On “24”, Torture, and the Bush administration: Improvisations in sadism

February 13, 2007 at 11:52 am | Posted in American politics, Bush Administration, Torture | 6 Comments

Jane Mayer writes in the New Yorker about the show “24” and its strong support within the Bush administration and the military. I will be quoting and commenting extensively on her article. Read more if you wish to read my comments, or just read her article for her own very well written article.

The office desk of Joel Surnow—the co-creator and executive producer of “24,” the popular counterterrorism drama on Fox—faces a wall dominated by an American flag in a glass case. A small label reveals that the flag once flew over Baghdad, after the American invasion of Iraq, in 2003. A few years ago, Surnow received it as a gift from an Army regiment stationed in Iraq; the soldiers had shared a collection of “24” DVDs, he told me, until it was destroyed by an enemy bomb. “The military loves our show,” he said recently…“People in the Administration love the series, too,” he said. “It’s a patriotic show. They should love it.”

That’s patriotism today, watching a show wherein the “hero” tortures “villains” 67 different times. That’s America’s hero.

The twisting story line forces Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security. Frequently, the dilemma is stark: a resistant suspect can either be accorded due process—allowing a terrorist plot to proceed—or be tortured in pursuit of a lead. Bauer invariably chooses coercion. With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused; almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Basically the one and only even remote justification for the use of torture: the “ticking-bomb scenario.” But reality is wholly different.

Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.

We’ve come a long way from “Les Centurions” with shows galore portraying torture for “ticking time bomb” scenarios that are unreal. But we learn why a show like “24” uses it:

The series, Surnow told me, is “ripped out of the Zeitgeist of what people’s fears are—their paranoia that we’re going to be attacked,” and it “makes people look at what we’re dealing with” in terms of threats to national security. “There are not a lot of measures short of extreme measures that will get it done,” he said, adding, “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.”

How many bloggers, or online writers use the pseudonym “Jack Bauer” I wonder?

Not long after September 11th, Vice-President Dick Cheney alluded vaguely to the fact that America must begin working through the “dark side” in countering terrorism. On “24,” the dark side is on full view. Surnow, who has jokingly called himself a “right-wing nut job,” shares his show’s hard-line perspective. Speaking of torture, he said, “Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow—or any other city in this country—that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?”

No, Mr. Surnow, it is still not the right thing to do. Evil is evil, and upon employing evil, you are no longer good.

Since September 11th, depictions of torture have become much more common on American television. Before the attacks, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization. Now there are more than a hundred, and, as David Danzig, a project director at Human Rights First, noted, “the torturers have changed. It used to be almost exclusively the villains who tortured. Today, torture is often perpetrated by the heroes.” The Parents’ Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has counted what it says are sixty-seven torture scenes during the first five seasons of “24”—more than one every other show. Melissa Caldwell, the council’s senior director of programs, said, “ ‘24’ is the worst offender on television: the most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in the trend of showing the protagonists using torture.”

The show’s villains usually inflict the more gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law. (The United Nations Convention Against Torture, which took on the force of federal law when it was ratified by the Senate in 1994, specifies that “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”)

This point right here is really critical. The Convention Against Torture, because it is ratified by the Senate is Constitutionally speaking, the Law of the Land. It specifies that “no exceptional circumstances, whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,” yet the show “24” advertises to the American public and the world (especially when the fictional president of the United States in the show endorses torture) that America and its operatives are above the law no matter what. Now, let’s continue.

In one episode, a fictional President commands a member of his Secret Service to torture a suspected traitor: his national-security adviser. The victim is jolted with defibrillator paddles while his feet are submerged in a tub filled with water. As the voltage is turned up, the President, who is depicted as a scrupulous leader, watches the suspect suffer on a video feed. The viewer, who knows that the adviser is guilty and harbors secrets, becomes complicit in hoping that the torture works. A few minutes before the suspect gives in, the President utters the show’s credo, “Everyone breaks eventually.” (Virtually the sole exception to this rule is Jack Bauer. The current season begins with Bauer being released from a Chinese prison, after two years of ceaseless torture; his back is scarred and his hands are burnt, but a Communist official who transfers Bauer to U.S. custody says that he “never broke his silence.”)

