JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Tortured logic: entertainment and the spectacle of deliberately inflicted pain in 24 and Battlestar Galactica

by Isabel Pinedo

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 .

24

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.”[1] [open endnotes in new window] The series counts Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as fans.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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).[7]

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.

Jack: [Y]ou know what I did was absolutely necessary….

Audrey: Jack, you can't keep working outside the line and not expect consequences.

Jack: Trust me. No one understands the consequences better than me. No one.

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.[8] 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.

Torture on 24: a critical perspective

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,

“Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week” (qtd. in Mayer).

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:

“Here’s my take on the whole torture thing. None of us like it, none of us condone it. We are victims of our own doing because of the way the show is laid out. We know that real interrogation, not torture, works, but over the period of a five or six-day span. Well, obviously, we don’t have that time because we are a real-time show. It’s a problem for us, so that’s one of the reasons we do what we do. On the other hand, it’s also a moral question that we’re constantly putting up on our characters. Is hurting the few worth saving the many?” (qtd. in Bennett 16-17)

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.[9] 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:[10]

Senator Blaine Mayer: Did you torture Mr. Haddad?

Jack Bauer: According to the definition set forth by the Geneva Conventions [pause] yes… Ibrahim Haddad had targeted a bus carrying 45 people, ten of which were children. The truth, Senator, is that I stopped that attack from happening…The people that I deal with, they don’t care about your rules. All they care about is the result…

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.[11] 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” (“8 pm” 7.13).

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.[12] 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].”[13] 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:

“Torture was originally intended to force false confessions. Now we use it to try and find the truth" (“6 pm” 7.11).[14]

Intelligence experts, in contrast, claim,

“‘Rapport-building,’ the slow process of winning over informants, is the method that generally works best” (Mayer).

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.[15] 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.[16]

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:

“John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s ‘torture memo’—which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees—invokes the show in his book War by Other Means. He asks, ‘What if, as the popular Fox television program 24 recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?’”

The implication is that it would be right to use torture because torture works.[17] 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).

Battlestar Galactica

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).[18]

Naturalistic sci-fi

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.[19] 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).

The ineffectiveness of torture

The series troubles the easy dichotomy between hero and villain. Its human heroes are not pristine but flawed. Its Cylon adversaries are not evil incarnate but made in our image and capable of love. Their similarity is driven home in episodes that depict not only the Cylons but also the Colonials exercising extreme measures such as suicide bombing and torture, as the series explores the question — how different are we from the enemy?

This is put to the test in season 1 when a humanoid Cylon is discovered aboard the fleet. Lt. Kara Thrace is sent to interrogate him and learns that he planted a nuclear warhead, which is set to go off in a matter of hours. Motivated by this ticking time bomb, she continues her interrogation and has Leoben beaten by soldiers. After he breaks free and attacks her, she intones, “Now the gloves come off” and has him subjected to the near-drowning mode of torture known as waterboarding. The phrase “the gloves come off” — uttered by Cofer Black, former director of the CIA's counterterrorism center, at a Senate hearing in September 2001 and subsequently oft repeated — was widely associated with the Bush administration policy of covert rendition and torture. Kara’s use of it in connection to her use of waterboarding ties the episode to Abu Ghraib.[20] Showrunner Ronald Moore has acknowledged that this episode, which first aired December 6th 2004, was influenced by the 2004 accounts of abuses at Abu Ghraib that came to light via photographic evidence (Bassom 74).

Kara justifies her torture of Leoben to President Laura Roslin by dehumanizing the enemy, as Colonials typically do, calling Cylons “toasters,” and the humanoid models “skins.”

“It’s a machine, sir. There’s no limit to the tactics I can use.”

But over time, as her torture fails to break him, his suffering breaks her tenacious grip on the belief that he is only a machine, the very thing that allowed her to torture him in the first place. So when the President, following on the logic that Leoben is no more than a dangerous thing, orders him summarily killed, Kara objects and expresses sympathy with him, going so far as to pray for him after he is air locked — executed by being forcibly ejected into space (“Flesh and Bone” 1.8).

