Did '24' help make torture acceptable?

Most Americans think that torture was justified in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. The TV drama '24' debuted soon after those attacks and ran for eight seasons. But '24' also showed a cost to those who tortured others, even if the victims were bad guys.

Kelsey McNeal/AP/File
In this publicity image released by Fox, Jack Bauer, portrayed by actor Kiefer Sutherland is shown in a scene from the two-hour '24' series finale, airing May 24, 2010, on FOX. If you look at the final scenes of the eighth season, or the final scenes of the most recent miniseries, you certainly can’t say that utilizing torture was something that had a positive impact on Bauer, or on anyone around him. Indeed, in the end, it seemed as though all it did was help to destroy the things that meant the most to him.

In the wake of the release last week of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture during the early years of the War On Terror, there has been much discussion about how the American people have seemingly come to accept the idea that there were horrible, possibly illegal, acts committed by agents of the American government in the name of protecting the nation from another 9/11-style attack. The perception that this was something that the American public would support has been verified over and over again in polling that was taken long before the report was released and, now, in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows that a majority of Americans think that torture was justified in the wake of the Sept.11th attacks:

A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

By a margin of almost 2 to 1 – 59 percent to 31 percent – those interviewed said that they support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying that they produced valuable intelligence.

In general, 58 percent say the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified “often” or “sometimes.”

The new poll comes on the heels of the scathing Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, which President Obama ended in 2009. The report last week concluded that severe interrogation techniques – including waterboarding detainees, placing them in stress positions and keeping them inside confinement boxes – were not an effective means of acquiring intelligence.

The report also found that more than two dozen detainees were wrongly held, that the program was poorly managed and that the CIA misled top U.S. officials about the effectiveness of the program.

Fifty-four percent of the public agrees with this sentiment, saying the CIA intentionally misled the White House, Congress, and the American people about its activities.


Fifty-three percent of Americans say the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists produced important information that could not have been obtained any other way, while 31 percent say it did not.


In a CBS News poll released Monday, nearly 7 in 10 considered waterboarding torture, but about half said that the technique and others are, at times, justified. Fifty-seven percent said harsh interrogation techniques can provide information that can prevent terrorist attacks.

Both polls found a majority who thought releasing the report could jeopardize national security.

Numbers such as this have led many to wonder whether culture has had an impact on how Americans view the use of torture, and many of have focused on a television show that premiered just under two months after the Sept. 11 attacks themselves and, through eight seasons, came to epitomize for many a view of America’s counterterrorism war where torture and brutality were a way of doing business:

I have three vivid memories of watching television in the fall of 2001. The first, of course, is of seeing the twin towers fall, which is an image most of us will never shake. The second is of watching Mariano Rivera throw the wrong pitch in Game 7 of the World Series.

And the last is of getting sucked helplessly into the premiere, just a few days later, of an innovative drama called “24.”

It was that last moment I found myself revisiting this week, after I read excerpts from the Senate Intelligence Committee’s sprawling, heartbreaking indictment of American brutality around the world. It made me wonder, not for the first time, just how consequential a TV show can be at just the right moment in our national life, in ways we don’t always appreciate at the time.

Long before it came to resemble a parody of its own successful formula (“Wait a minute, did Jack Bauer just die and come back to life again?”), Fox’s “24” was that rare entertainment piece that reimagines the format. The show was groundbreaking not just because it introduced a real-time conceit to network television, meaning that every minute you spent watching the on-screen drama correlated to a minute in the actual world. It was seminal because somehow its creators seemed to anticipate turns in the culture that weren’t easy to discern.


More than any of this, though, “24” eerily foresaw, as if by some feat of time travel, the age of terror that would descend on America just weeks before the show first aired. The “counterterrorism unit” that must have seemed fanciful when the show’s pilot was filmed felt all too real by the time Bauer finally arrived on our split screens, a Christ-like figure in a world suddenly awash with evil.

To Jack Bauer, of course, the operative philosophy was simple: “Stop terrorists, by any means necessary.” The bosses at CTU were almost always timid careerists, the kind of regulation-obsessed bureaucrats who would rather sacrifice a stadium full of innocents than bend on the “protocols” they were always going on about.

