Restoring the Rule of Law
Christopher H. Pyle
Torture and the Ideology of National Security
The Illusion of Accountability: The Idea of an American Truth Commission on Torture
Deconstructing Ticking-Bomb Arguments
Defusing the Ticking Social Bomb Argument: The Right to Self-Defensive Torture
Torture Writ Large: The Israeli Occupation
The Necessity Defence and the Myth of the Noble Torturer
What Would Jack Do? The Ethics of Torture in 24
Donal P. O’Mathuna
The Torturer’s Apprentice: Psychology and ‘Enhanced Interrogations’
Bryant L. Welch
Algeria as Template: Torture and Counter-Insurgency War
Liaquat Ali Khan
Cranking up the Volume: Music as a Tool of Torture
'A Long Experience of War': Gaza in Historical Perspective
Harmony amid Diversity: The Importance of Interfaith Dialogue
Humanity and Its Landscapes: A Green History
Holmes Rolston III
Volume 12 ● Number 1 ● Winter/Spring 2010—Working the Dark Side
What Would Jack Do? The Ethics of Torture in 24
Part of the success of 24 has been its remarkable timeliness and even prescience of current events. The first season was in production in 2000 and aired on Fox Broadcasting just a month after 11 September 2001. US agents were portrayed using torture on 24 well before photographs were released from Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” were portrayed and discussed in 24 long before they became a commonplace of news analysis and debates about the “war on terror”. 24 has captured the Zeitgeist of at least part of the early twenty-first century’s reaction to terrorism.
Jack Bauer has become a lightning-rod for debate over the war on terrorism. Not only will he find a way to avert disaster, he will resort to any way—including torturing. To date, 24 has shown the torture of known terrorists, suspected terrorists, US agents, a former director of the National Security Agency, the son of the US secretary of defence, Bauer’s girlfriend, his brother, and sundry relatives and other citizens suspected of knowing something vital. When it became clear that the US president was behind season five’s terrorist plot, the audience was left to wonder whether Bauer would torture even the president.
Traditionally, torture has been portrayed in popular media as a tool of psychopaths and megalomaniacal monsters.1 The terrorists in 24 also engage in torture, and Bauer has been the recipient of horrific torture. Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character introduced the possibility that the hero would resort to torture. Now 24 shows numerous examples of the “good guys” resorting to torture, even if some agents remain uncomfortable with the practice.
Not only does 24 frequently show the hero using torture, 24 brings torture into living rooms around the world on a grand scale.
Broadcast by the major US television network, Fox, the show is available on 236 channels worldwide, reaching one hundred million viewers.2 Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Bauer, is the most highly paid television actor in the world and received an Emmy nomination for each of the series’ first six seasons. According to the non-profit organisation, Human Rights First, the number of instances of torture on prime-time television has increased dramatically since the 11 September attacks. The Parents’ Television Council, a watchdog group, claims “ ‘24’ is the worst offender on television: the most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in the trend of showing the protagonists using torture.”3
The concerns are not just that gruesome scenes of torture and agonised expressions are displayed on the public airwaves. Some are worried that 24 has gone beyond being simply fictional drama to where it influences public opinion and even government and military policy on torture. Proving any causal link would be extremely difficult, leading to allegations and denials of the potential associations and correlations.
On the one hand, Kiefer Sutherland maintains that torture on 24 is simply a dramatic device. The scenes are not real; he knows it and everyone else knows it too. “I have not seen an average citizen in the US or anywhere else who has watched an hour of 24 and after watching was struck by this uncontrollable urge to go out and torture someone. It’s ludicrous.” Any suggestion, he claims, that 24 has influenced public opinion or military policy on torture is an absurd attempt to shift blame onto a fictional character. Speaking almost with contempt, Sutherland says: “If you can’t tell the difference between reality and what’s happening on a made-up TV show, and you’re correlating that back to how to do your job in the real world, that’s a big, big problem.”4
Jane Mayer interviewed several people involved in this debate for the New Yorker.5 Unless otherwise footnoted, the quotations in the following paragraphs come from her article. Rush Limbaugh, a conservative talk-radio host in the United States, dismisses any suggestion that the writers and producers of 24 are trying to influence public opinion on torture: “They’re businessmen, and they don’t have an agenda … Torture? It’s just a television show! Get a grip.”
