Season 3 ends, uncharacteristically, with an overwhelmed Jack weeping in his car, until summoned back to work. We are left to fill in the reason for those tears and to wonder if this is how Jack ends all his 24-hour days. Executive Producer Howard Gordon characterizes Jack as a tragic figure who pays a terrible price to do what is necessary.
24’s narrative shows the cost of crisis events to the suffering hero, at times rendering him abject, as it does at the start of season 6 when Bauer is released from an 18-month captivity by Chinese agents who have tortured him relentlessly. During all that time, Bauer never speaks a word, establishing once and for all that Bauer is impervious to torture.
Season 7 seems keen to rebut criticism of the show. It opens with Bauer testifying before a Senate hearing investigating human rights violations committed by CTU. Bauer is grilled by Sen. Blaine Mayer who seems to be named for critical New Yorker writer Jane Mayer.
Bauer testifies that he has violated the Geneva Conventions but insists there was no other way to stop an attack. “The people that I deal with, they don’t care about your rules.”
Bauer and Mayer are positioned as counterweights to the torture debate. But within the 24 universe, Bauer is always borne out to be right. The deck is stacked.
FBI agent Renee Walker, after working with Bauer for 12 hours, comes to defend his methods despite her trepidations. As she tells her boss, “I have seen Jack do some terrible things today, things that I still can’t justify. But he has been right every time. And you know what? I can’t help but think that maybe if we’d just stayed out of his way, none of this [attack on the White House] would have happened”
In season 7, President Taylor alludes to the roots of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the torture practices used by Korean Communists against American troops: “Torture was originally intended to force false confessions. Now we use it to try and find the truth."
24 airs on the FOX network owned by Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media oligarch. Within the story space, characters watch only FOX news.
Katee Sackhoff, who played Kara Thrace, is cast in season 8 of 24 as Dana Walsh, a CTU mole. Late in the season, she is waterboarded by private contractors in the employ of the government, and subsequently executed by Bauer. She was indirectly responsible for the murder of Renee Walker, Jack’s lover. Jack’s murder of Dana serves to compensate for his inability to protect Renee.
In 2005, Battlestar Galactica won the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in television broadcasting. Creators Ronald Moore and David Eick, accept the award for the show they describe as being about our post-9/11 reality and the Iraq War.
The emotional palette of the Battlestar Galactica series is dark. The program raises disturbing, and essentially unanswered, questions about who aggressed first and the otherness of the enemy. In the ironically titled episode “Hero” (3.8) we learn about Commander Adama’s involvement in a covert operation that may have helped to instigate the attack by the Cylons.
Lt. Kara Thrace justifies her torture of the prisoner Leoben to President Laura Roslin by dehumanizing the enemy. “It’s a machine, sir. There’s no limit to the tactics I can use.”
Dershowitz contends that requiring warrants for torture would limit its exercise to exceptional cases. On 24, the state of exception prevails. Co-creator and executive producer Robert Cochran concedes,
Proponents of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” from lawyers in the Justice Department to academics, rely on the ticking bomb scenario to justify the need for torture. Producers of 24 utilize it for dramatic effect and deny that it is tantamount to advocating the practice. Executive producer Jon Cassar grounds their framing of torture as quick and effective in the show’s real-time constraint:
In addition to considering torture as a dramatic device necessitated by the real-time constraint of the program, Cassar falls back on the idea that torture may at times be the lesser evil, the argument which grounds the defense of torture.
The show’s creators persist in denying the series’ support for torture. Executive producer Howard Gordon, for instance, asserts, “…I don’t think we ever pretend to advertise the efficacy of torture” (qtd. in Dilullo 124-25). But members of the military disagree. In November 2006, four experts including U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, Dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point met with some of the producers of 24, sans Surnow, to protest that the show was having a “toxic effect” on cadets. [open endnotes in new window] The program, which defines inflicting torture as patriotic, is extremely popular with cadets who will go on to hold command posts in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to Finnegan’s observations, 24’s insistence that the law must be sacrificed to protect the security of the nation has fueled resistance to the idea that the United States military has to respect human rights, even when the terrorists do not.
Season 7 seems to answer this criticism by reiterating the need to torture to save lives, and placing it on higher moral ground than civil liberties. It opens with Bauer testifying before a Senate hearing investigating human rights violations committed by the now disbanded CTU. Sen. Blaine Mayer grills Bauer:
FBI Special Agent Renee Walker interrupts the hearing to claim Bauer for a critical mission.