Bauer and his rotating cast of enablers had no choice but to go rogue, which is why he generally ended seasons running from his own government or rotting away in prison. He didn’t like torturing terrorists, we understood, but that damn clock was always ticking in the corner of your screen, and neither he nor we had time for the legal niceties.

As a cornerstone of the popular culture during the Bush years, “24” established an important narrative of why we had failed to prevent the onset of terrorism – and why we might fail again. It wasn’t because maniacal people do crazy things that you sometimes can’t anticipate. In “24,” terrorists succeeded only when government lost its nerve.

I can’t say whether policymakers and intelligence officials in Washington were actually influenced by “24.” I have always suspected they were, simply because, no matter how assiduous you are about separating art from reality, human nature says you wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and see one of the spineless bosses at CTU.

At a minimum, you’d have to think that people making the hard calls in Washington drew some unspoken conclusions from the immense popularity of the show. TV-watching Americans didn’t seem put off by a hero who tortured terrorists; on the contrary, they loved him like Raymond. It was probably a short jump from there to the assumption that the political fallout from real-world torture, should it become public, wouldn’t be all that catastrophic.

What we do know, looking back now, is that “24” became, in some ways, a stand-in for the national debate on torture that the political class never wanted to have and that the rest of us never demanded. Instead of hearing this argument about morality and urgency play out in the Capitol or in the media, Americans watched the show and discussed it among ourselves, instead, in lunchrooms or online.

And to the extent that “24” framed that argument in the months and years after the fall of 2001, when imminent fear was a new fact of American life, the evidence seemed strongly weighted to one side. There were a handful of experts and critics who complained about the show and pointed out that, in real life, the efficacy of cruelty as a tactic — leaving aside the question of right and wrong — was far from settled.

But “24” had its own visual, visceral power, and the choice it established was clear. Did you want to be upright, or did you want to be safe? Did you want to be feared and firm like the Mossad, or did you want to channel Jimmy Carter and prattle on about human rights?

Brian Lowry makes a similar point in Variety, where he accused the show and of “liberal Hollywood” of “carrying water” for torture:

“24” was co-created by Joel Surnow, an avowed conservative. And it aired on Fox, a network owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has championed conservative causes across his media holdings.

Still, “24” later fell under the stewardship of Howard Gordon – a producer whose politics don’t mirror Surnow’s – and had to be developed and produced via a system involving layers of executives, many of whom support the left-leaning causes that bring a sneer to Rush Limbaugh’s face. And as conservatives are fond of noting, Republicans are outnumbered throughout Hollywood, including networks and studios responsible for some of the aforementioned projects, as well as all those movies with apocalyptic climate-change messages that many conservatives ridicule. (Heck, even the dragon Smaug complained about “liberal Hollywood bias” in his appearance on “The Colbert Report.”)

Does this mean the entertainment industry abandoned its principles? Hardly, since the main commitment is always to the bottom line, and the visceral appeal of torture – amid the pressure to ratchet up stakes and thrills – trumps any concerns about potentially helping to perpetuate a false narrative. Besides, a bullet in the knee moves the story along a lot faster than waiting around for someone to give up information through conventional interrogation methods.

Hollywood employs a pretty stock response in such situations, saying movies and TV are designed to entertain, not serve as documentaries.

Yet a series like “24” is grounded in reality precisely because that makes such life-or-death situations resonate. And because viewers generally don’t have first-hand experience in such matters (at least, let’s hope not), it’s understandable that their perceptions would be filtered through media – as the New Hampshire Union Leader did in an editorial flagged by the liberal watchdog site Media Matters, which said that Jack Bauer would consider champions of the Torture Report “wusses.”

Given all of that, it seems reasonable to ask whether pop culture — along with news operations whose “News Alert” headlines stoked post-Sept. 11 fears – has been partially complicit in cultivating the conditions that allowed torture to be deemed a viable option.

