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February 9, 2007

Torture TV

Via Nikki Finke, an interesting New Yorker article by Jane Meyer on representations of torture on 24. Of particular interest: Meyer reports that top military officials have clashed with the show's producers because it depicts torture as an effective technique for obtaining information. Meyer describes a meeting between U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and several of the show's writers, noting that Finnegan had expressed serious reservations about the show and its influence on his students:

Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors--cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students.
Finnegan points to a number of flaws in the show's logic, noting that 24 rarely, if ever, depicts scenarios in which torture backfires. These observations are not entirely new. I've attended a number of conference panels in recent years that describe the ways in which 24 depicts torture favorably, a position only reinforced by the "ticking time-bomb" premise. But the discussion of the meeting between military and F.B.I. interrogators and the 24 creative team is worth checking out.

Nikki suggests boycotting 24, which isn't really an issue for me. I'd much rather being watching Heroes, anyway.

Posted by chuck at February 9, 2007 5:05 PM

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I have been interested in much of the attention paid to depictions of torture on 24 lately in part because my impression of what the show has to say about it is more complicated than what seems to be the emerging conventional wisdom, which is that the show helps to make the case for torture. I think that it is possible to read 24 as advancing the ticking time bomb justification for torture, but I think that it is equally possible to read the show as simply suggesting that those in America's counter-terrorism apparatus accept this justification. A fine line, I know, but an important one. I think that the latter reading is made easier by the fact that torture on 24 is rarely efficacious in any meaningful sense. More often than not, the subject of the act manages to bring their torment to an end by revealing a partial truth, made-up, but plausible sounding information, by revealing information that is too late to be of use, or by simply convincing the torturer that they do not know anything. There are very few instances where torture actually "works." I realize that this is different from the issue of justification, but I find it difficult to accept a reading of the show as uncritically pro-torture in the face of how often it simply does not produce useful intelligence.

Of course, this season Jack Bauer is being shown to have qualms about his habit of torture, which, again, complicates the show's representation of the practice.

BTW, I am glad to have itunes and nbc.com to keep up with Heroes (and, until recently, the SciFi channel,too).

Posted by: Shaun Huston at February 9, 2007 7:06 PM

I think 24 has to be read as politically ambivalent in the sense that writers and producers will often hold a variety of political viewpoints, but it's pretty clear that Joel Surnow holds a conservative viewpoint and believes that torture can be effective and his politics clearly do shape the show.

But in order to sustain its ratings and popularity, the show would have to leave some room for criticizing Bauer's actions (or at least showing the psychic toll his actions are taking on him).

Posted by: Chuck at February 10, 2007 2:10 PM

Quick draw, CT. I had to look up the article on the NYer website which was still showing last week's issue, tho' this article was available ? . . . ?

Anyway, I only watched 24 once, ever, and thought it was weirdly pro-torture. I'm not even sure there was any torture on that episode.

But this post of your coincided with me watching an old noir in which the the heavy cop had a change of heart . . .

What's the point? I dunno, maybe that one could do a historical survey of torture media. Or compare and contrast: with torture as "realism," it happens, media reveals it, vs. torture as acceptable, it happens and a representation argues that it should happen.

Posted by: zp at February 11, 2007 9:19 PM

I stumbled into it by chance via Nikki's blog entry, and I haven't watched the show that often. I tried to get into the first season on DVD and lost interest about ten or twelve episodes in. Since then I've seen a few episodes, including the first four hours of this season, but again lost interest when they killed off Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar fame).

I see 24 as politically ambivalent, offering both arguments for and against torture. The show's narrative complexity makes it difficult to sustain a specific political reading, but its real-time structure probably makes it easier, I think, to tacitly accept Bauer's actions (and the series creator, who professes admiration for Rush Limbaugh several times in the article, is quite clearly conservative).

Posted by: Chuck at February 11, 2007 9:45 PM

Actually, now that I think of it, what I find most interesting about this issue is the way Human Rights First explores the possibility that TV representations have real effects in the world.

Posted by: zp at February 12, 2007 9:29 AM

Not sure I follow. Why would Human Rights First be unlikely to hold that posiiton?

Posted by: Chuck at February 12, 2007 10:14 AM

They wouldn't be unlikely to hold that position.

But I think it's interesting that an activist organization has assumed the responsibility of raising the cause and effect argument, in this case. Without that, TNY would just be writing an article about the influence of Surnow's politics on the show, not the influence of the show's politics on American public opinion, or the influence of American public opinion on what happens behind closed doors.

A lot of people gave up on the cause (representation) and effect (actions in the world) argument in cases of TV violence and kids, video games and kids, pornography and sexual violence . . . but Human Rights First brings a similar back into TNY.

I think that's what caught my eye.

Posted by: zp at February 12, 2007 2:05 PM

Makes sense. The anecdotal accounts of discussions of the show at West Point are interesting. I do think the media effects thesis needs to be complicated in that it's not 24 alone that is inspiring these pro-torture political responses.

But you're right. The article could have easily stopped at the level of Surnow's politics, and I thnk that would have been a lot less interesting.

Posted by: Chuck at February 12, 2007 5:00 PM

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