Note here the inconsistency. The fictional president of the United States comments “everone breaks eventually,” but yet Jack Bauer, under ceaseless torture for two whole years “never broke his silence.” Let’s look at that. What does this say? It says that either the American form of torture is far more extreme and effective than the Chinese, who employ even tougher techniques than the Americans, or that Jack Bauer is superhuman. It certainly doesn’t say that Americans have a knack of never breaking, as the national security adviser breaks under American torture. Would Jack Bauer have broken under the same torture? I mean, hello, several hours of torture at the hands of the American president, and the national security adviser breaks, but two years of ceaseless torture by Chinese doesn’t break Jack Bauer?

Furthermore, after two years of torture, what side effects has Jack Bauer shown? You’d think that ceaseless torture would have serious negative side effects, yet apparently he hasn’t shown any. This sends another message to Americans. Torture does not dehumanize anyone. Everyone might break (except Jack Bauer of course), but they’ll make it out okay.

Howard Gordon, who is the series’ “show runner,” or lead writer, told me that he concocts many of the torture scenes himself. “Honest to God, I’d call them improvisations in sadism,” he said.

I couldn’t have said it better. This is it folks. This is torture, “improvisations in sadism.” And this is one of America’s favorite shows? Gordon continues:

Gordon, who is a “moderate Democrat,” said that it worries him when “critics say that we’ve enabled and reflected the public’s appetite for torture. Nobody wants to be the handmaid to a relaxed policy that accepts torture as a legitimate means of interrogation.” (Too late for that!) He went on, “But the premise of ‘24’ is the ticking time bomb. It takes an unusual situation and turns it into the meat and potatoes of the show.” He paused. “I think people can differentiate between a television show and reality.”

Really, then why does this show happen to be a favorite of the Bush administration and the military?

In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”

But that would be like so wrong! Torture always works dude!

Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

America’s hero is a criminal in reality. This is the hero of the Bush administration. This next section is very important:

The “24” producers told the military and law-enforcement experts that they were careful not to glamorize torture; they noted that Bauer never enjoys inflicting pain, and that it had clearly exacted a psychological toll on the character. (As Gordon put it to me, “Jack is basically damned.”) (Again, this is supposedly America’s hero, a damned person) Finnegan and the others disagreed, pointing out that Bauer remains coolly rational after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state’s witness with a hacksaw. Joe Navarro, one of the F.B.I.’s top experts in questioning techniques, attended the meeting; he told me, “Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.”

Cochran, who has a law degree, listened politely to the delegation’s complaints. He told me that he supports the use of torture “in narrow circumstances” and believes that it can be justified under the Constitution. “The Doctrine of Necessity says you can occasionally break the law to prevent greater harm,” he said. “I think that could supersede the Convention Against Torture.” (Few legal scholars agree with this argument.) At the meeting, Cochran demanded to know what the interrogators would do if they faced the imminent threat of a nuclear blast in New York City, and had custody of a suspect who knew how to stop it. One interrogator said that he would apply physical coercion only if he received a personal directive from the President. But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that torture was not an effective response. “These are very determined people, and they won’t turn just because you pull a fingernail out,” he told me. And Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. “They almost welcome torture,” he said. “They expect it. They want to be martyred.” A ticking time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect only more unwilling to talk. “They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory—the ticking time bomb will go off!”

Let me, at this point share the following from an earlier post:

The self-described civil libertarian, Alan Dershowitz, published a book in 2002 entitled, Why Terrorism Works: Understanding the Threat, Responding to the Challenge. In Chapter Four, he calls for the use of “nonlethal” torture in “ticking bomb” situations. Unfortunately, he neither tells us how we can be sure that an event is imminent nor how we can be sure that the torture applied will not have a fatal result. On the surface, his recommendation of pushing needles under someone’s fingernails appears to be a nonfatal technique. But, can we be sure of that in the case of an older source with a heart problem? As evidence that torture works, Dershowitz describes an event that took place in the Philippines in 1995. It seems the police captured one Abdul Hakim Murad after finding a bomb-making factory in his apartment in Manila. They beat him and broke his ribs, burned him with cigarettes, forced water down his throat, then threatened to turn him over to the Israelis. Sixty-seven days later he broke and told of terror plots to blow up 11 airliners, crash another into the headquarters of the CIA and to assassinate the Pope. Unsaid here is which of these purported plots were subsequently confirmed. Also, I find it curious that Dershowitz would argue for the use of torture in a “ticking bomb” situation based on a torture-interrogation example that took sixty-seven days to bring to fruition. According to WO Brian Copeland of the Navy/Marine Intelligence Training Course (NMITC), Dam Neck, Va., current Marine Corps interrogation doctrine is that detainee information is highly perishable and, in a tactical environment, has a shelf life of 24 to 48 hours.

