Friday, February 16, 2007

Torture on 24: Where Art Meets Reality

One of the issues I’m fascinated by is how TV influences real-life. Not just “serious” TV such as news (which ideally is supposed have influence) but entertainment. So I was super-fascinated to see this New Yorker article “Whatever it Takes” which reported on how the military has responded to the torture depicted in the series 24.

First of all, Human Rights First, had a pretty ingenious idea of setting up a meeting between real Army interrogators and Pentagon officials and the writers of 24. I so want to give props to them for that because you can write a 100 op-eds denouncing something on TV, but actually guilting a writer in person by the real-life people who do the jobs they depict is going to have an impact.

In fact, [U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point] 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.”

Of course the show’s producer, self-described “right wing nutjob” (he really did call himself that!) bowed out for bullshit reasons.

Several top producers of “24” were present, but Surnow was conspicuously absent. Surnow explained to me, “I just can’t sit in a room that long. I’m too A.D.D.—I can’t sit still.”

Yeah right. More like “I completely don’t respect Human Rights First and don’t want any real facts from people in the know to change my political viewpoints about anything.”

Before the meeting, Stuart Herrington, one of the three veteran interrogators, had prepared a list of seventeen effective techniques, none of which were abusive. He and the others described various tactics, such as giving suspects a postcard to send home, thereby learning the name and address of their next of kin….

I didn’t find it surprising that the show’s head writer admitted that while he’s got some old CIA interrogation journal from 1963, most of the ideas for how to torture people he pulls right out of his ass. Because the show runner, Howard Gordon, isn’t an interrogation expect. He knows that pain scares him and assumes it scares other people. Very interestingly he knows how to create tension visually with a camera, but doesn’t know how to create tension with a suspect who’s being interrogated. It’s not unlike someone who isn’t a doctor or isn’t a lawyer writing a script for what they think those jobs look like. They’re probably convinced they know what it’s like but the reality is going to be incredibly different from a writer’s imagination.

At other moments, the discussion was more strained. 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.”

So here are the real people who do this job. And more importantly the teachers who are addressing the next generation who will be interrogating. And what are they saying? Look people are mimicking what they see on TV. The show’s writers basically say “well people know the difference between TV and real life.”

Actually, with discussion I’m sure they do but that involves actually engaging the brain in cognitive thought. But one aspect of TV is that is “normalizes” life. That’s why people are so eager to see themselves reflected back on TV. In Stephanie Coontz's “The Way We Never Were” she talks about why those corny 1950s “family-centered” programs were so addicting. Because they showed how “normal” families were supposed to act.

It’s natural for people to want to see how their actions follow an accepted practice. We are social creatures. One of the lines I really liked in the movie Kinsey was when Alfred Kinsey talks about how his students are desperate to know whether their sexual practices are “normal.” I’ve even caught myself in my own life thinking that because I saw something reflected on Sex in The City what I’m thinking of is an acceptable practice.

And this “normalizing” function isn’t just true for observing guidelines for sex and family life. It’s true for young officers and cadets learning what is acceptable behavior in treating prisoners. It’s fucking scary how the power of “art” has on real life actions sometimes. People love to mimics scenes from “glamorous” TV.

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.

I won’t even go on about the fact that so many lay-men don’t even get the fact that the “I’m not touching you” defense doesn’t mean you can threaten people with rape, death, death of family, or torture, even if you don’t go through with it. IT’S STILL ILLEGAL TORTURE.

So here are people who do the job that 24 writers portray and they say “yeah torture doesn’t work.”

…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.”

Moreover part of the issue in 24 is that the writers continue to set up situations where the audience and Jack Bauer absolutely know that who they have is guilty of something and, perhaps more importantly, they know what information their suspect has. That’s a key detail. In real life in Iraq or other places with the U.S. treads more often or not they simply have someone they suspect might be associated with something, but they don’t know exactly what. They don’t know what information the suspect actually has. I take that from this statement by the other interrogators. Just applying pain and hoping they start sprouting information that is new to the integrators is unlikely because the suspect wouldn’t know what you know about them.

“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.”

But the show’s producer STILL insists that sometimes torture is necessary.

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.

I find that that attitude of Joel Cochran’s irritating. Here his is confronted with evidence that his belief is incorrect, torture doesn’t work, the situation he imagines it might work doesn’t happen ever, and more importantly if it ever did it still wouldn’t work, but he continues to stress he believes torture is sometimes necessary.

Beliefs are hard things to go away even with counter-evidence. In fact when given evidence that counters a belief people will often cling stronger to their assertion. Overtime, they might be willing to let go and allow the new facts to be processed. But often the brain will simply start screening out the new facts so as to keep the old belief.

Anyway I’m glad to hear that Kiefer Sutherland is growing concerned about the impact of torture. Even if he didn’t come to the meeting (which I wish he had) he’s clearly going to hear about it if not read that article. Other than the writers, he’s one of the “artists” in charge of 24 that can actually make a difference in the crafting of the show.


Susie said...

While I completely respect your right to express your feelings on this subject, I'm curious of two things: First, have you ever watched 24? (If so, you'll know that torture scenes are few and far between); and, second, do you feel the same about other "how-to" shows like CSI, Cold Case, and the like?

I love all those shows, including 24, but I have to remember that I am responsible for knowing the difference between real and fiction. And I am responsible for allowing too much of this stuff to infiltrate my subconscious and change my obligation to know that I simply cannot do all the stuff I see on TV. I can -- gasp! -- turn OFF the television and do something else if what I'm viewing is too offensive or influential to me. I'm not a robot or puppet.

Not many people are going after the movies like Kill Bill...and Natural Born Killers...and all the other horror/violent murder movies. Why? Because they (a.k.a. Hollywood producers/directors) have the right to make such movies, and I have the right to avoid paying to see them. What about rap music which encourages "cop killing" and other atrocities? No way. That's "freedom of speech."

Remember, in the end, no matter what we fill our brains with, ultimately we must take responsibility for our own actions...and not lay the blame on the make-believe stuff we see on TV.

Afterall, 24 is all fiction -- no one can cross L.A. in 10 minutes. That's the viewer's first clue...

(BTW, I really do enjoy reading your blog...and hope you don't mind a little friendly banter.)

Anonymous said...


The taste is for inflicting pain
From which right-thinking souls refrain,
But, as the cohort will explain,
It must be done, "or else no gain."

Succinctly thus the hostile crew
Itself expresses; but the view
Terror and hatred only do
To counter terror, is not new.

(You thought Christ put the lie to rest,
But, as it seems, he knew not best--
So words of Neocons suggest
As keep him in the tomb cold pressed.)

Regardless the efficacy
Or not, their way is not for me:
I will not torture, neither be
A party to their villainy.

Aggressive war I must denounce,
And with each syllable pronounce
My opposition; though they trounce
Dissent, of truth they have no ounce.

(A body lain before a tank
May be profane with none to thank,
But though ´tis slain while keeping rank
Let heaven´s blessing prove no prank.)

This is Rat´s Alley
Dingy and smelly;
The cat O´Malley
Scratches his belly.