As Jane Mayer observes, “Throughout the series, secondary characters raise moral objections to abusive interrogation tactics. Yet the show never engages in a serious dialogue on the subject.” This scene allows Bauer to have the last word. Walker, after working with Bauer for 12 hours, comes to defend his methods despite her trepidations. As she tells her boss,
In the story world of 24, torture is effective. It saves the day. Real world arguments that other tactics are significantly more fruitful do not hold water here. The military men who met with the producers wanted them to adopt a more realistic depiction of torture, for instance by showing that torture can backfire. This has yet to happen on the series, despite the fact that Howard Gordon acknowledges its probability: “I think sometimes the price of that torture is that the wrong information comes out…” (qtd. in Dilullo 124-25). But Surnow’s program is as resistant to the complexities of real world torture as West Point cadets seem to be.
In addition to cadets, 24 has also held sway with soldiers serving in Iraq. According to Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in Iraq, DVDs of 24 circulate broadly among the troops there. Soldiers have even gotten “interrogation” ideas from the show. Finnegan throws the net of influence wider yet. He credits 24 —which, according to Mayer, “has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales” — with making the audience “more comfortable and more accepting of [torture].” As 24 does, the show’s producers allowed Finnegan and company to raise moral objections to torture, but they did not go on to engage the show in a serious dialogue on the subject. The embrace of torture on 24 is more than skin deep. It is rooted in a worldview.
Torture is about raw power not truth
The audience’s comfort with torture is contingent on the misconceptions that 24 promotes — that torture quickly and reliably secures intelligence, that there is no other way to extract the information, and that securing intelligence is torture’s primary purpose. Elaine Scarry, in her landmark book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, describes torture as a complex system, one that hides behind the pretext that torture is motivated by the search for intelligence when it is really about projecting an image of power (28). In season 7, President Taylor alludes to the roots of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the torture practices used by Korean Communists against U.S. troops:
Intelligence experts, in contrast, claim,
According to Scarry, the real purpose of torture is to bolster a teetering regime of power, not to secure intelligence. 24 may as a fiction take creative license, but it insistently and persuasively promotes the real-world fiction, also promulgated by the Bush administration, that torture is an effective way of securing intelligence in dangerous times.
The fictional space of 24 sanitizes Jack Bauer’s use of torture by making it quick and effective, almost surgical in its precision and measured character. It lacks the lengthy timeline of real-world torture. Bauer has mere minutes to extract information and stops torturing as soon as that information is forthcoming. This differs from the real-world situation in which torture extends for days, weeks, months, and years. Only Bauer and his lover Audrey are depicted as held captive and tortured for such a prolonged period of time. Moreover, Bauer is also adept at determining who will not break under torture, so he never tortures without results for long. This is unlike real-world torture where prisoners with little or no knowledge important to the state are subjected to torture even after their status as “assets” is discredited.
On the various occasions that he has been subject to torture, Bauer has suffered terribly but has never been broken. In season 2 he is tortured to the point of heart failure and needs medical intervention to be revived (“2 a.m.” 2.19). At the end of season 5 Bauer is abducted by Chinese agents and tortured by them for almost two years, during which time he never speaks a word, establishing once and for all that Bauer is impervious to torture (“6 am” 6.1). The harrowing trials that Bauer undergoes establish not only his action-star superman credentials but prove his undying loyalty to his country, his friends, his family, his principles. More importantly, these incidents reinforce the idea that it is possible to resist torture and that to break is to betray all of the above. Scarry characterizes this portrayal of breaking not only as a misinterpretation of what happens when someone confesses under torture but as a fiction propagated to discredit the person being tortured and thus a further assault upon the victim, inflicted both by him/herself after the fact and by those who learn of it (35). Hence, in the system of torture even the interrogation is primarily a way of wounding, and the forced confession — whether true or false is irrelevant — is its poisoned fruit, meant to anguish the victim with a sense of having betrayed everyone and everything that matters to him/her.
Torture works to shrink the parameters of the victim’s world to bodily pain so great that the person is “swallowed alive by the body” (Scarry 50). This dynamic never becomes a cause of concern for the audience of 24, however, since the objects of Bauer’s torture are guilty of committing or conspiring to commit terrorist attacks against people like us, and the torture they undergo is short-lived as are the consequences of being tortured. In short, they are never shown in a sympathetic light, unless and until they help Bauer. They are not, in Herman and Chomsky’s terms, worthy victims (37).
