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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen

Why "24" Scares Me

Have you been watching "24"? I'm not sure I can anymore. It's not just because it's written like a soap opera (I originally wrote "bad soap opera," but of course, that's redundant). It's not just because it's a one-trick pony (drink every time someone says "We're running out of time!"). And it's not even because it has a political agenda (after all, many stories do). It's because "24" is impacting real-world politics in a way that is unconscionable. I submit that "24"'s incessant reiteration of the "ticking time bomb" scenario is affecting the way America views the practice of torture by presenting it in a way that is eerily congruent with the Bush administration's position. It's presenting a practice that has been outlawed by both United States and international law.

How many torture scenes have there been in just the first few episodes of this season? Now consider the fact that one of the most brutal of them features the "hero" torturing his own brother. I'm not normally squeamish about violence in media, because I believe that violence in its myriad forms is a fact of life, even in our supposedly civilized modern society. But torture isn't just violence; it's "the deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering" (source). I think that any human being with feelings would agree that torture is virtually impossible to morally justify in any realistic circumstance. "24"'s producers serve up a steady stream of ludicrously contrived scenarios that make it seem that torture is not only useful but somehow patriotic. Jack would do anything for his country; even inject near-lethal doses of a torture chemical into a member of his own family. Is this the sort of psychopath we are supposed to be cheering for?

According to a study cited in The New Yorker, the show has set a disturbing precedent.

Before the [September 11th] attacks, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization. Now there are more than a hundred, and, as David Danzig, a project director at Human Rights First, noted, "the torturers have changed. It used to be almost exclusively the villains who tortured. Today, torture is often perpetrated by the heroes." The Parents' Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has counted what it says are sixty-seven torture scenes during the first five seasons of "24"—more than one every other show. Melissa Caldwell, the council’s senior director of programs, said, "'24' is the worst offender on television: the most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in the trend of showing the protagonists using torture.”
"Whatever It Takes: The politics of the man behind '24.'", The New Yorker, 2/12/2007
I'm not arguing that people cannot discern fantasy from reality. We all know that "24" is a television show, and I'm sure that the people responsible for interrogating bad guys aren't watching Kiefer Sutherland and getting new ideas. But some segments of the public have tacitly accepted the "ticking time bomb" argument as compelling, at least in part due to seeing such implausible situations play out in the show. Charles Petzold summarizes this problem and well:
It's becoming increasing obvious that "24" doesn't reflect reality about the nature of terrorism – but is molding reality about the response. The very popularity of the show sends a shameful message to the rest of the world that Americans believe torture to be a valid national policy.
I am the first to defend artistic expression. I'm also the sort of person who says that it's the viewer's responsibility to change the channel when there's something he doesn't want to see. But is it responsible to condone a calculated attempt to justify something so fundamentallty wrong?

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Comments on Why "24" Scares Me
  Comment from Blogger gnome at Thursday, March 01, 2007 1:16:00 PM
Brilliant posts!

Off to burn a few 24 DVD...
  Comment from Anonymous Anonymous at Friday, March 02, 2007 11:38:00 AM
So what's your problem? Do you want to sensor TV? Maybe torture isn't that bad. Everyone talks about morality, the children, etc....

But fact of the matter is, it's human nature, and we love to watch it and fantasize about it. Why else does 24 have such great ratings. People want to get up on their high horse. But, has Jack Nicholson said in a few good men, "you want me on that wall, you need me". I do believe the US wants someone like Jack Bauer on that wall. Just my opinion. Maybe if a nuke was about to go off and you had the person with information, your opinion would change.

For now, just enjoy 24, it's a dumb TV show!
  Comment from Blogger gnome at Friday, March 02, 2007 1:02:00 PM
Anonynous, (anonymous, just like most fascist cowards, really),

the fact that your sick soul fantasizes about torture doesn't mean normal people do too. It also quite interesting that you mention the a-bomb, especially while defending the only country that actually used it. twice.

Now, sod off.
  Comment from Blogger Red Bull at Friday, March 02, 2007 3:23:00 PM
No, I don't want to censor television. I believe it is the right and resposibility of the artist to say things that people don't necessarily want to hear, and to present ideas in a way that people aren't always happy with. My problem isn't with the idea that "24" is showing torture. My problem is with "24"'s political agenda.

Some people think that torture is acceptable in some circumstances. Apparently they think that medieval standards for justice and interrogation were just fine, and that ideas like due process and trial by jury are quaint niceties that can be set aside whenever it's convenient. I can't accept that.

To me, "24" borders on propaganda. I have better things to do with my time than pollute my brain with such filth.
  Comment from Blogger MacFurious at Sunday, March 04, 2007 9:12:00 AM
I'm a fascist and I'm not afraid to use my name. Redbull, you are out of your mind. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Propaganda? Wow, you really are polluting your brain with too much of that other filth. It's a TV show for the love of Pete. I also can't get my head around believing that leftist Hollywood was aligning itself with the Bush administration in this conspiracy to make torture morally acceptable.
  Comment from Blogger Red Bull at Sunday, March 04, 2007 5:59:00 PM
Dude... read that New Yorker article I link to with the quote and thn tell me about how "24" is being made by leftist Hollywood. This guy is chummy with the Bush-Cheney crew. I link to stuff so people can find out more.

Torture is one of only two crimes I can think of that are never justifiable except in ludicrously contrived conditions – rape is the other one. Torture is something the bad guys do.
  Comment from Blogger MacFurious at Sunday, March 11, 2007 9:17:00 PM
Oh, rape is the form of torture that was used frequently on our captives by Iraqis in Desert Storm btw. Males and females. I guess under the circumstances then you are really only against the broader term of "torture" since forcing one to be sodomized is a form of it.

Far as I know we haven't raped anyone in an interrogation cell like the Iraqi's did to us in '91. Maybe we are still just one tiny peg above them. Maybe.

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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.