In the end Leoben admits that he fabricated the bomb threat to prolong his life and to spend time with Kara, to whom he has a mysterious attachment. Had he been telling the truth, torture would not have changed anything; the bomb would have gone off. Unlike 24’s ticking bomb threat, which is always real, in BSG Leoben’s ticking bomb threat is a fiction, as is the scenario so central to the torture debate.

It is here — in the fictional device of the race-against-the-clock to save the innocent — that we see the contortions necessary for a liberal democracy to rationalize its turn to torture in violation of its basic principles.[21] For if torture did not work, if it were not effective in protecting society, how could we justify it?

Torture as morally corrupting

Torture on BSG is consistently shown as morally repugnant, but one form of torture in particular is brought in for condemnation: the homosocial act of sadism known as gang rape. During the second season, the Battlestar Galactica encounters another surviving battlestar, the Pegasus, who have onboard a Cylon prisoner, Gina, a Six model. Under the command of Lt. Alistair Thorne, men of the Pegasus crew have serially raped and beaten her. This torture has been authorized by their commanding officer, Admiral Helena Cain (“Pegasus” 2.10), who is semiotically linked to hawkish Bush administration officials by her habit of having no chair at her desk. Ronald Moore, in his Pegasus podcast, associates this habit with John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. (2005-06), but ABC News also attributes this trait to Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense (2001-06). As with our own government, underlings may carry out torture, but the policy is sanctioned at the top. And as we labor to legitimate torture through denial (we don’t torture) and dismissal (waterboarding is not torture), so the Pegasus crew must vindicate themselves. In a symbolic act of hand washing, Cain’s second in command, Colonel Jack Fisk exclaims, “You can’t rape a machine…” (“Resurrection Ship Part II” 2.12). In a more truthful turn, Cain justifies the torture as revenge for the hundreds of crew members she lost when their defense capacity against Cylon attack was crippled by Gina’s sabotage.[22] Here the raison d’etre of torture, to bolster a regime of power in the aftermath of a devastating defeat, is in the open.

As with Leoben, torture fails to produce intelligence, so Admiral Cain agrees to the scientist Baltar’s request to let him try a different method of interrogation. Baltar’s uncharacteristic display of compassion, which stems from Gina’s resemblance to his former Cylon lover, another Six model, draws her from the semi-catatonic stupor in which he finds her, crumpled, manacled, bruised, and soiled, to an alert state of terrible vulnerability. She is undeniably “swallowed alive by the body,” lost to herself. Baltar empathizes with Gina and painstakingly builds a rapport with her, eventually learning from her the function of the ship they have been scouting. When Cylon bodies die, their memories and personality migrate to a new copy of their body aboard a resurrection ship. After the enduring psychological damage Gina has sustained, she wants to die without being reborn, so she helps Baltar to identify the high value of the target so they will extinguish it.

Here, rapport-driven questioning is shown to bear fruit whereas torture is shown to be prolonged, ineffective, trauma inducing, and able to backfire. When Gina takes her own life later in the season, she does so through a suicide bombing that obliterates another ship (“Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II” 2.20). The ripple effects extend even wider, as the nuclear signature of that detonation leads the Cylons to the Colonial settlement one year later.

As difficult as it is to realize that Gina has been brutally serially raped over an extended period of time, it is even more difficult when Sharon, the Galactica’s Cylon prisoner is about to be “interrogated” by Lt. Thorne and his men, in what has now become the Pegasus’s standard operating procedure.[23] They are acting under orders from Cain but without Galactica Commander Bill Adama’s knowledge or consent. Until now, in Adama’s custody, Sharon has been treated humanely despite her almost successful attempt to assassinate Adama, and she has in turn provided valuable intelligence. When Chief Galen Tyrol and Lt. Karl Agathon, both of who are in love with Sharon, learn from boastful Pegasus crewmen of her impending assault, they rush to her cell. Sharon is choked, struck, and pinned to a bunk to be raped before their arrival interrupts the attack. In the ensuing struggle with Tyrol and Agathon, Thorne is accidentally killed. The two battlestars nearly come to a firefight when Admiral Cain unilaterally court-martials the men, and Commander Adama demands she hand them back for a fair hearing.

