Monday, February 12, 2007

24 is torture.

When this show came out in late 2001, you heard about it. Friends and colleagues were watching. It was supposed to be a super-tense post-ironic action show, like Hollywood for television. Since then its ratings have soared, rising year on year among the advertising friendly 18-49 year olds. There is little attempt to deny that it is an absurd conspiracy thriller that shoves "America's story" down your throat. The ultra-reactionary Heritage Foundation staged an event called "24 and America's image in fighting terrorism: Fact, Fiction or Does It Matter?", featuring the producers, several cast members, Rush Limbaugh, Clarence Thomas, Laura Ingraham and Michael Chertoff, in which it was revealed that Cheney and Rumsfeld were big fans of the show. One of the stars of the show planted a kiss on Rush Limbaugh's morose piehole.

At the beginning of last year, Zizek hit the right note about the show: The depraved heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood. It graphically dramatised the mythical 'ticking clock' scenario used by advocates of torture, humanising its practitioners The show also panders to Islamophobic hysteria: there is always a terrorist plot looming and it is almost always those damned Muslims. Following the Abu Ghraib revelations, the show decided to air episodes that would - let me try some suitable euphemisms - illustrate the sensitive issues involved in extreme interrogation. In the show, the fictional CTU (a brutal, amoral version of the Impossible Mission Force) has allowed or ordered Bauer to shoot a suspect in the leg while interrogating him, electrocute a businessman with a lamp cord, use a stun gun on a suspected colleague and put the son of the Secretary of Defense through high-tech sensory disorientation (the hero couldn't bring himself to pump a load of chemicals into the kid that would make his nerve endings feel like they were on fire, the soft bastard). There have been suffocatings, knife attacks, beatings, druggings, and the result has almost always been that critical secrets are divulged at the last minute. And of course, as the executive producer of the show said: "It goes with the 24 conceit that we need information and don't have days to break this person. Sometimes we don't even have hours". Exactly.

Well, this year, the New Yorker has had a chat with the show's creator, Joel Surnow. A Hollywood liberal he is not (there are probably very few actual Hollywood liberals). Sitting in an office with a glass-cased US flag that has supposedly flown over the Green Zone in Baghdad, he takes pride in the "patriotic" show, is glad that the Bush administration loves it so much, is friends with Rush Limbaugh, insists that torture would be the right thing to do if - say - a nuke was pointed at the US, hates welfare, adores military strength, and is generally the most pompous reactionary dimwit that you could conceive of. Not dimwitted enough not to know what he's doing, mind you. Not dimwitted enough not to be loaded. But I do think there's something exceptionally slow and lethargic about a person who works in television, supports Bush and is friends with Rush Limbaugh. That's a sort of triple-crown howler. His co-creator Howard Gordon says: "Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week." They have drawn on copies of the C.I.A.'s 1963 KUBARK interrogation manual for their torture scenes, but Gordon says he usually innovates the scenes himself. How imaginative, and what fun!

Last year, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point went to meet the producers and creators of 24. He pleaded with them to stop showing torture as effective: show that it backfires, if only once, please? He thought it was a bit much that Bauer kept his cool after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state’s witness with a hacksaw. Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq, was also there. He told the show's producers that "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen." He added that: "In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence. I worked with someone who used waterboarding. I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened."

Go ahead and read the whole article. The case against torture presented to the show's producers is that it is counterproductive, doesn't generate real evidence, and really has unpleasant dehumanising effects on the torturer. It is a breathtaking document of imperial ideology, of how mutilation, cruelty and murder of a kind that evoked fury and shock when carried out in a Zarqawi video nasty is sold to the American public as a necessary reaction. The constant recourse is 'what would you do if you had only five minutes to save someone you love? And don't you love your country? So what would you do?' That's the sell. Meanwhile, in the background, we have a senior member of the US military describing torture that he has witnessed or perpetrated, with no expectation of rebuke or court-martial, torture that ranges from sleep-deprivation, to freezing, to breaking bones to inflicting third degree burns. No nuclear weapon, no threat to America, merely an imperial power doing what they have always done, more and more openly, with increasing contempt for the constraints of humanitarian discourse, and self-righteously. Aviad Kleinberg suggests that the ultimate expression of self-righteous aggression was Golda Meir's suggestion that she would never forgive the Arabs for making Israel kill their children. I don't know. I'm sure there are other comparisons one could make, and Himmler doesn't seem that far off.

Of course, the attempt to turn torture into television fun hasn't only been an American phenomenon. Remember Channel 4's The Guantanamo Guidebook?