Softening Us Up for Torture, 24 Hours at a Time

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For those of
you who no longer watch the Emmy Awards, 24
recently won a handful, including for outstanding drama series.

I enjoyed 24
a great deal during its first
season
, but I often wondered whether they could sustain a show
centered on a continuous series of extraordinary 24-hour days in
one character's life. Would the first ten episodes
of the following season consist of Jack catching up on some sleep?

But the show's
writers were way ahead on that count, and they had the good sense
to fast-forward a year into Jack Bauer's life, to the next
unbelievable 24-hour sequence. (While fate and circumstance are
relentless, even Jack Bauer should expect to catch a break every
once in awhile.) Because of the huge overhead required to contrive
extraordinary circumstances around a single character, by the end
of the second
season
the storylines already posed a clear and present danger
to plausibility.

Although it's
initially fun to watch Jack's uncanny ability to make all the right
moves at just the right time — over and over again — by the third
season
, the action decomposed into cartoonish exaggeration,
unmitigated rah-rah, worst-case scenario McGuffin-ism.

In general
terms, the formula is this: each 24-hour season features a supervillain
who's intent on destroying the world by using various forms of nightmare-inspired
WMD. The McGuffin of choice usually bears a remarkable resemblance
to whatever happens to garner the direst rhetorical attention by
Bush at that time.

To apprehend
the supervillain, Jack stoically breaks obtrusive, obsolete rules.
He has a limited amount of time to advance through the bad guy's
layered defenses — just like a video game — and he thinks out of
the box as a matter of procedure in each level.

Sometimes Jack
breaks rules to avoid bureaucratic nonsense. Most often it's to
circumvent unreasonable hindrances to the good guys getting
the bad guys, such as the 4th amendment or other obstructionist
constitutional protections.

As you can
imagine, these storylines offer repeated opportunities to illustrate
timely debate topics from the public consciousness, especially during
a never-ending "War on Terror": the setting for the show
is the Los Angeles "Counter Terrorism Unit" (oddly enough,
foreshadowing our Department of Homeland Security).

Because they're
working with these ingredients, there naturally will be moments
where in the course of telling the story the writers stumble into
accidental synchronicity with the administration. It's almost unavoidable.

But lest any
doubt remain, by the fourth
season
the writers eliminated coincidence as a practical possibility.
In one of the principle
plotlines
, the writers attempt to prop up the notion of the
unitary executive incarcerating
indefinitely and torturing any citizen
whom he labels an enemy
combatant (Newspeak for "terrorist") during times
of great exigency.

They contrive
a perfectly worst-case scenario to demonstrate Bush administration
logic: namely, that because it's theoretically possible that
a single man, woman, or child, if tortured, could reveal information
about a terrorist plot which could potentially save
innocent lives, then any amount of coercion is therefore
justified to compel that individual to surrender whatever useful
information that he might be hoarding.

Ironically,
Bush's fear-mongering reveals yet another duality for the
neoconservatives: the contradiction of an energetic push to strip
dissident citizens of their liberty in order to silence them
with Bush's push to enable illegal aliens by the millions to impersonate
citizens and imbibe of the entire spectrum of taxpayer-funded
infrastructure (or to paraphrase those marching masses of illegal
aliens, to get their "rights").

Their torture
rationale continues that if the unitary executive has the authority
to enforce his discretion in the course of prosecuting a "war"
(even if undeclared by Congress), then he can also withhold
details about the intelligence that led to this discretionary action
in the first place — all in the name of protecting national security.

Here's how
the writers illustrate the concept: in episode
18
they make the distinction between torturing: (1) suspects
who’ve been actually charged with a crime, and (2)
suspects who haven’t been charged but who still might know something.

They pose the
question as an over-the-top ethical issue, and the Arab supervillain
plays the system expertly, using an Amnesty International clone
agency lawyer like an IED to sidetrack CTU’s “hot on his trail”
investigation.

So the lawyers
advocating due process for the suspect are working for the terrorists!
I knew it! (Dang you, Osama! Dang you, Zarqawi/Saddam/Goldstein!)

