Does '24' encourage US interrogators to 'torture' detainees?
The Fox Broadcasting Company television show "24," which for the past five years has detailed "a single, panic-laced day" in which Jack Bauer – a heroic counter-terrorism agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland – must stop "a conspiracy that imperils the nation," is one of the US's most popular shows. But it may also be encouraging real-life interrogators to "go too far" when they question terrorist suspects.Skip to next paragraph
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This week's New Yorker features a story about Joel Surnow, the show's creator and a self-described "right-wing nut," and includes the information that last November Mr. Surnow and the story's creative staff were visited by a brigadier general and three top military and FBI interrogators, as well as human rights groups, who told them that the show's graphic depictions of the torture of suspects was "hurting efforts to train recruits in effective interrogation techniques and is damaging the image of the US around the world."
This past November, US Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind "24." Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and FBI interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan – wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals – aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his "call" was.
In fact, 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."
Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told the New Yorker that his students would frequently refer to Jack Bauer in discussions of what permissible in the questioning of terrorist suspects.
He said that, under both US 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."
The New York Daily News reports that the terrorism experts told the staff that almost all of the interrogation techniques depicted in "24" would not work in real-life situations.