SIXTY-SEVEN DAYS. It took them SIXTY SEVEN DAYS to break him under techniques certainly criminal here in the United States. Note also that there is no confirmation of those plots. Could he have “confessed” to stop the pain?

And now, how “24” is used in Iraq and its ineffectiveness (because torture is not effective).

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have angered much of the world, the response of Americans has been more tepid. Finnegan attributes the fact that “we are generally more comfortable and more accepting of this,” in part, to the popularity of “24,” which has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales. The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as “24” circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

“In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,” Lagouranis told me. “I worked with someone who used waterboarding”—an interrogation method involving the repeated near-drowning of a suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.” Some people, he said, “gave confessions. But they just told us what we already knew. It never opened up a stream of new information.” If anything, he said, “physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.”

How about that, it doesn’t work. But yet it is portrayed on the show “24” not only that it works on bad guys, but that good guys “don’t break” and that it doesn’t have a negative psychological and physical effect on either the detainee or the interrogator. But alas, we know that is not true. Read the following, which I wrote about earlier:

A man with no face stares at me from the corner of a room. He pleads for help, but I’m afraid to move. He begins to cry. It is a pitiful sound, and it sickens me. He screams, but as I awaken, I realize the screams are mine.

That dream, along with a host of other nightmares, has plagued me since my return from Iraq in the summer of 2004. Though the man in this particular nightmare has no face, I know who he is. I assisted in his interrogation at a detention facility in Fallujah. I was one of two civilian interrogators assigned to the division interrogation facility (DIF) of the 82nd Airborne Division. The man, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, was a suspected associate of Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, the Baath Party leader in Anbar province who had been captured two months earlier.

The lead interrogator at the DIF had given me specific instructions: I was to deprive the detainee of sleep during my 12-hour shift by opening his cell every hour, forcing him to stand in a corner and stripping him of his clothes. Three years later the tables have turned. It is rare that I sleep through the night without a visit from this man. His memory harasses me as I once harassed him/

Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.

American authorities continue to insist that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident in an otherwise well-run detention system. That insistence, however, stands in sharp contrast to my own experiences as an interrogator in Iraq. I watched as detainees were forced to stand naked all night, shivering in their cold cells and pleading with their captors for help. Others were subjected to long periods of isolation in pitch-black rooms. Food and sleep deprivation were common, along with a variety of physical abuse, including punching and kicking. Aggressive, and in many ways abusive, techniques were used daily in Iraq, all in the name of acquiring the intelligence necessary to bring an end to the insurgency. The violence raging there today is evidence that those tactics never worked. My memories are evidence that those tactics were terribly wrong.

This is real life. Torture is evil and ineffective. Back to the main story here:

Last December, the Intelligence Science Board, an advisory panel to the U.S. intelligence community, released a report declaring that “most observers, even those within professional circles, have unfortunately been influenced by the media’s colorful (and artificial) view of interrogation as almost always involving hostility.” In a clear reference to “24,” the report noted:

Prime-time television increasingly offers up plot lines involving the incineration of metropolitan Los Angeles by an atomic weapon or its depopulation by an aerosol nerve toxin. The characters do not have the time to reflect upon, much less to utilize, what real professionals know to be the “science and art” of “educing information.” They want results. Now. The public thinks the same way. They want, and rightly expect, precisely the kind of “protection” that only a skilled intelligence professional can provide. Unfortunately, they have no idea how such a person is supposed to act “in real life.”

Lagouranis told the “24” team what the U.S. military and the F.B.I. teach real intelligence professionals: “rapport-building,” the slow process of winning over informants, is the method that generally works best. There are also nonviolent ruses, he explained, and ways to take suspects by surprise. The “24” staff seemed interested in the narrative possibilities of such techniques; Lagouranis recalled, “They told us that they’d love to incorporate ruses and rapport-building.” At the same time, he said, Cochran and the others from “24” worried that such approaches would “take too much time” on an hour-long television show.