The two leadership styles come to a clash most directly here. Adama may be military commander of the fleet, but all along he has had to negotiate with civilian authority, as embodied by the President and the Council. Cain has wielded unchecked authority and broaches no opposition. Having stripped the civilian ships they encountered of useful resources, she abandons them, as she does due process, in pursuit of a military agenda. Cain and her crew may be brutal towards their Cylon prisoner, but they are also ruthless towards the civilians who sought their protection, leaving them defenseless and impoverished. The brutality they unleash on Gina comes to be directed at their own. Brutality corrupts and propagates.

The sexual nature of torture

The version of Sharon’s attack that aired has Tyrol and Agathon interrupting it just as she is about to be anally raped by Thorne. The extended version of “Pegasus” on DVD includes a more drawn-out and detailed attack, one in which she is being raped when her rescuers reach her. The network objected to its explicitness.[24] Ronald Moore explains why they opted to rachet up the duration and graphic details of the rape-torture scene:

“We wanted it to be clear…how ugly this was…the brutality of it…the violation of it…”

Moore did not want to depict torture as something that could be excused. The edited version that went on air is suggestive and difficult to watch as it is. It is impossible for the audience to dehumanize Sharon, a richly fleshed-out character, the way that Cain’s men do. Thorne and his accomplices see Sharon and Gina as dangerous machines. In addition, the enjoyment these men derive from the gendered character of rape suggests they also see them on some level as women.

Unlike 24, BSG shows the sexualized character of torture, which often involves symbolic forms of sexual degradation and pain inflicted directly on the genitals or other sexually coded regions of the body.[25] As Susan Sontag argues in “The Photographs Are Us: Regarding the Torture of Others,” violence and sex are routinely conjoined in both the torture practices of Abu Ghraib and the photographs taken there (which mixed soldier’s torture shots with amateur pornographic shots). 24 studiously avoids any suggestion of sexual overtones to Bauer’s torture practices, so that when Jack tortures Audrey’s husband with a live electric wire, he targets Paul’s chest, not his nipples or genitals. The program also directs almost all of Jack’s torture practice against male suspects, further stifling the suggestion of sexual sadism, which is so much a part of real-world torture practices.[26]

BSG depicts the human struggle with the less heroic face of violence. It stages the torturer’s inability to recognize the subjectivity or suffering of his victim in a self-critical light. It suggests the cost of this brutality to the society that sanctions it. The mercilessness of the Cylon attack primes them for reprisals, and the knowledge that the enemy is not human seems to license any act. But in the end, the Cylons turn out not to be that different from us, for better or worse. And the price of brutality is shown to be too dear to pay. The us-them dichotomy is vexed for viewers as early as the pilot, and for members of the Galactica starting in season 1. But the demonizing goes unchallenged aboard the Pegasus, as it does on 24. On BSG, the capacity for evil is not limited to our enemies or to a few “bad apples.” It is part of what we do in the name of war. And in the end, it comes back to bite us, a painful reality 24 is loathe to admit. As Commander Adama puts it, “It’s not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving” (“Resurrection Ship, Part II” 2.12). The Galactica at least knows when it has lost its moral compass and fights to regain it. 24, like Dick Cheney even now, adamantly denies wrongdoing. Its producers fret about the cost to Jack Bauer’s soul but seem unconcerned about the nation’s.

Unlike the producers or star of 24, Reiko Aylesworth, who played Michelle Dessler on 3 seasons of the show, is able to raise the troubling question the show avoids:

“Torture has been a big thing on 24….[W]hat they are dealing with is: how much do you give up before you lose your humanity? With Jack especially…at what point does he cross over into being no better than what he is chasing down? It’s the same with our country. It draws real parallels. We say in times of crisis, we are going to lay down the law. Okay, but how much do you do that before what you are protecting has been defiled so much that it’s not what it was anymore…. “(qtd. in Dilullo 67).

