24, critical darling of conservatives tackles torture from a right-wing perspective.
Season 2 opens in South Korea with a man being tortured with electrodes until he divulges that a nuclear bomb is scheduled to detonate on American soil ďtoday.Ē
This torture-induced intelligence is quickly relayed to the NSA staffer in the adjoining room.
The series uses split-screen and a digital clock after commercial breaks to remind us of various narrative threads and of the ticking clock urging on the action.
Jack Bauer breaks Syed Aliís fingers to try to extract information about the imminent nuclear explosion.
Though President Palmer prohibits the mock execution of Aliís family on the grounds that it harms innocent family members, an order Bauer disregards, he has his own NSA Director, Stanton, tortured by a Secret Service agent, a former CIA covert operative.
Ali, believing one son to be dead and the other in imminent harm, divulges the location of the bomb. In split screen we see him broken, as intelligence is conveyed to CTU.
Season 3 adds a level of professionalization to the practice of torture by introducing the in-house CTU specialist Eric Richards, who injects pain-inducing chemicals at the behest of his superiors.
In season 4, Sarah, who works at CTU, comes under suspicion and is tasered by Richards.
CTU Director, Erin Driscoll, looks on as the impassive Richards works. The high-tech look of the scene and muted lighting helps to distance viewers as well.
Bauer tortures Paul Raines, the estranged husband of his lover, Audrey Raines, as she looks on. Bauer electrocutes Paul on the fly, using lamp wires.
Soon after, fellow agent Curtis Manning expresses the programís position when he reassures Bauer that he did the right thing.
In the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War, Hollywood has generated entertainment-driven television series that regularly thematize torture in relation to the fight against terrorism and the ethical questions surrounding this practice. This essay explores the antithetical logic of torture at work in two critically acclaimed television series: 24 (2001-2010) and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). BSG implicitly draws parallels to current political realities, largely from a liberal perspective, whereas 24 is widely interpreted as tackling these issues from a right-wing perspective. Each program has taken an identifiable position on torture, a position both drawn from and formative of public discourse about torture during the Bush years.
Since September 11th, depictions of torture on U.S. television have changed in both quantity and quality. Villains no longer hold a virtual monopoly on perpetrating such deeds; they now share the stage with a number of heroes. Within this changing landscape, 24 — the FOX network dramatic serial which premiered on Nov. 6, 2001 — holds a special place, with torture scenes highlighted throughout most of its eight season run .
Joel Surnow, executive producer, creator, and showrunner of the series, has described himself as a “right-wing nut job” and supports the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” [open endnotes in new window] The series counts Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as fans. It airs on the FOX network, owned by Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media oligarch. In defense of the show Kiefer Sutherland, star and producer of 24, has drawn a distinction between the use of torture in reality, which he opposes, and the depiction of torture as a dramatic device in the action thriller genre (Molloy).
Genre is well suited to deal with contentious issues like torture and to figure the politically loaded within a familiar entertainment-oriented structure of expectations. Acting as a smokescreen, the action genre restages concerns about torture and provides the aesthetic distance necessary to avoid alienating audience. 24 is highly compelling with its tightly scripted episodes laced with suspense and ending in a cliffhanger or a plot twist. In addition, 24 is a complex narrative, well suited to tackle thorny political issues through its multiple interlocking narrative strands, large ensemble cast, and innovative real-time structure.
24’s ticking bomb scenario
The signature trait of the series is that events transpire in “real time,” with the 24 episodes of the season depicting 24 hours of a single day. Each season, 24 places its protagonist, a counterterrorist agent named Jack Bauer in a high-stakes series of crises involving layers of conspiracy and impaling its characters on the horns of a dilemma. He has less than 24 hours to resolve a massive terrorist threat against the United States. Within each episode, Bauer faces a multitude of challenges. Though the series aims for verisimilitude, engaging with real world political realities, it structurally resembles a video game, with each episode culminating in a challenge that must be overcome in order to advance to the next level, until the end of the game is reached. Through the course of the season, the game reboots two or three times as the scale or proximity of the threat escalates. And each season, the game reboots more fundamentally as a new mix of characters and circumstances revamps the game so play can start anew. Since the second season, the game always entails torture. Sometimes Bauer is tortured, sometimes he tortures.
