24: torture and the ticking bomb

While every season of 24 is filled with interrogation torture scenes and events, season two had several notable examples.

In 24 it should be noted that Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) himself undergoes torture or other physical and mental distress throughout the series. This highlights his own heroism but also serves as a standard of comparison.  Jack suffers, but never breaks. This is underlined when he interrogates Nina Myers, a woman who supplied key information to the terrorists who bombed the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) facility in L.A. (killing, among others, Jack’s wife) and who knows who the ringleader is in a plot to detonate an atomic bomb in Los Angeles. 

Season 2, episode 6
1-2 pm

Nina is held at CTU. She has received a Presidential pardon if she cooperates.

Frustrated that she won’t reveal everything she knows, Jack interrogates her with physical force, choking her. He is observed on monitors outside the room by others. At the high point of his (apparent) rage, he is stopped and taken outside. Accused of being out of control and having a personal agenda because his wife died, Jack argues he is completely in control and rational.  Only severe action will make the prisoner talk.

He is allowed to continue and returns to the interrogation room, pulls out his pistol and threatens Nina. He fires two shots, one on either side of her head, and continues.

Finally he places the gun against her head and she breaks down and gives up the information.

Season 2, episode 12
7-8 pm

In another plot development, the President has discovered Roger Stanton, the head of the National Security Agency (NSA), is trying to subvert the government by making connections to a far-right paramilitary group, Coral Snake, and a former CIA network. He authorizes an FBI agent to harshly interrogate Stanton with electric shocks. The President watches on a computer screen as the torture takes place. He tells his Chief of Staff that “everyone breaks eventually.” Since the “liberal” President is personally observing and supervising as well as authorizing physical torture, any further torture by Jack Bauer seems allowable, if not consecrated by official power.

Meanwhile, Jack has been trying to break the captured terrorist, Syed Ali, to tell where the bomb is. First he uses physical coercion, at one point apparently breaking the prisoner’s arm and promising that he can make the man’s death excruciatingly painful. The prisoner resists. An Imam, the head of the local mosque where Ali was captured, is brought in who says that killing innocents is against Islamic beliefs. Ali remains defiant. 

Jack then has video monitors brought in and shows live images of Ali’s wife and two boys held prisoners abroad. Jack threatens to kill the oldest boy if Ali doesn’t reveal where the bomb is. 

Ali resists, and Jack gives the order for execution. The execution appears to take place: the boy has been strapped to a chair, the chair is tipped back and a masked man fires his pistol several times at the child. Jack promises to execute the other boy. 

Finally Ali breaks down and tells where the bomb is and what the plan is for denotation.  As Ali is taken away, the monitors reveal the event was staged and Ali’s son is still alive.

The scene with the Imam provides a crucial moral plot point.  By saying that terrorism that kills civilians is against the fundamental beliefs of Islam, the terrorists are situated as  religious fanatics, outside of orthodox Muslim practice. This provides a declaration that not all Muslims are terrorists and that those who are have perverted the faith. (And thus seems to shield the show from being labeled anti-Muslim.) It also serves, in retrospect, to validate Bauer’s strategy. In fact, he would not kill Ali’s family, but he would theatrically stage the killing to force the prisoner to answer the questions.  Jack is within the strict rules of Islam to not kill innocents.  However Ali was perfectly willing to kill a million or more with the nuclear bomb.  Of course within the law and the Geneva Conventions, what Jack does is completely illegal.  And within any religion — Muslim, Christian, or Judaism — threatening to kill someone’s family, and then enacting it with them as witness, is completely immoral. Although U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia doesn’t seem capable of grasping this point, as indicated by his public relish of this sequence in 24.

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