The latest season features terrorism of the Islamic fundamentalist kind (surprise surprise) and a bring-them-all-back attitude whereby the writers seemed to think we’d be bowled over by their ability to link the current story back to what has gone before…no matter how stupid those connections might be. What I find most unpleasant however is the way in which this show has come to depict torture. In the first half of this season the debate about civil liberties in the face of the war on terror is illustrated as some characters shout about the need to lock up all those pesky arab types on the off chance that they’re all crazed terrorists and others shout about the need for America not to lose sight of its self and its ideals in the face of blind terror. We get to see a bit of arab/muslim internment and suspicion is cast even on the seemingly most loyal American muslims (Who are so loyal and patriotic that once they have been put in chains and interrogated for no other reason than the five prayer sessions they embark on every day, they immediately help out those who had chained them up moments before...for the good of America.) But we also get to see the President assert the need to trust America’s muslim populace and view them as the first line of defence against those whose warped view of Islam would see them resort to violence. So far so clumsy.
What I find interesting and disturbing is the way in which no such debate or dialogue is ever had in the show about the use of interrogation (read torture) by our “heroes”. There have certainly been moments in previous seasons when the loved ones of those tortured have protested but these are usually passed over pretty quickly. In one particularly laughable moment a CTU employee is falsely tortured by a colleague and after scowling at him for a good second or two she just heads back to work as if nothing had happened. For the most part the message is clear and unpolluted by weak, liberal minded comment, things like human rights are important but not for people who are involved in terrorism, people who might be involved in terrorism or people who looked at us funny…kinda terrorist-like funny. In one episode the heroic President asks how the interrogation of a suspect is going. When told that the man remains uncooperative even though his family has also been arrested the President asks, “Have you threatened to kill them?”
The main argument given in favour of torture’s justifiability is it’s efficiency at getting results. Time and time again we are told that there is no time to do anything else and time and time again those tortured give up vital information that eventually saves countless lives and justifies their pain. If you ever get the chance to hear Clive Stafford Smith talk about the subject you will hear him dismiss this scenario out of hand. Smith is the charismatic legal director of Reprieve, a group which offers legal representation to those on America’s death row and those being held in Guantanamo Bay as well as campaigning against the death penalty and secret prisons. For Smith the real world does not throw up circumstances where you get your hands on a known terrorist and all that is stopping you from finding out the whereabouts of a bomb is his refusal to speak to you. 24 paints a picture of men and women who can be beaten and poisoned and drilled in the back but remain conscious and lucid. Smith suggests that when you start “interrogating” people in this way they will simply tell you want they think you want to hear rather than whatever truth they may be aware of. Push my head under water until I’m seconds from drowning and then ask me if I’m a terrorist…I’m pretty likely to say yes if that’s what it takes to get you to stop.
Bush talks a lot of crap about torture. In interview he was asked about whether or not American operatives used a form of torture called water-boarding. Bush replied saying that he would not talk about “techniques” as this would give the terrorists an advantage – they could “adapt” he said, they could train and prepare themselves for the ways in which they would be interrogated. He went on to say that his legal people and checked what the Americans were doing and decided that it was legal…but we would just have to trust him on that!! When the interviewer continued to press him on the issue Bush commented that this man had a family and that he, the President, was merely trying to keep his family safe. I was reminded of this distasteful exchange on watching the trailer for Robert Redford’s latest movie Lions For Lambs, in which Tom Cruise’s character, a Senator who appears to have a Bush-like take on foreign policy, says to Meryl Streep’s journalist, “Do you want to win the war on terror? Yes or no? This is the quintessential yes or no question of our time. Yes or no!?” If you say yes, if you want to protect your family, then you should trust your President, you should be willing to do “whatever it takes”. We have no time. We need answers now. We need to employ certain techniques…this is the only way…
I think 24, a hugely popular programme, compounds this logic in a genuinely dangerous way. It is of course just a story, just television, but there is well known power in such mediums. For those who are not shown the other side of the coin, 24 negatively reinforces what I would consider the hopeless message on which so much of the war on terror seems to be based – that you can fight fear with fear.