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.
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.
"People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen," said Tony Lagouranis, who was a US Army interrogator in Iraq and attended the meeting.
According to the Parents Television Council, in the five years before 9/11 there were 102 scenes of torture on prime time TV. In the three following years, that number increased to 624, they said. The PTC said that with 67 scenes of torture during its first five seasons, "24" was the number one show in terms of showing torture.
Rick Moran, of the blog American Thinker, called the New Yorker piece "serious and thoughtful," but nevertheless disagrees with the idea that a TV show can affect the way American interrogators do their job.
I have no doubt that General Finnegan and the agents are genuinely concerned about the show's impact on the troops. But the idea that some of the abuse of prisoners meted out by American soldiers is the result of watching a television show is absurd on its face. Blame it on our not giving the prisoners Geneva Convention protections or on poor discipline or leadership. But the intelligence professionals who carry out the overwhelming number of interrogations on prisoners can't all be that stupid. ...
This is not to say that there hasn't been torture committed by Americans. There have been more than 700 investigations carried out by the Army involving prisoner abuse and 25 detainees have died in American custody that have been ruled homicides. But to posit the notion, even tangentially, that the actions of Jack Bauer on a fictional TV show somehow contributed to this state of affairs strains credulity.
The show also has some fans in the human rights community who believe that the depictions of torture actually serve to undermine its acceptance in the US public. USA Today reported in March of 2005 that Alistair Hodgett of Amnesty International said that "24" gave realistic depictions that provide "a clearer idea of what torture involves. ... They do more to educate than desensitize."
The Associated Press reports that Human Rights First, the group that arranged General Finnegan's meeting with the "24" staff (the group also talked to the creators of "Lost," which also features torture scenes), said its ultimate idea is to "drive home the notion that torture by an American would never be tolerated.
"We would never try to censor anybody," [Jill Savitt, the group's director of public programs] said. "We would never tell Hollywood what to do, but we are trying to tell them what legal interrogation looks like. If it makes them pause, that's a bonus."
The Los Angeles Times reports that, after the meeting with Finnegan and the interrogators, "24" executive producer Howard Gordon has been filmed "for a Humans Rights First video about torture that is expected to be used next fall at West Point and perhaps other military organizations as well." Surnow, however, said he would not participate in the film. In the New Yorker article, Surnow said he believes that torture does work to get suspects to confess, despite the warning of the group that visited his show.