The Significance of Jack Bauer


By Joe Campbell
March 16th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Dahlia Lithwick in Newsweek:

The most influential legal thinker in the development of modern American interrogation policy is not a behavioral psychologist, international lawyer or counterinsurgency expert…the prime mover of American interrogation doctrine is none other than the star of Fox television’s “24,” Jack Bauer.

Though Lithwick’s statement may sound like an exaggeration, the most common defense of America’s torture policy has been to invoke the character of Jack Bauer on 24. John Yoo, Diane Beaver, Michael Chertoff, Tom Tancredo, and most famously Antonin Scalia have all invoked the TV show 24 in describing and defending national security law under George W. Bush. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, saw the show’s influence as so pernicious that he he flew to visit the show’s producers to ask them to stop representing torture in such a positive light as it was undermining national security:

[Brigadier General] Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. 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. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24”?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”

It sounds as if the gullible students in Finnegan’s class have taken their lead from Justice Scalia who, in defending the extraordinary measures of the Bush administration, asked: 

Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles…He saved hundreds of thousands of lives…Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?

Lieutenant Colonel Diane Beaver, whose legal memoranda aided the justification torture, claimed that Jack Bauer “gave people lots of ideas” about how to interrogate prisoners.

One thing that most of these defenders of torture do not mention – and that many opponents of torture fail to bring up – is that torture doesn’t seem to work. This is in many respects a secondary question – as the morality of torture and the “by any means necessary” approach of Jack Bauer as well as the Bush administration is debated. But Matthew Alexander, a pseodonym for a military interrogator who led the team that found Abu al-Zarqawi in Iraq, has been a vocal defender of the view that torture is an inefficient and counterproductive interrogation tool. The FBI has long maintained that their methods are proven and get reliable information from subjects – as opposed to the new torture techniques that do not. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists interrogated their high-value detainees – not because of their respect for human rights, but because they saw what was most effective. The greatest Nazi interrogator was a Hanns-Joachim Schraff who never even raised his voice, let alone tortured his subjects. He was one of the few top Nazis not tried for war crimes. Matthew Alexander – the man who got the intelligence that led to Zarqawi’s death – was one of the few adherents to Schraff’s view of interrogation in Iraq. His interrogation tools, rather than fear, violence, torture, religious persecution, and intimidation were “respect, rapport, hope, cunning, and deception.” 

Ann Applebaum points to the obvious question:

Given the overwhelmingly negative evidence, the really interesting question is not whether torture works but why so many people in our society want to believe that it works.

It may be unfair to blame 24 for this belief in the efficacy of torture. There is something deeper at work here than the propaganda of a television show. But 24 puts forth a persuasive cultural argument in which the extreme circumstances that occur every hour on the show justify extreme actions (such as threatening to harm an infant, mock executions of children; regular torture) are then used to justify American policies.

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2 Responses to “The Significance of Jack Bauer”

  1. The Real Scandal of AIG - 2parse Says:

    […] But he undermines this suggestion by invoking as a fact – which it is, even if the mainstream media does not often acknowledge it – the lawlessness of the Bush administration – and perhaps even mocking their oft-used Jack Bauer defense. […]

  2. Epic Fail from Obama « My Thinking Corner Says:

    […] Comments The Significance of … on On Torture: Nazi Germany…Rob on I Get InterviewedKevin on I […]

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