Speaking just for myself, I was a fan of 24 from the beginning right up until the end, and when it came back for the London-based miniseries this summer, I didn’t miss an episode, which given the way my viewing habits had changed in the four years since the show went off the air at the end of its eighth season. There were some seasons I enjoyed far more than others, some plot lines that I found either utterly annoying — (cough) anything involving Kim Bauer (caugh) – or completely implausible and, when it did go off the air at the end of eight seasons, it seemed as if the time was right. This was true not just because there were only so many times that Jack Bauer could save the world single-handed in a 24 hour period, and only so many plausible plot scenarios to drive a season-long drama series, but also because it seemed like the series had run its course. As many had observed when the show ended in 2010, the story of 24 in the end was as much about Jack Bauer and what he had given up to save his country. At the beginning of the series, he starts out with a family that is already on the brink of splitting apart due to the stresses of his job, indeed most of the first season is as much about Bauer trying to safe his wife and daughter as it is about the primary plot of an assassination attempt on a candidate for president of the United States. By the end of the final season, he’s a man without a country, and without a family, who had been told just a few years earlier by one of the few people who was still close to him, “You're cursed, Jack. Everything you touch, one way or another, ends up dead.”

Yes, there was a lot of violence and indeed torture along the way, but it always struck me that there was a moral context to what was happening on the screen. Not only was it the case that it was usually the “bad guys” who were getting tortured, but we could see along the way that using this type of violence was having an increasingly negative impact on our putative hero. Now, perhaps, not everyone drew that lesson from the show but it was there nonetheless, and whether you look at the final scenes of the eighth season, or the final scenes of the most recent miniseries, you certainly can’t say that utilizing these methods of torture was something that had a positive impact on Bauer, or on anyone around him. Indeed, in the end, it seemed as though all it did was help to destroy the things that meant the most to him. That’s a lesson not too different from films like The Godfather, where the protagonist Michael Corleone saw everything he cared about most destroyed by the very means he was using to try to preserve them.

Additionally, despite the fact that I was a regular 24 viewer, I can’t say that the show ever really had a significant influence on my opinions regarding torture and its use in the War on Terror. Watching the series for some eight years certainly didn’t make me think that torture was a good thing, or that it was appropriate for the United States to be using methods such as those we saw depicted on television in fighting the War on Terror. While I can’t speak for the rest of America, I would suggest that the people who would blame a television show for either the policy itself or the fact that Americans seem to be generally okay with the use of torture in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks are placing far more importance on the impact of a show that hasn’t aired regularly in more than four years now. For one thing, while the show was critically acclaimed and received a host of awards and nominations during the time it was on the air, it’s worth noting that 24 was never really a “hit” show. It was only in the Top 25 in the Nielsen rankings for two of its eight seasons, for example, and for all but its first three seasons was often competing against much higher-drawing content such as Monday Night Football. To the extent it was a hit, it was a cult hit that survived in part by word of mouth, and in part because it was airing on Fox, which didn’t exactly have a lot of high-viewership shows on the air at the time. Given those numbers, it seems to me to be somewhat of a stretch to credit the show with having the kind of impact on American public opinion that the arguments above would attribute to it.

In the end, if you are looking for a reason why the American public has generally not been outraged by the revelations, both recently in the Intelligence Committee reports and in reports that have come out in the past, of the use of torture in the War on Terror, I would look to something far more basic than a television show. In the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks, the sense of fear in the US that more attacks were coming was palpable, and it has never really gone away. To some extent, this can be attributed to the news media hypes reports of terror threats, but I think that it can ultimately just be attributed to fear on the part of the public, fear that is stoked by politicians and law enforcement on a regular basis. How else can you explain the manner in which Americans have so easily accepted restrictions on their personal freedoms that many would have been screaming about just a few years before September 11, 2001? People complain, but we all dutifully line up to take off our shoes and belts before getting on an airplane, for example, and even the reaction to the revelations about N.S.A. spying has had only a limited political impact. Once you instill a sense of fear in the population, they’ll accept just about anything. Jack Bauer had nothing to do with that.

Doug Mataconis appears on the Outside the Beltway blog at http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/.

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