The delegation of interrogators left the meeting with the feeling that the story lines on “24” would be changed little, if at all. “It shows they have a social conscience that they’d even meet with us at all,” Navarro said. “They were receptive. But they have a format that works. They have won a lot of awards. Why would they want to play with a No. 1 show?” Lagouranis said of the “24” team, “They were a bit prickly. They have this money-making machine, and we were telling them it’s immoral.”

Now, what does the Bush administration think of the show?

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who participated in the discussion, praised the show’s depiction of the war on terrorism as “trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options.” He went on, “Frankly, it reflects real life.” Chertoff, who is a devoted viewer of “24,” subsequently began an e-mail correspondence with Gordon, and the two have since socialized in Los Angeles. “It’s been very heady,” Gordon said of Washington’s enthusiasm for the show. Roger Director, Surnow’s friend, joked that the conservative writers at “24” have become “like a Hollywood television annex to the White House. It’s like an auxiliary wing.”

The same day as the Heritage Foundation event, a private luncheon was held in the Wardrobe Room of the White House for Surnow and several others from the show. (The event was not publicized.) Among the attendees were Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff; Tony Snow, the White House spokesman; Mary Cheney, the Vice-President’s daughter; and Lynn Cheney, the Vice-President’s wife, who, Surnow said, is “an extreme ‘24’ fan.”

And conservatives really love it:

In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of “24” as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s “torture memo”—which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees—invokes the show in his book “War by Other Means.” He asks, “What if, as the popular Fox television program ‘24’ recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?” Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.” Surnow once appeared as a guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists—it’s good for you!”

It isn’t going away. It will only get worse. Where are the realists in America? Where have they gone to?


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  1. I got the feeling this year that the criticisms have rattled the shows writers somewhat. This season seems bent on showing what torture will make us.

    The president is facing an assassination plot by his cabinet because he won’t suspend civil rights of muslims and is working diplomatically with “terrorists” who also want peace. Jack is truly conflicted, and the torture he has done has not worked. He tortured his brother, got misleading information, and then his father killed him to keep secrets.

    I think the show is seriously rethinking its moral ramifications that it routinely compromises for intense entertainment.

  2. “No, Mr. Surnow, it is still not the right thing to do. Evil is evil, and upon employing evil, you are no longer good.”

    I’m not so sure I would consider torturing a criminal to save hundreds of thousands of lives “evil.”

  3. It still is evil. The only thing that makes you not evil, is not applying the technique in the first place.

  4. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of dead, and their families, after the fallout…

  5. will do. any one of them that has any morals will totally understand. there are just some things in life that you cannot change.

    Finally, I recommend you read what Colonel Herrington had to say about the ticking time bomb scenario, typically used by the uninformed to justify torture:

    Jim: Thank you. Colonel Herrington, I’m largely persuaded by what you said. I still need a little more persuading in one little area. Let’s say you have somebody like Osama or al-Zawahiri, and you knew he knew where some really big terrorist hits were going to be. Would you then…plus, they’re fanatics, and they’re much less likely to talk. Would you then use some coercion, or even a lot? Or could you?

    SH: Like you, Jim, I’m no fan of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s. But when you get a guy who’s at fanatical as he is, and let’s suppose that he, let’s grant the hypothetical that he has this information between his ears. Rather than try and brutalize it out of him, I’d try every other approach that I could think of, including in his case, ego. That said, no I wouldn’t brutalize him. And my sense of it is that in most cases like that, people who are fanatical jihadists, if you start to really, really apply torture and that sort of stuff to them, if it’s a ticking time bomb scenario, they’re just going to give you false information, send you down a wild goose chase to use up the time that you might have to get where you want to go. So no, I’m not, I won’t cave on that, even though I share your sentiments about this guy.

    Who is Colonel Herrington? Just one of the most prolific interrogators in the US Army. He knows what he is talking about, basically. Here are his concluding remarks from that interview he did:

    I would only say to all of your listeners that there is a very, very sophisticated way of exploiting human sources that’s time tested as being the most effective, and it is not brutalizing people. And when we go the wrong road and we brutalize people, we take an episode, or a series of episodes at a very low level like that stupid Abu Ghraib prison, and we escalate the impact of that conduct to the detriment of our country. And look what has happened to our country and to the support for the war effort simply because of the stupidity of Abu Ghraib. So it’s right to do it the way I’ve proposed, it’s worked, it’s time tested. Almost all professional interrogators know that. And we should go that way.

    Be more informed before commenting on torture, please.

  6. What is your definition of torture?

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