Monday, 12 February 2007

24 redux

I just posted my views on 24 yesterday, but I have come across a few articles that articulate what I felt much better (and are better researched since they have interviews etc.)

There is this article from the New Yorker which is disturbing on two levels. First is the catalogue of numerous torture sessions and methods that are used throughout the series. (The article informs us that 'Several copies of the C.I.A.’s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual can be found at the “24” offices, but [lead-writer for the series] Gordon said that, “for the most part, our imaginations are the source."') Secondly there is the chronicling of the visit to the offices of 24 of U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan accompanied by "three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country."

The reason they went to see the writers of the show is worth quoting:
Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”
Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”
But perhaps this is the real humdinger:

“In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,” Lagouranis told me. “I worked with someone who used waterboarding”—an interrogation method involving the repeated near-drowning of a suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.” Some people, he said, “gave confessions. But they just told us what we already knew. It never opened up a stream of new information.” If anything, he said, “physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.”

Here's someone confessing to the use of torture and witnessing torture that resulted in, among other things, broken bones and third-degree burns - things that are, without a doubt illegal, even under the lax rules governing torture in the United States - but one doubts that anyone is going to be charged with a crime. Needless to say, while this isn't the point of the article, its a given that this kind of thing is the norm in Iraq.

Its worth reading the rest of the article, particularly because you also get an insight in how the use of torture is justified in the right-wing media and by Bush's cronies. But I want to go back to this whole thing about the "angst" that torturing causes Jack Bauer. Many defenders of the show talk about how Jack Bauer is "damned", or a "dark character". Torture is not glorified, rather, it is unsavoury and dreadful task that must be done in order to do good.

In an insightful article, Slavoj Zizek writes the following:
The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.
Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.

So what 24 is doing is helping to inoculate people to the effects of torture on the torturer. It is helping to inculcate an ethic which will allow torturers to glorify themselves and their acts, as being both outside the pale of civilised behaviour, as well as its ultimate guarantor and champion.

And that's why I still don't like 24.


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