In defense of torture
The show’s 24-hour structure encapsulates the logic of the ticking bomb scenario laid out by lawyer Alan Dershowitz after 9/11. Recasting an argument posed by philosopher Michael Levin in a 1982 Newsweek guest editorial, Dershowitz argues that if there is only 24 hours to prevent a mortal terrorist attack, the state should be able to use torture, sanctioned by warrant from the court, to extract the information necessary to stop it. Though Bauer has never gotten a warrant to commit torture, he has on occasion received its equivalent: tacit approval from the President of the U.S.
Dershowitz’s position is that though torture is morally abhorrent, if it can be used to prevent untold numbers from dying in a terrorist attack, it becomes the lesser evil and thus morally defensible. He assumes that the use of torture in a state of crisis is inevitable and advocates the warrants process to regulate and delimit its use. The scenario he lays out revolves around a ticking time bomb set to go off within hours. It assumes that the state knows about the threat and has a suspect in custody with pertinent knowledge who responds to torture truthfully, yielding actionable information. Among the objections to Dershowitz’s proposal is that it is highly unrealistic. The agent of the state would need to know that a terrorist bomb was set to detonate and would have its hands on a terrorist involved in the attack. The terrorist would respond to torture not with silence or lies but with information that enabled the state to avert the attack, all in at most a matter of hours. It’s a highly implausible situation in reality but the very ground on which 24 is built.
Since the series depicts events not only from the perspective of antiterrorist government agencies but also from that of the terrorists, the audience knows from the outset that the threat is real and of massive scope. Bauer’s instincts about clues and suspects are uncannily on target. Though he may be deceived by duplicitous characters, he is almost unerring in his assessment about whom to torture. His methods are generally effective, and the information he gleans is accurate. Though some terrorist strikes are successful, Bauer can usually, in action-thriller superman mode, avert the boldest terrorist threats, including the assassination of a Presidential contender, the detonation of nuclear bombs, the meltdown of nuclear power plants, and the unleashing of bioweapons.
The first season, which aired after 9/11 but the groundwork of which was laid prior to that day, introduced a hero who was able to address crises, using force when necessary. Though he threatened torture, he never actually resorted to it in the first season. However, according to writer Philippe Sands, Jack Bauer began serving as an inspiration for military officials devising interrogation techniques at Guantanamo as early as September 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate who signed off on new interrogation techniques including waterboarding, cited the popularity of 24 at Guantanamo. She said, “[Jack Bauer] gave people lots of ideas" (qtd. in Sands). By the time season 2 premiered on October 29, 2002, Bauer had already become a role model for the military.
Season 2 opens in South Korea with a scene of a man being tortured with electrodes until he utters the word, “today.” This is when a nuclear bomb is scheduled to detonate on U.S. soil. This information is quickly relayed to the NSA staffer in the adjoining room (“8 am” 2.1). Midway through the season, to impede this attack, Bauer stages, via a video feed, the mock execution of a terrorist’s son and threatens to kill that man’s wife and other child (“7 pm” 2.12). The suspect, believing the threat to be real, divulges the location of the bomb. Though President Palmer prohibits the mock execution on the grounds that it harms innocent family members, an order Bauer disregards, the President has his own NSA Director Stanton tortured by a Secret Service agent, a former CIA covert operative (“6 p.m.” 2.11). Stanton eventually confesses his part in the government conspiracy that allowed the terrorist group behind the bomb-threat to enter the country in order to further their own agenda so as to push the President towards a more aggressive defense policy (“8 p.m.” 2.13).
From season 2 on, torture becomes a central and recurring spectacle of the program, tied to the “time is running out” generic device of the thriller, the ticking bomb scenario favored by apologists for torture, and the real-time format of the show. What was shocking in season 2 has since become an expected narrative turn. Season 3 adds a level of professionalization to the practice by introducing the in-house Counterterrorist Unit (CTU) torture specialist Eric Richards, who injects pain-inducing chemicals at the behest of his superiors. However, the treatment of torture stands out in season 4, where various innocent people fall under suspicion and are tortured by CTU agents, including the nearly infallible Jack Bauer. Bauer tortures Paul Raines, the estranged husband of his lover, Audrey Raines. Bauer electrocutes Paul with lamp wires because Paul’s company owns a building linked to the terrorist plot to set off a mass-scale nuclear power plant meltdown. Though Paul is not working with the terrorists, Bauer forces him to do some digging in the company’s database, which unearths useful information (“5 pm” 4.11). Understanding the threat against the country and realizing that he can help, Paul agrees to work with Bauer. Despite having been subjected to torture, Paul seems to suffer no ill effects nor to harbor ill will towards Bauer, going so far as to take a bullet for him later (“7 pm” 4.13).
