Softening Us Up for Torture, 24 Hours at a Time


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