However, some of those writers and producers disagree. Joel Surnow, 24’s co-creator and executive producer, describes himself as a “right-wing nut job”. He claims that 24 captures the mood in America and forces people to look at what threats to national security are actually like. He claims that extreme measures are necessary to deal with these threats adequately, adding, “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.”
David Nevins was the executive at Fox Television who purchased the 24 pilot in 2000 and continues to have an executive role in its production. He claims that the show’s core message “is that extreme measures are sometimes necessary for the greater good. The show doesn’t have much patience for the niceties of civil liberties or due process”.
Torture in 24 has raised concerns among those teaching military interrogation. The dean of the US military academy at West Point, Brigadier-General Patrick Finnegan, met the 24 team in 2006. He and three of the United States’ most experienced military and FBI interrogators asked the producers to change the way they portray torture. Interviewed by Mayer, Finnegan said the show was having “a toxic effect” on real American soldiers, interfering with training and causing them to be more accepting of unethical and illegal behaviour. Finnegan claimed it was increasingly difficult to convince cadets that America should respect international law and human rights, even when terrorists don’t. On interrogation issues, support for torture was traced back to 24, with cadets pointing out that although “torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do”. Other military law professors interviewed by Mayer claimed similar perspectives among the officers they teach.
Lieutenant-Colonel Diane Beaver, a staff judge advocate, revealed how 24 became real life at the US prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Beaver wrote the legal opinion which gave the go-ahead for “aggressive interrogation techniques” at Guantanamo. In the absence of formal guidance on interrogation techniques from the Pentagon, 24 was influential during brainstorming meetings at Guantanamo in September 2002. Beaver claims many people at Guantanamo were fans of Jack Bauer, who gave them lots of ideas for interrogations. The show contributed to an atmosphere in which people were encouraged to go beyond what they otherwise might have done.6
Claims are also made that 24 has influenced high-ranking US policymakers. Limbaugh organised a meeting between Surnow and US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, which led to a symposium in Washington, D.C., in 2007. The event was entitled: “ ‘24’ and America’s Image in Fighting Terrorism: Fact, Fiction, or Does It Matter?” One of the participants was Michael Cherthoff, US secretary of homeland security from 2005 until 2009. He praised the way the show depicts the war on terrorism, stating: “Frankly, it reflects real life.”
US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia defends the use of torture in certain interrogation situations. At a conference in 2007, a Canadian judge noted, “Thankfully, security agencies in all our countries do not subscribe to the mantra ‘What would Jack Bauer do?’ ” Scalia retorted, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives … Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so.”7
Another talk-radio host, Laura Ingraham, claimed on Fox News that the popularity of 24 demonstrated American support for the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. “The average American out there loves the show 24. OK? They love Jack Bauer. They love 24. In my mind that’s [as] close to a national referendum that it’s OK to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.”8
Fiction and Ethics
Using fiction to examine ethical issues is one thing; it is quite another to claim that the popularity of those narratives reflects widespread agreement with all they portray. Philosophy and ethics have used cases and thought experiments to teach and think through ethical decision-making. Parables and stories are used similarly in religion and popular culture. Few would argue that fairy tales promote a view that giants and elves actually exist. That is not the purpose of fiction. Some fiction provides little more than entertainment, but it can also convey values and ethical ideals. The Grimm brothers’ fairy tale, The Frog Prince, or a modern equivalent like Shrek, can teach the importance of not judging people by their external appearances. Accepting narrative’s influence on ethics has nothing to do with whether one believes frogs can turn into princes or that ogres live in the woods. But being fiction does not mean it has no ethical influence, as Kiefer Sutherland appears to believe. Quite the contrary, its fictional nature may give it a more powerful impact. The power of narrative lies in its capacity to capture our emotions and imaginations, and cause us to reflect on our values and beliefs.
Sometimes exposure to narratives is not accompanied by critical reflection. Hence, the concern that regular exposure to certain narratives can lead people to accept uncritically the values portrayed. Thus, fears that 24 promotes torture fit into broader debates over whether frequent exposure to violence and sexuality in films and computer games influences individuals and their beliefs.
