Torture on ’24’

One of the most engaging articles that I read last week was one in the New Yorker which examined the repercussions of the myriad of torture scenes in the award-winning Fox drama 24. Entitled "Whatever it takes" — Jack Bauer’s famous line from the show — the article keeps tabs on 24′s torture scenes and details their impact.

24 splash imageSince September 11th, depictions of torture have become much more common on American television. Before the 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 — mo4e 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."

The impact of the show is even being felt within the United States Army.

This past November, U.S. 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 F.B.I. 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."

The Sandmonkey wrote a whimsical entry last month in which he analyzed this most recent season of 24. I laughed out loud when I read his observations. He too pointed out that the show had more than its share of torture. "Ohh, and is it just me, or is this show a little too torture-friendly?" I have watched and enjoyed every season of 24 so far. There is something about the show’s dramatic production that grabs me. However, I agree with the New Yorker article, the show does make torture out as an effective interrogation method. While some might argue that torture is necessary in cases of "ticking time-bombs," I believe torture is barbaric and should never be applied. It is also pointless, as some interrogators have pointed out:

… But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that torture was not an effective response. "These are very determined people, and they won’t turn just because you pull a fingernail out," he told me. And Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. "They almost welcome torture," he said. "They expect it. They want to be martyred." A ticking time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect only more unwilling to talk. "They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory — the ticking time-bomb will go off!"

While on the issue of torture, I have to admit that it saddens me tremendously to read news items that link Jordan to torture. The last was one I read was on Rami’s blog, which detailed the story of a Jordanian living in Sweden, who is set to be deported from there, and is expected to face torture when he arrives back home.

Assad and two of his children in their Gothenburg flat The Swedish migration minister for Right-to-Center government, Tobias Billström, came under criticism for agreeing to deport the Jordanian, but he promised that Assad will not be tortured by the Jordanian secret police. Assad was not tried in the regular Swedish court and the whole deliberations are kept secret. Billström said he has enough evidence that proves Assad is a terrorist, but he did not reveal any of them to the local media. [Photo: Assad and two of his children in their Gothenburg flat, © Goteborg Posten]

You can read the entire New Yorker article here.

By Natasha Tynes

I’m a Jordanian-American journalist, writer, and media development professional based in Washington, DC.


  1. It’s not only in TV shows, the media has been freaking the public out of their senses since the issue of terrorism came into focus. I remember there was some episode of the Daily Show about this, I wonder if you saw it!

  2. Since 1982, the US department of defence have been active in game making as a way to reduce its costs through the SIMNET project, but cooperation can be tracked back to the 1960s. They have been investing in and filtering several Hollywood movies, for pure propaganda reasons.

    “Pentagon recieves about 100 movie scripts every year, and chooses to cooperate with a few… They provided free F-158 jets to the movie Air Force One.” A recommended read on this is the book, Operation Hollywood by David L. Robb. An interesting point is how Disney bought ABC and how Time Warner bought CNN, so one can see more entertainment in the news, and more news on entertainment.

    you can read more about it here: (under the title The oslo files pt.2:war entertainment)

  3. Natasha, I don’t deny the existence of torture in Jordan but issues of national security and terrorism tend to be so clandestine and complex that no organization or individual including myself, would be able to say with complete conviction that there is absolutely no torture in Jordan nor that anyone being deported to Jordan is “expected to be tortured”. The latter phrase leads one to believe that it no longer becomes about the probable “if” but rather an assured matter of “when”. hence we move into the territory of an opinion presented as a likely fact when there is no evidence to suggest either outcome.

  4. To my mind, there are only three issues regarding torture: 1. would it be worth it if it worked? 2. does it work? 3. what is torture, anyway?

    Let’s assume (I do) that the US Army is a professional organization valuing effectiveness over malice. Such an organization would engage in torture (or any other activity) only if experience showed it to be effective. The “torture doesn’t work” argument is a blind alley. If it weren’t effective, our guys wouldn’t be using it. They’re not that stupid.

    The real moral issue is “is it worth it?” Most would accept the ticking time bomb scenario as “worth it”. But, in this age of terrorism, every combatant we capture is potentially a ticking time bomb. For example, every insurgent we capture in Iraq potentially knows of IEDs that could kill civilians in marketplaces, or of the bombmakers who will manufacture such devices in the future, or of other combatants who will distribute them.

    How could it not be justifiable to torture such a person in the expectation that innocent people would likely be saved in the future?

    And what is torture? To my mind, the term only applies to real physical damage and extreme pain. Humiliation, creation of fear, sleep deprivation, etc. are not torture. Even if one doesn’t approve of them, another label is required. I doubt that, within a realistic definition, our guys engage in much torture at all. But I’d still probably approve of their decision to use torture if they felt it would be necessary.

    Looked at another way: if we are stopping short of whatever level of brutality our enemy engages in routinely, then the gods are on our side. It’s a pity that our press focuses so much on what our guys do, so little on what the enemy does – and never draws a favorable comparison of our way of waging war over theirs.

  5. I do not assume to guess what Jack Bauer thinks, what Keither Sutherland or the crew of 24 thinks, his his father and grandfather think about the issue of torture. Those against the practice have certainly made their feelings known so I will give mine. I think in a situation like what we may find on 24, and God forbid we ever face anything like it, I would want to avert disaster. That would be first and foremost on my mind. If something were to happen then to keep questioning whether I should have done more, whether I should have committed such unspeakable atrocities, that would be hell. I know that I would never want to experiance that, and I think Jack, the writers, perhaps even advocates opposed to torture would not want to experiance it either.

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