National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

A World Where 24 Is “Believable” and Orwell Is Misquoted

[digg-reddit-me]I know that defending torture is difficult as well as unconscionable – but just because an editor will publish such trash doesn’t necessary mean they are bad at their job. However, if the evidence from this past weekend is any indication, it seems they are. Pat Buchanan began his piece with a quote that has been famously and erroneously attributed to George Orwell:

Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

Buchanan tries to use this quote to defend the Orwellian abuse of language that John Yoo and other Bush administration members used to legally justify the proposition that torture wasn’t “torture.” I have the feeling that Orwell would have appreciated the irony. But more importantly, wouldn’t any editor take a moment to check if the quote was actually by Orwell? A Google search will quickly turn up the fact that it has been misattributed to him. Maybe I’m naive, but I would presume an editor – or someone – would take a moment to double check a citation.

Then of course Amanda Bowman in the Wall Street Journal explains the reason Americans watch 24:

[T]he Obama Administration is going to pay a big political price for indulging the civil libertarians of their party. The American television show 24 is in its 7th season because its portrayal of a life-and-death fight against terrorism in the face of political meddling appears to most Americans—and I would add Britons—both believable and justified. [my emphasis]

I like 24; I still watch it – one of a slowly dwindling number of Americans who still does. But anyone who calls it “believable” clearly isn’t familiar with the show. When Jack Bauer wanted to stop a terrorist in a van, he jumped in front of the van. Jack Bauer once died multiple times in a single episode – and was running around the next. Jack Bauer extracts the truth from his prisoners with surgical precision – whether by shooting them in the leg, electrocuting them, or whatever other means are necessary. (Bauer’s techniques were so ineffective and so unrealistic that the U.S. military actually sent a team to talk to the show’s producers a few years back.) To get people to talk – some of them innocent – Bauer has threatened babies and kidnapped and mock executed children. Every terrorist attack is financed and controlled by some convoluted plot involving nefarious American corporations seeking profits. Bauer manages to never eat or go to the bathroom in the 24-hour period covered by the show. Perhaps most unrealistically, Bauer lives in a world where nuclear weapons have gone off several times on American soil and spectacular terrorists attacks are common – yet the Congress in Bauer’s world insists on holding hearings that are more onerous than any held to this day by our Congresses, despite the respite from attacks in real life.

24 may be many things, but “believable” isn’t one of them.

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The Jack Bauer Archetype

Timothy P. Carney at the National Review:

24 is a true American drama and Jack Bauer is an American hero. When I was in Germany a few years ago, a Cabinet official said that Europe was once half-full of free-thinkers and independent spirits, but then they all got up and moved to America. The American hero is the cowboy: He is Maverick, he is Han Solo, he is Batman (though, when Batman is in trouble, he turns on the Jack Bauer signal), he is the rag-tag minuteman fighting the well-trained Lobsterbacks…

What Carney gets wrong is his identification of Jack Bauer’s character as a cowboy archetype. Bauer belongs to a different but related tradition of American heroes. 

The Westerns – in which the cowboy is the hero – often had characters that, like Bauer, were vigilantes imposing their own justice on a chaotic world. Living in a land beyond civilization, they were only constrained by their own character. Without society and order, the characters of villians and heroes were more obvious. Without the law to protect the weak, it was up to the conscience of the strong to do so. The heroes not only refused to take advantage of the weak, but took it upon themselves to protect them against other strong men. But the story of the West – and the background to the Westerns – is the advance of civilization, law, and society to this chaotic world. The irony of this story of the West is that while the fortitude and heroism of strong men made the settlement of the West possible, it also made them obsolete. See especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but also the more recent HBO Western, Deadwood

By the 1930s, as society and the rule of law had extended to virtually every corner of America, there was no longer a place for vigilantes and strong men imposing their own rough justice. Our problems were now external as great forces abroad threatened us – and gangsters undermined society at home – and so the superhero was created. The superhero fought with the police and military to defeat the enemies of civilization. 

But the 1970s saw a change in this dynamic. People felt vulnerable and threatened within their own society – and the rules of society seemed to be protecting those attacking it. The superhero became a persecuted figure – restored again to the place the cowboy had occupied in the final days of the Wild West. Dirty Harry and Batman represent this – both violent vigilantes who break the law in order to protect it.

Jack Bauer belongs to this tradition, that of the condemned superhero – condemned by society yet needed by it.

Carney concludes his piece with this nonsense:

If we believe 24, we don’t think Bill Buchanan or President Palmer will keep us safe. We believe Jack Bauer will keep us safe (if everyone on the show listened to Jack Bauer, the show would be called 12), but we also believe we are Jack Bauer.

The Capitol Dome stands today because of a handful of regular Americans—not soldiers, not bureaucrats, and not even “first-responders,” but American guys who got on a plane on a September morning…

 The lesson of the show is not that Big Brother will keep us safe. The lesson is that we need ruthless bravery from Everyman to keep us safe.

This precisely is not the lesson of 24. Jack Bauer is not “everyman” but superman. He stops cars by standing in front of them; he dies several times in a single hour, but keeps running; he has super-human determination; he gives up his family and friends to stop attacks; he can do seemingly anything. He is considered in the show to be unique – not an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. 

The lesson of the saviors of the Capitol Dome is a very different one than that of 24. It did not involve superheroes – but ordinary people armed with information about a threat taking action. In the world of 24 – and in the Bush administration policies justified by 24 – secrecy is paramount; torture is required; breaking the law is always necessary; great latitude must be given to the executive branch, and especially the president. The lessons of Flight 93 are that local and spontaneous action by citizens armed with information is the best defense.

Criticism National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

The Significance of Jack Bauer

[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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A Tortured Plot Device

Alessandra Stanley writing in the New York Times on the Senate hearings targeting Jack Bauer for torture and other broken laws:

[T]he Senate confrontation may be cathartic for conservatives upset that the Cheney doctrine is likely to be reversed by the new administration. (Mr. Obama’s choice to lead the C.I.A., Leon E. Panetta, has argued passionately against it.) But it’s kind of a buzz kill for fans of the show who eagerly wait for a new installment of torture, nuclear explosions, biochemical mass destruction and the latest nerdy computer surveillance techniques. In an action-adventure show, torture should be seen and not heard about.

And that pedantic streak makes the first hour of the season premiere a little like being in a bar with a football superstar, eagerly awaiting tales of gridiron glory, only to have to listen to him drone on and on about the hypocrisy and injustice of steroid testing.

Fortunately, and predictably, the Senate sanctimony is interrupted by an urgent threat to national security that only Jack Bauer can handle.