Moreover, by clearly motivating Bauer’s use of torture with the overriding need for intelligence, which he can elicit if left to his own devices and which can be obtained in no other way, 24 defines Jack’s power as torturer “in terms of his own vulnerability and need” which is nothing short of the nation’s vulnerability and need (Scarry 58). He is the narrative agent who drives the action of the series, but he is forced to take extreme measures and pay the cost. Jack lashes out at Syed Ali, “I despise you for making me do this” during the (feigned) execution (via video feed) of Ali’s child (“7 pm” 2.12). Jack feels distressed so that we do not have to.
Despite the many misconceptions of torture that 24 advances, one element it is painstakingly truthful about is the importance for the torturer of negating the agony he is inflicting by insisting on the urgency and significance of his questions (Scarry 29). The questions are there in part to alleviate the torturer’s conscience. 24 clearly establishes that when Bauer tortures someone, it is never about cruelty and rarely about retaliation; it is about the greater good. Jack is always on the side of the angels, albeit of the warrior variety, and by extension so are we.
24, working within the expedient parameters of genre, may be too highly contrived to be said to imitate life, but if the military personnel who appealed to 24 producers and those who spoke to Philippe Sands are correct, life seems to imitate 24. Mayer points to other indications that the show offers reassurance not just to the audience at large but to policy makers, that torture is the right thing to do:
The implication is that it would be right to use torture because torture works. Yoo and Cheney believe torture works, as they are quick to proclaim. Surnow believes torture works. And thanks to 24, a lot more Americans are certain of it too, setting the stage for Yoo and other top Bush administration lawyers to erect “an entire torture policy around the fictional edifice of Jack Bauer” (Lithwick).
In stark contrast to the moral certainty of 24 is a series that probes moral ambiguity. Battlestar Galactica (2003-09) is the Peabody-Award-winning reimagining of the 1978-79 television series, described by its creators, Ronald Moore and David Eick, as being about our post-9/11 reality and the Iraq War. It is set in the aftermath of a genocidal surprise attack against the human Colonials by the Cylons, a robot race created by the Colonials to serve them, but who rebel against their masters when they develop self-awareness. After an uprising, the Cylons flee to another world. Forty years later, a few models that look like people, made of flesh and bone, infiltrate the Colonial worlds to sabotage their defenses so the Cylons can launch a cataclysmic nuclear attack against them. BSG restages the dynamic of blowback, the delayed retaliation from those whom we once used to our benefit, in science-fiction guise. “Blowback,” the CIA-coined term for a delayed retaliation for a U.S. covert intervention in a foreign state, is an original component of the current series, and its grounding metaphor (Johnson).
Airing on the basic cable Sci-Fi channel, Battlestar Galactica’s dissident perspective is both cloaked in sci-fi genre elements and housed in a cable channel with smaller audience reach than that of FOX. The science fiction format allows the program to maneuver past television’s characteristic aversion to political controversy and to tackle highly volatile issues. Historically, science fiction has been given license to speak critically because it is deemed a speculative form, at a remove from reality. Creators Moore and Eick have exploited this smokescreen to work real-world political issues into the script, and they have recognized that the gravity of the show’s concerns demands greater realism than is usually accorded sci-fi. For this reason, the show is grounded in naturalism at the level of both production values and subject matter. It relies extensively on hand-held camera techniques to forge a documentary feel. While the A camera shoots blocked action, the B camera is free to roam, and much of this footage gets into the final cut. The emotional palette of the series is dark. It deals not only with torture but also genocide, suicide bombing, religious fanaticism, and living under occupation. The long-term toll of the attack on the characters is injurious and deep-seated. At times they seem to be in the throes of posttraumatic stress. But perhaps the series’ most important departure from generic norms is that it shifts the emphasis from plot-driven to character-driven narrative. It is characters’ complex motivations, interrelations, and gradual development that compel the action, rather than story events that dictate what characters do.
BSG is a serialized drama, in which narrative threads unfold over time. The audience is expected to remember preceding developments to fully appreciate the narrative weave. Its ensemble cast is filled with morally ambiguous characters whose arcs are interwoven. Character arcs reveal over time the backstory, motivations, and identities of both Cylons and Colonials, creating nuanced characters whose feelings about their own morally ambivalent actions are gradually revealed. Multidimensional characters allow for a more nuanced treatment of the conflict between Cylons and Colonials and forge a social reality that turns out to be quite messy. By the third season, the program raises disturbing and essentially unanswered questions about the events that led up to the attack, throwing into question who aggressed first and the otherness of the enemy (“Hero” 3.8).