Bauer, along with other key agents at CTU, is willing to break the rules to get results. Late in season 4, CTU has taken into custody Joe Prado, whom they believe knows the whereabouts of Habib Marwan, the terrorist behind the imminent attack. An Amnesty Global lawyer, unknowingly engaged by Marwan, interrupts Prado’s interrogation at the hands of the torture specialist. CTU, under court order, must release Prado into federal custody. After efforts to prevent this prove unsuccessful, Bauer resigns. Acting as a citizen, he overcomes the Federal Marshall and breaks Prado’s fingers until he reveals the terrorist’s whereabouts (“ 12 am” 4.18). Audrey confronts Jack about his extreme methods, which he regards as the dirty but necessary backstage work of a democracy.
Viewers know that Bauer has lost his family to the job. A mole murdered his wife, and his estranged daughter spends years blaming him for everything that has gone wrong in her life. Jack has paid personally for his service to his country and is made to appear the injured party in this interaction. A fellow agent, Curtis Manning, expresses the program’s position when he reassures Bauer, "[F]or whatever it's worth, you did the right thing with Prado" (“1 am” 4.19).
Making torture palatable
According to executive producer Howard Gordon, “…Jack Bauer pays a terrible price on his soul” for doing the “…awful things [that] need to be done….” (qtd. in Dilullo 124-25). Season 3 ends uncharacteristically with an overwhelmed Jack weeping in his car, until summoned back to work (“24” 3.24). 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. Gordon characterizes Jack as a tragic figure who pays a terrible price to do what is necessary. In narrative terms, Jack’s suffering serves to expiate the sins he commits to keep us safe.
According to film theorist Stephen Prince, there are two axes of violence in screen depictions: subject and stylistic amplitude (34-6). The subject of torture is presented in 24 in myriad forms: electrocution, choking, beating, cutting, drilling flesh, pressing on an injury, breaking bones, mock execution. Stylistic amplitude refers to the graphic presentation and duration of these depictions: whether onscreen or off-screen, the showing or withholding of details, the length of screen time the violence occupies, and the use of sound to convey physical pain. All of these factors work to tone down or ratchet up the impact of violence. Observers have noted that both the frequency and graphic explicitness of depictions of torture have escalated on 24 over the years. This is not surprising given that audiences become accustomed to prevailing thresholds of violence, and the series has had to push the boundaries to evoke the same levels of shock as it did in season 2 (Prince 84).
The infliction of torture by Bauer on suspects may be graphic, but the narrative goes to great lengths to depict the counterterrorist unit’s sense of urgency within the constraints of a ticking bomb scenario told in real-time format. Playing on the videogame aesthetic, the agents race to resolve a series of crises, to advance the puzzle-solving process, to capture the conspirators before they can inflict mass-scale murder, to win the game. Since time is of the essence, as the digital clock counting down the hour reminds us, immediacy is highly prized. Methods must be effective and quick. Offering a criminal immunity for information is one option, though not always effective and perhaps not as dramatically satisfying. Torture, at least on 24 and when performed by Bauer, is almost always effective and relatively quick. This dynamic takes precedence over concerns about civil liberties and alienates the viewer from the pain being inflicted on the suspect. Thus, 24 reinforces the perspective of the torturer, who remains distant from the pain he inflicts. In most instances, torturing a suspect is not a matter of personal retribution and Bauer does not take pleasure in inflicting pain. The viewer is not put in the position of identifying with a sociopath. The recipient of Bauer’s torture is an uncooperative accomplice to a terrorist attack who is to be siphoned for information. This is a consistent feature of the action thriller, which does not worry about legal niceties but does worry about averting disaster.
The series combines several elements to render torture more palatable to viewers when committed by counterterrorist agents, Jack Bauer in particular. 24’s narrative shows the cost of crisis events to the suffering hero, at times rendering him abject, as it does at the end of season 1 when his wife is killed, at the end of season 3 when he breaks down and weeps, and at the start of season 6 when he is released after an 18-month captivity by Chinese agents who have tortured him relentlessly. The action-thriller coding of the program, including the clock motif, the twists and turns of uncovering a conspiracy, the overarching sense of jeopardy — all convey a sense of amped up tension and spectacle for the viewer. It is within this context that torture joins the repertoire of violent confrontations common to the genre. Together these elements provide not only Jack Bauer but also the viewer with a moral alibi to condone the torture. We condone the killing committed by state agents as necessary to the larger purpose and enjoy the program, including its more flinch-inducing moments.