Aylesworth identifies the moral quandary Surnow’s series is unwilling to confront, in stark contrast to Moore’s BSG.

Conclusion

24 premiered during the first half of the first Bush term, BSG during the second term. Both Bush administration terms were chronicled by a pandering press, loath to risk White House retaliation and the label of “unpatriotic” by asking hard questions. Aided by television news’s well-established capitulation to market forces, in which unsubstantiated infotainment drives out socially necessary information, the Bush administration stifled open debate about government-sanctioned torture practices. It was popular culture, protected by the smokescreen of entertainment, which raised variegated sides of the issue more frankly. By asking us to consider the incompatibility of torture and a just society, BSG reframes the Bush administration position on this issue. It asks us to examine how much we surrender when we turn to torture. In contrast, 24 tackles the issue in a manner that reinforces Bush administration policy on torture, presenting it as the dirty but necessary work of the state. And, as Jack Bauer often asks other law enforcement officers to “walk away” from the scene of impending torture, so 24 over the years asks its viewers to walk away from holding government officials accountable for sanctioning torture.[27] So ingrained in public consciousness is 24 with the pro-torture position that it has become shorthand for the ticking time bomb defense. In 2007, talking on a panel in Canada, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia “repeatedly cited Fox’s 24 and its fictional hero Jack Bauer as the authorities in support of his views about torture” (Horton). According to the Wall Street Journal, Scalia asserted:

“Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles….He saved hundreds of thousands of lives…Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer?...I don’t think so” (qtd. in Lattman).

Appearing on another panel, “24 and the War on Terror: Can Truth Learn from Fiction,” Kiefer Sutherland reported that when he flew in from NY that day, a woman across the aisle stared at him for so long that he looked over and said: “It’s a TV show,” much to her relief (DVD feature accompanying Bennett). It is too bad Sutherland was not there to inform Scalia of the same.

Given the disparity between the reach of a cable series and a network hit, 24 would seem to have had the greater public impact. It helped to promote tolerance of torture not only by embodying the practice in the sympathetic and heroic figure of Jack Bauer but more significantly by popularizing the ticking bomb scenario which links torture to intelligence gathering.[28] The advocacy of torture hinges on this confluence of unrealistic circumstances. Without it, torture does not gain much traction. This is the function of the ticking bomb scenario. This is the function of 24 in the arena of public opinion.

BSG, despite its smaller reach, served to articulate a dissident perspective,[29] one disseminated not only through the normal publicity channels of interviews given by Moore and Eick but through other paratextual products including Ronald Moore’s blog, David Eick’s video blog, episode podcasts created by Moore, webisodes, and extensive DVD commentary, often touching on the program’s political subject matter. This dissident perspective was also expressed by Obama when he asserted the need to “reject the false choice between our security and our ideals” (qtd. in Shane).[30] For a time it seemed that BSG had won the discursive battle, but subsequent policies of the Obama administration suggest that this battle is far from being decisively won.

Notes

I am indebted to Heather Levi for helping me think through conceptual elements in this essay, and to Julia Lesage for astute editorial comments.

This work was supported (in part) by a grant from the City University of New York PSC-Cuny Research Award Program and by an award from the George N. Shuster Faculty Fellowship Fund at Hunter College of the City University of New York.

[return to page 1 of essay]

1. Surnow shares creator and executive producer credit with Robert Cochran, who characterizes himself as a moderate.

2. As reported by Rush Limbaugh at a Heritage Foundation panel on the series, titled “24 and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does it Matter?” June 2006. Among the attendees were Justice Clarence Thomas of the Supreme Court and Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

3. For an excellent analysis of the legal arguments around torture and its normalization, see Ip, who also uses a comparison of 24 and Battlestar Galactica to ground his parsing of the debate.