The problem is that the writers linger on the distinction that Jack
wants to torture a suspect but has insufficient evidence to charge
him. By this point, Spring of 2005, most citizens had seen enough
wild precedents in the four years since 9/11 to recognize that the
“material support” hurdle of the Patriot Act is a low one indeed.
They couldn't charge this guy?

Somebody was
trying to make a point.

But never fear
— Jack Bauer knocks out a pawn-like Federal Marshall escorting the
suspect and breaks every bone in one of the suspect's hands until
he talks, which of course renders exactly the information they need,
just in the nick of time. Thanks, God, for Jack Bauer, who has the
stomach and the temerity to pummel my face — or yours! — into concrete
in the name of national security! Finally, a hero emerges!

Never mind
that we’ve moved far afield, by this point, whether the predication
for any of this executive activity is legitimate. We’re in a damned
fervor, here. We ain’t got time for discernment!

It’s easy to rationalize when the “worst-case scenario” mentality
really takes root, too. It was that guy’s hand or millions
of innocent lives, right? How do any of us stack up against that?

This premise
is fatally flawed, however: in life — in reality — our only
source of data, our only means of verifying that these discretionary
executive quests are legitimate, ultimately comes straight from
the executive branch itself — which has a vested self-interest in
avoiding self-incrimination.

So why would
we believe any of it?

Of course the
byproduct of all this rationalization and acceptance is that most
citizen viewers will likely apply the same mental precept when they
encounter a similar situation in real life.

That’s the
whole point of propaganda, after all.

Duncan Campbell
explains in The Guardian:

Hollywood
film-makers have frequently changed plot lines, altered history
and amended scripts at the request of the Pentagon
, according
to recently released military documents. Producers and directors
have often agreed to changes in order to gain access to expensive
military hardware or to be able to film on military property.

On many occasions
films have been changed so that the US armed forces are shown
in a more heroic fashion. Film companies agree to the changes
because doing so saves them millions in production costs. If film-makers
do not agree to alterations, assistance is withheld.

Among films
that have been given approval and help by the Pentagon are Armageddon,
Air Force One, The Jackal, Pearl Harbor and Top Gun.
Those that have failed the test include Forrest Gump, Mars
Attacks!, The Thin Red Line, Apocalypse Now, Sgt Bilko, Platoon
and Independence Day.

My attitude
toward 24 has changed dramatically: from the first season,
of ensuring that I was in my seat promptly, faithfully, every week
at showtime — even in spite of the age of DVR — to this last season,
of catching perhaps the final ten minutes of every other episode.

Although the
fairies who animate my DVR record every episode faithfully, I rarely
go back and watch anything besides what I happen to catch live.
I don't need to see much to know what's going to happen. No one
does.

Before you
send me email, I realize that the fifth season featured a corrupt
president staging terrorist attacks to justify global empire. I
watched some of it, especially the final two episodes, as Jack and
others pulled off a sting operation to incriminate the criminal
conspirators.

That on its
face might qualify as a positive separation from the Bush administration,
but you have to remember what the writers accomplish along the way.
During season 4, Walt
Cummings
, one of the traitorous villains working for President
Logan, advises the president that the torture of the uncharged suspect
would haunt the administration if he turns out to be innocent. Jack
disagrees, of course, and after torturing the suspect illegally,
Jack is vindicated when the suspect reveals pertinent information.
In season five, to prove a larger point, Cummings is revealed to
be a traitor in patriot's clothing.

So in case
you're keeping score, that's "good guys" who advocate
torture and incarceration without criminal charges, 1, and "bad
guys" who insist that charges and evidence should at least
be a requirement for torture, nothing. And where's the party advocating
no torture under any circumstances, you ask? Good question.

Now is that
separation or more synchronicity?

People who
consider themselves to be conservatives should beware: if another
Clinton-analog presidency occurs, it’s not too difficult to imagine
scenarios where these law enforcement tactics will be applied to
anti-abortion activists, gun rights enthusiasts, the Minutemen,
taxpayer protection groups, some new Branch Davidian group, and
others like them. (And incidentally, that's when the Patriot
Act will really come to fruition.)

Even better,
I know that most people won't complain, because they already saw
something just like it on 24.

September
7, 2006

Dave
Trotter [send him mail]
is a technical writer in Atlanta, Georgia.

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