Watching Torture in Prime Time
From the August 2005 Issue
In the same week as the one-year anniversary of Abu Ghraib, an episode of the Fox hit show 24 opened with a scene of the Counter Terrorism Unit medical clinic. Lying in a hospital bed, attended to by physicians, was the terrorism suspect who, in the last seconds of the previous episode, had screamed as the show’s hero, Jack Bauer, broke the bones in his hand.
As Fox pumped out advertisements for 24’s season finale, the newspapers boiled over with revelations of more real torture by U.S. officers. Then the finale came, and Jack and company saved Los Angeles from a nuclear bomb thanks to a wild series of strategies that included brutal torture.
In the days that followed, Amnesty International issued what amounted to an all-points bulletin for Bush Administration officials: “The officials implicated in these crimes are . . . subject to investigation and possible arrest by other nations while traveling abroad.” Like Jack Bauer, the 24 star who in the final scene of the last episode flees to Mexico, Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush were suddenly wanted men, accused of breaking international law.
Rarely in my days has fictional television seemed so entwined with our national political life.
Unlike most current cop shows, 24 is concerned with crime prevention. In 24, the would-be crimes are so huge and so imminent that the anti-terrorism team believes it does not have the luxury of playing by the rules. Anxiety—which the show manipulates with exaggerated plot twists—explains some of 24’s appeal. Among other explanations is 24’s proximity to real events and public fears. The shadow of 9/11 hangs over the show. And then there is torture itself, which has a unique power to horrify.
Kiefer Sutherland, an executive producer on the show as well as the star who plays Jack Bauer, seems driven to address the places where his show intersects with American guilt. “Do I personally believe that the police or any of these other legal agencies that are working for this government should be entitled to interrogate people and do the things that I do on the show? No, I do not,” he said in an interview with Charlie Rose.
Joel Surnow, also an executive producer, has connected 24’s realism with an appearance of conservatism. “Doing something with any sense of reality to it seems conservative,” he told the rightwing paper The Washington Times, which praised the show. Surnow also told the paper that 24’s writers are both liberal and conservative, that 24 doesn’t “try to push an agenda,” but is “committed to being non-PC.” He also offered a defense of torture under extreme circumstances, the sort that characterize the world of 24. “If there’s a bomb about to hit a major U.S. city and you have a person with information . . . if you don’t torture that person, that would be one of the most immoral acts you could imagine,” he told The Washington Times. Surnow doesn’t admit this, but the continual regurgitation of situations involving imminent bombings and torture separates 24 from reality and renders it a fantasy show. Impending disaster has rarely, if ever, accompanied the real tortures that get into our newspapers.
Torture on 24 is as contradictory as the statements of its producers. In this past season, 24 depicted torture and terrorism as married. The show’s logic ran like this: A nuclear bomb launched from Iowa was in the air on its way to . . . no one knew exactly where. The target was almost certainly a large coastal city. The hardworking counter-terrorism employees who never ate, used the toilet, or slept, whose cell phone batteries never died, needed to stop the explosion from killing millions of innocent people. They had no information on the bomb. They did, however, have a suspect in custody.
It’s an unfair competition. If you place torture of a few people, innocent or not, next to an imminent nuclear holocaust, torture seems like a necessity.
But 24’s voyeuristic interest in torture is an uncomfortable one. For one thing, and I count this as a detail in the show’s favor, 24 differs from many cop shows in that it does not mince around pain. Physical hurt is audible and visible on this show and often difficult to watch. The pain is a harsh contrast to the “happy violence” (which avoids realistic depictions of suffering) that critics of TV have complained about for decades. That 24 insists on rendering pain with such clarity is disturbing in light of the fact that, in this past season, the torturers caused extreme hurt to the wrong people several times. The possibility of torturing an innocent is a hovering concern of the show.
On the other hand, 24 also depicts torture as a useful tool as long as the torturers manage to choose the correct victim. Both those who know a lot and those who know a little spill important information within seconds after the pain starts—which is not a common occurrence.
But efficacy doesn’t have the only vote here. Some of those who disagree with Jack’s action are straw men, but one voice of reason and goodness belongs to Audrey, who loves Jack and whose own personality and situation are compelling. When she starts to wonder about her love for him, Jack starts to seem monomaniacal and dangerous. After Audrey sees the man with broken fingers lying in the CTU hospital bed, for instance, she turns on the man she loves. “Jack, you cannot keep working outside the law and not expect consequences,” she says.
One big consequence is that, by season’s end, Jack has lost Audrey’s love. After seeing Jack torture her estranged husband, Paul, using a lamp’s electrical wires, Audrey also watches as he commands the medical personnel who are trying to save Paul’s life to disconnect him from the machines. As Paul begins to die, Jack forces the doctor to save another man so that Jack can interrogate him. “You killed him,” accuses Audrey. “I hate you.”
But Audrey, who represents, among other things, an ineffectual President, U.S. law, and human love, is not the only indication that Jack’s behavior has been criminal. Equally revealing is the post-torture scene, where the victim lies in a hospital bed getting torture aftercare—a physical position often occupied by victims of crime in police dramas.
Those humanistic messages bump up against others that depict Jack as a hero. When Audrey, who is the daughter of the Defense Secretary, tells her dad that she no longer sees the humane Jack, he responds, “We need men like that.” And the season finale’s very last scene shows Jack in sunglasses walking off into (really!) the sunset.
These multiple meanings suggest why both Amnesty International (which sees torture in the show as “educational”) and the conservative magazine National Review (which compared the show’s conflicts to Greek tragedy) have praised 24. But some critics read the torture scenes as advocating the practice rather than questioning it.
In a May 22 article in The New York Times, Adam Green asks: “Has 24 descended down a slippery slope in portraying acts of torture as normal and therefore justifiable?” His article bears the unsubtle title, “Normalizing Torture, One Rollicking Hour at a Time.” He wonders whether the audience of the show, “and the public more generally,” is “reworking the rules of war to the point where the most expedient response to terrorism is to resort to terror.” How that debate “plays out on 24 may say a great deal about what sort of society we are in the process of becoming,” he writes.
But in certain parts of American society, torture is already normal. The cultural conditions and political decisions that created Abu Ghraib and widespread torture of detainees by American forces happened before 24. We are already a society that tortures—evidently we became that long ago. What is left to us now as a public is a decision we can make or avoid. We can deal with torture or ignore it. Television does not determine the outcome of that decision; we do.
The more our government sanctions torture, the more that high-level officials do not face censure, the more our democracy erodes. When our highest officials are not held to account, it is often tempting to feel apathetic about torture, as if we have nothing to do with its existence. Intentional disregard seems to be the way we are dealing with this, though few of us are saying so.
In bringing its loudmouthed depictions of extreme cruelty into a show as otherwise attractive and suspense-driven as 24, the show’s writers are giving their often fervent fans something to trouble them.