4. Martha Rosler’s 1983 documentary, A Simple Case for Torture, was made in response to the pro-torture column by Michael Levin, a philosophy professor at City College (City University of New York). See her reconsideration of the video in light of both the wide public airing the pro-torture position has received, and its implementation as policy, in Jump Cut 51. Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, advocated the use of torture warrants in an L.A. Times article published Nov. 8, 2001.
http://ontology.buffalo.edu/smith//courses01/rrtw/Dershowitz.htm

Shortly before that, Jonanthan Alter, a self-described liberal, published an article in Newsweek titled “Time to Think about Torture.”
http://www.newsweek.com/id/76304

5. The closest Jack came in season 1 to torturing a suspect was to make a threat that could not be carried out because the man died when he refused medication for a coronary brought on by the encounter (“10 am” 1.11). See “Imagining Torture” by Chuck Kleinhans in Jump Cut 51 for a discussion of depictions of torture in U.S. fiction film and television, including 24.

6. Sarah, who works at CTU and is set up by the real mole, is tasered (“2 pm” 4.8), and Richard, who is Audrey’s brother and is trying to conceal a homosexual encounter, is subjected to sensory deprivation by Richards (“9 am” 4.3).

7. Paul eventually succumbs to complications related to this bullet wound, when Bauer forces the medical team to abandon life-saving surgery on Paul to tend to a dying terrorist informant (“2 am” 4.20).

8. Though season 3 ends with his daughter Kim and her boyfriend Chase resolving to leave the agency because working there is incompatible with a relationship, a choice Jack did not make despite the toll the job took on his marriage and eventually on his wife’s life, every season involves loss and regret for Bauer.

9. Mayer reports that the meeting was arranged by David Danzig of Human Rights First. My discussion of that meeting draws on Mayer’s description.

10. Senator Mayer seems to be named for New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, who believes this to be the case. See Zenilman for a Mayer interview to this effect.

11. Season 7 ends with Agent Walker, after consulting with the incapacitated Bauer, about to torture the stonewalling Alan Wilson, terrorist mastermind of that season and season 5’s conspiracies, for information.

12. A report from an advisory group, the Intelligence Science Board, issued just one month later (Dec. 2006) also finds that popular culture, coupled with “ad hoc experimentation have fueled the use of aggressive and sometimes physical interrogation techniques to get those captured on the battlefields to talk, even if there is no evidence to support the tactics' effectiveness” (White).

13. Since 2006, the ratings for 24 have gone down.

14. The torture techniques sanctioned at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib were based partly on SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), the military training program devised to inure soldiers to torture, which in turn was based on torture modes used by Korean Communists to extract false confessions from Americans. See “Torture Documentaries” by Julia Lesage in Jump Cut 51 for a discussion of the migration of some of these practices from the British (for use against the IRA) decades ago to Guantanamo to Bagram to Abu Ghraib in her analysis of Taxi to the Dark Side (2007).

15. An exception is season 7, where Bauer’s torture by taser of Ryan Burnett lands Burnett in the hospital with serious injuries (“7 pm” 7.12).

16. In 2007, McFarlane Toys released a line of action figures (i.e. dolls targeted at boys) after a delay caused by Kiefer Sutherland’s unwitting destruction of the prototype “after a night of playfully torturing the plastic version of his character!” (Bennett 79). Obviously, torturing a doll does not constitute endorsing torture, however torturing a doll likeness of oneself does suggest that Sutherland might be more ambivalent about the impact of his character’s violent behavior on its audience than the actor is willing to admit.

17. Torture may not work to elicit truthful information, but it worked for the Bush administration. According to John Ip, the CIA rendered al Qaeda operative Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi to Egypt. After being subjected to torture, including waterboarding, “he claimed that Iraq had trained Qaeda members in the use of chemical and biological weapons.” Although he recanted in 2004, al-Libi’s coerced account was used by the Bush administration in its case for the Iraq war (23-4). Recently revealed Justice Department documents have corroborated the assertion that torture was used to try to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in the run up to the war (Landay). See also Chuck Kleinhans’s discussion of this in “Imagining Torture” (4) Jump Cut 51.

18. The attacks of 9/11 can be seen as a form of blowback. Bin Laden and the mujahadeen, CIA “assets” who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, were empowered by their victory there to form Al Qaeda and turn against us. For a discussion of the narrative centrality of blowback to BSG, see Pinedo.

