tvSmarter – Life in a TV Nation

TV Makes the Case for Torture

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Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, “In a Democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” So considering the newest poll numbers, it seems that Americans deserve (and are in the process of getting) a government that supports torture:

Fifty-eight percent (58%) of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other aggressive interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from the terrorist who attempted to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day.

Rasmussen – December_2009

Rasmussen may be biased, but other surveys have come to similar conclusions:

In 1776 the United States was founded on Enlightenment values, which includes the constitution which bans “cruel and unusual punishments”.

For over 200 years, Americans have supported this ban. Even during the War of Independence with England, and during WWI and WWII, torture was never sanctioned by the government or the public.

John Adams argued that humane treatment of prisoners and deep concern for civilian populations not only reflected the American Revolution’s highest ideals, they were a moral and strategic requirement. His thoughts on the subject, expressed in a 1777 letter to his wife, might make a profitable read for Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as we endeavor to win hearts and minds in Iraq. Adams wrote: “I know of no policy, God is my witness, but this — Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty and Villainy have prevailed and may again. But they won’t prevail against America, in this Contest, because I find the more of them are employed, the less they succeed.”

Even British military leaders involved in the atrocities recognized their negative effects on the overall war effort. In 1778, Col. Charles Stuart wrote to his father, the Earl of Bute: “Wherever our armies have marched, wherever they have encamped, every species of barbarity has been executed. We planted an irrevocable hatred wherever we went, which neither time nor measure will be able to eradicate.”

What has changed?

I’m sure there are a number of reasons for erosion of Enlightenment values and increased support for brutality and torture. But considering the huge amount of TV that Americans have watched over the past 50 years, there is good reason to believe that TV has caused a good part of this shift in values.

TV causes Desensitization and increased Aggression

For example: “An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18”

This leads to desensitization and to increased aggression (and aggressive attitudes).

TV Decreases Respect for Rule-of-Law

Sadly, for decades the media model for a hero has been the rogue cop who lies, cheats, steals, bashes heads and generally trashes the rights and often the bodies of guilty and innocent alike, to catch some vile thug. From James Bond, to the Beverly Hills Cop, to the latest episode of “Law and Order,” media cops have little use for such archaic concepts as “constitutional rights,” “your home is your castle,” or “innocent until proven guilty.”

TV and the Ticking-Time-bomb Argument

Until recently, it was pretty much unheard of for the hero in a fictional story to tie someone up and torture them. (It is still unheard of now for the hero to rape, so some values do still prevail). In fact, the usual way for writers to show just how evil the villain was, was to show him torturing someone.

So how to change torturing, which used to be seen as personifying evil, into something good and heroic? Luckily for torture-supporters there is the Ticking-Time-bomb Argument. Namely that the hero has captured someone whom the hero is sure knows where there is a ticking-time-bomb about to go off. That is, the ticking-time-bomb will blow up and kill countless of innocents unless the hero is willing to do the unthinkable and torture his captive into giving up the location of the deadly ticking-time-bomb before it is too late.

Never mind that the torture-supporters can’t point to a real-life example of such a scenario. Theoretically, hypothetically, such a scenario could very well arrive, (according to the argument) and we must be ready to put away our sensitivities about “human rights” and “human dignity” and do what is necessary.

It is this ticking-time-bomb argument that make up the basis for Fox’s TV show “24”, where it plays out every week in an extremely entertaining and exciting fashion.

When Alan Dershowitz came out with his ticking-time-bomb defense of torture he was quickly and roundly condemned by numerous liberals. But because “24” is a fictional TV show, liberals were slow to condemn it, since it was “only TV” and “people know the difference between fact and fiction”. This ignores the fact that an argument can be made equally well in a academic paper as in a fictional story. Alan Dershowitz illustrated his argument using the ticking-time-bomb scenario, “24” illustrates this same scenario week after exciting week on the TV. Few people will actually read Alan Dershowitz odious paper, while millions enthusiastically watch Jack Bauer use torture week after week to save millions of American citizens.

“24” not only makes the ticking-time-bomb argument, it also portrays opponents of torture as either weak and spineless, naive or as opportunistic weasels. In addition “24” argues that Jack Bauer, the heroic torturer, not only doesn’t take pleasure from torturing people, but that he pays a huge psychic price for his torturing ways. In other words, there’s no need to bring criminal charges against torturers, they’ve already suffered enough. This last argument is one that I find the most repugnant, that somehow our sympathies should be with the torturer instead of his victim. And, of course, the writers of “24” do a very good job manipulating viewers into feeling that sympathy for the “heroic” Jack Bauer.

It wasn’t until U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan went public with his experiences at West Point that liberals finally woke up to the fact that “24” really was having a large effect on people’s attitudes towards torture:

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.”

Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have angered much of the world, the response of Americans has been more tepid. Finnegan attributes the fact that “we are generally more comfortable and more accepting of this,” in part, to the popularity of “24,” which has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales. The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as “24” circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

Yet David Nevins, the former Fox Television network official who, in 2000, bought the pilot on the spot after hearing a pitch from Surnow and Cochran, and who maintains an executive role in “24,” is candid about the show’s core message. “There’s definitely a political attitude of the show, which is that extreme measures are sometimes necessary for the greater good,” he says. “The show doesn’t have much patience for the niceties of civil liberties or due process. It’s clearly coming from somewhere. Joel’s politics suffuse the whole show.”

Surnow told me that he would like to counter the prevailing image of Senator Joseph McCarthy as a demagogue and a liar. Surnow and his friend Ann Coulter—the conservative pundit, and author of the pro-McCarthy book “Treason”—talked about creating a conservative response to George Clooney’s recent film “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Surnow said, “I thought it would really provoke people to do a movie that depicted Joe McCarthy as an American hero or, maybe, someone with a good cause who maybe went too far.”

Last March, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia, joined Surnow and Howard Gordon for a private dinner at Rush Limbaugh’s Florida home. The gathering inspired Virginia Thomas—who works at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank—to organize a panel discussion on “24.” The symposium, sponsored by the foundation and held in June, was entitled “ ‘24’ and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who participated in the discussion, praised the show’s depiction of the war on terrorism as “trying to make the best choice with a series of bad options.” He went on, “Frankly, it reflects real life.” Chertoff, who is a devoted viewer of “24,” subsequently began an e-mail correspondence with Gordon, and the two have since socialized in Los Angeles. “It’s been very heady,” Gordon said of Washington’s enthusiasm for the show. Roger Director, Surnow’s friend, joked that the conservative writers at “24” have become “like a Hollywood television annex to the White House. It’s like an auxiliary wing.”

The Heritage Foundation panel was moderated by Limbaugh. At one point, he praised the show’s creators, dropped his voice to a stage whisper, and added, to the audience’s applause, “And most of them are conservative.” When I spoke with Limbaugh, though, he reinforced the show’s public posture of neutrality. “People think that they’ve got a bunch of right-wing writers and producers at ‘24,’ and they’re subtly sending out a message,” he said. “I don’t think that’s happening. They’re businessmen, and they don’t have an agenda.” Asked about the show’s treatment of torture, he responded, “Torture? It’s just a television show! Get a grip.”

In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of “24” as if it were real. 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?” Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.” Surnow once appeared as a guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists—it’s good for you!”

So, from the famous Rush Limbaugh:

“Torture? It’s just a television show! Get a grip.”

For more on torture see:


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