with each episode set as an hour in real time. Now nearing the end of its sixth season, Bauer and his colleagues at the Los Angeles counterterrorism unit have averted crises ranging from a presidential assassination plot to all-out nuclear holocaust on American soil. Each season introduces a new set of terrorist masterminds, most with Eastern European or Middle Eastern accents, many of whom are subjected to graphic interrogation tactics by Bauer as a means of procuring information to halt a scheme jeopardizing American lives. In almost every instance, the torture works.

The fact that so many viewers "enjoy" fictionalized representations of torture every Monday—with news of Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay still ringing in the world's ears—has upset some. Gary Solis, who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told The New Yorker that, under both U.S. and international law, "Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted." Solis—alarmed by his military academy students repeatedly citing Bauer's tactics with relish—entreated the show's creators to ease off on their depictions. And the dean of West Point, Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, said he felt the show promoted "unethical and illegal" behavior, according to The New Yorker, and was unrealistic in portraying torture as working. "I'd like them to stop," Finnegan said of the show's producers. "They should do a show where torture backfires."

According to the organization Human Rights First, the number of incidents depicting torture on television has increased since 9/11, from an average of four torture scenes a year before 2001 to more than 100 scenes a year since then. After a Parents Television Council review counted 67 scenes of torture in the first five seasons of 24, the group lobbied Fox to move the show to 10 p.m.

That military recruits look to Jack Bauer's interrogation playbook for useful ideas is, at very least, deeply worrisome. But what about the American public—should we be worried about us, too? As we tune in, are we desensitized by the situational ethics of 24?

Conservative commentator and breast cancer survivor Laura Ingraham caused a stir when she told 24's creator David Surnow that watching Bauer torture terrorists was therapeutic relief from her chemotherapy treatments. As inflammatory as her statement was, is there something resonant in Ingraham's admission? The media and the White House play upon an existential fear at the root of our lives. I would imagine that deep down, regardless of displeasure with the Bush administration's cavalier posture in the "war on terror," many people put their hope in the misplaced thought that Jack Bauer can keep us safe. Many of us root for him while disagreeing with him; in the end, perhaps 24 tells us more about ourselves than anything else.

The bottom line is that torture, whether dramatized, glorified, or simply rationalized, has no place in God's economy. And to those of us for whom 24 serves as a welcome release, the biblical writer's admonition still holds: "Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you" (Exodus 34:12).

Jesse Holcomb, a former Sojourners intern and PIRG staff writer, was doing graduate work at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs when this article appeared.

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