19. After BSG ended its run, the channel, owned by media conglomerate NBC Universal, rebranded itself as Syfy, as it is now known.

20. Cofer Black used the phrase in relation to post-9/11 America: "All I want to say is that there was before 9/11 and after 9/11. After 9/11 the gloves come off" (qtd. in Schell). For a discussion of the Abu Ghraib photographs see Julia Lesage, “Torture Documentaries” in Jump Cut 51.

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 employed by the government and subsequently executed by Jack 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.

21. For a contrasting take on the incompatibility of torture and liberal democracy, see Talal Asad who argues that despite the public outrage voiced against suicide bombings by liberal democracies, mortal violence has historically been integral to liberalism as a political formation. Though his focus is not torture per se, the moral distinction – between the “them” who commit acts of barbarity and the “us” who do not – clearly comes into play in the need to define torture as necessary in this exceptional case, or to define it out of existence.

22. We only learn in “Razor” (aired between seasons 3 and 4) that Gina and Cain were also lovers, suggesting the additional involvement of narcissistic motives.

23. Standard Operating Procedure is also the title of Errol Morris’s 2008 documentary investigating torture at Abu Ghraib. He argues that torture was not the aberrant practice of the few low-ranking “bad apples” who were prosecuted, but rather the standard operating procedure at this and other detention camps, authorized by high ranking officials and instituted by bureaucratic channels. See Julia Lesage’s detailed discussion of the film in “Torture Documentaries,” Jump Cut 51.

24. The DVD commentary for the extended version of “Pegasus” has David Eick explaining that the network executives based their objections on the belief that women in the audience will be alienated by explicit sexual violence. But Eick and Moore fundamentally disagreed .

25. Baltar’s torture sequence departs radically from the series’ otherwise realistic depiction of torture. It plays like a reverse primal scene in which a violent encounter is interpreted as a sexual encounter. While the Cylon D’Anna tortures Baltar, his imaginary Cylon lover, Six, whom he interacts with on a regular basis, mounts him and encourages him to disassociate from the pain and focus on the pleasurable sensations produced by her gyrations. As the sequence cross cuts between Baltar having sexual intercourse, with Baltar subjected to grueling pain, it deliberately and disturbingly mixes pleasure and pain, eroticism and torment, sex and violence, not for the perpetrator but for the victim of torture, transmuting it into something like an ecstatic masochistic experience, at the end of which Baltar declares his love for Six/D’Anna (“A Measure of Salvation” 3.7). Carrying the lack of realism even further, as in 24, Baltar walks away psychologically unscathed and proceeds to have a consensual sexual relationship with D’Anna. For a nuanced discussion of the erotic frisson that may be evoked by photographs of torture see “Torture Documentaries,” by Julia Lesage in Jump Cut 51.

26. In season 2, Jack withholds medical care for a bullet wound from terrorist Marie Warner, a more indirect form of duress (“9 pm” 2.14).

27. In the wake of the torture memos released by the Obama administration, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan and others have discouraged any investigation into possible crimes committed in the formation of torture policy by the Justice Department and White House officials. As Noonan put it on the 4/26/09 edition of ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos, “Sometimes in life you want to just keep walking” (my transcription).

28. Political blogger Andrew Sullivan avers that the role of 24 in normalizing torture, has been deliberate. He recounts that in 2006,

“a private luncheon was held in the…White House for Surnow and several others from the show. (The event was not publicized.) Among the attendees were Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff; Tony Snow, the White House spokesman….After the meal, Surnow recalled, he and his colleagues spent more than an hour visiting with Rove in his office.”

29. BSG’s perspective may have been a dissident one in the US, but it is in keeping with other western democracies, as witnessed by the United Nations, which on March 17, 2009, convened a panel to discuss BSG’s treatment of terrorism and torture.

30. For an insightful analysis of the torture discourse embodied in the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute top-level Bush administration officials under the stance of looking forward, not backward, see Julia Lesage, “Torture Documentaries: Limits on Torture Epistephilia” Jump Cut 51.

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