Proving whether or to what extent 24 has affected policy or public opinion on torture will not be possible. We can examine what 24 portrays about torture. Some claim that 24 straightforwardly asserts that torture is a necessary tool in the “war on terror”. The rest of this article will seek to show that this is an overly simplistic view, and that 24 presents a more complicated perspective. This is more clearly the case in season seven, which aired in 2009. Whether this more nuanced stance was in response to the military and public criticism noted earlier is uncertain. What quickly became apparent from the start of season seven was that a central theme was the ethics of torture. Both sides of the issue were frequently presented throughout the season. In the following sections, quotations from the show will be referenced according to the time during the show’s twenty-four hours when the statements were made.
The day begins at 8:00 am with Jack Bauer testifying before a Senate sub-committee chaired by Senator Blaine Mayer. Bauer admits he tortured Ibraham Hadad, who was planning to attack a bus with forty-five innocent people on board. He did what he “deemed necessary to protect innocent lives” (08:03). The senator replies with a common objection to torture: “So basically, what you are saying Mr Bauer, is that the ends justify the means and that you are above the law?” Jack accepts the first point, but rejects the second point. He is willing to pay the penalty for breaking the law and allow a jury to decide what price he must pay.
Bauer does not want to be seen as a criminal who breaks the law and tries to get away with it. He believes that in certain circumstances, the law must be broken. But he thinks the public are entitled to know how agents like him operate. Later (09:24), he tells an FBI agent, “It’s better that everything comes out in the open. We have done so many secret things over the years in the name of protecting this country, we’ve created two worlds: ours and the people we promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth and they can decide how far they want to let us go.”
Before the Senate hearing goes further, Bauer is taken by FBI agent Renee Walker to assist with an ongoing investigation. As season seven progresses, Walker comes to accept Bauer’s methods. At first she is willing to let Bauer intimidate Schector, an informant with a shady background. She warns Bauer that he can threaten Schector, but cannot lay a hand on him (08:50). When verbal threats accomplish nothing, Bauer asks what he should do. Walker replies, “Do whatever it takes.” Bauer prepares to stab Schector in the head, but as he starts to talk, he is killed by a sniper, later identified as Tanner.
Walker becomes more willing to torture over the objections of her boss, Larry Moss. He emphasises the incompatibility of torture and law enforcement agencies, stating, for example (08:44): “Renee, we are the FBI not CTU. We honour the law, even when it’s not convenient.” Later on (15:26), he tells Bauer: “Jack! The rules are what make us better.” Bauer quips back, “Not today.”
Tony Almeida is a former CTU agent working both sides of the conflict in season seven. When he is thought to be working for the terrorists and being interrogated legally, he discloses no information. Walker suggests they try something more forceful (10:36): “There are methods of coercion that we haven’t even considered: pharmaceutical …” Moss interrupts her: “The argument is crazy. It’s illegal. And it’s over.”
An hour later (11:49), Walker is trying to get information from Tanner, the sniper from earlier who was shot while being apprehended. She shoves her gun into his wound, but then has second thoughts. Tanner snickers, so she grabs the air tubes on his ventilator. He protests, “You can’t do this. You’re FBI. This is illegal. I have rights.” She pinches off his air supply, and a few minutes later walks out of his hospital room with information about a planned kidnapping.
Later, Agent Walker teams up with Bauer to get information from Vossler, a rogue secret service agent who helped kidnap the president’s husband. Over Moss’s objections (15:23), Walker holds Vossler’s wife and son hostage while Bauer demands that Vossler tell them what he knows. They convince Vossler that Walker will kill his family if he doesn’t co-operate. He does, but Walker is deeply disturbed. The transition into Jack’s world is clearly not an easy one. As the season ends, she is considering whether to torture Alan Wilson, a captured terrorist ring-leader. Another FBI agent pleads with her (07:56), “Please don’t do this. You’ve done your job. You arrested him. Let the courts take it from here. Stop this now before it’s too late. Don’t throw away your career. This is absolutely insane. Larry would not have wanted this. Don’t dishonour his death like this.” Her boss, Larry Moss, had earlier been killed in the line of duty, but his arguments live on.
The Rule of Law
In season seven, opposition to torture is part of a broader emphasis on the importance of the rule of law, both for individuals and society. In this season, strong characters oppose torture, such as Moss, who gives his life combating the terrorists. Another strong character on this side is the US president, Allison Taylor. She campaigned on a number of fundamental principles: not to negotiate with terrorists (11:05), the banning of torture and the reform of the intelligence agencies (18:30). However, as season seven develops, she acknowledges to Senator Mayer that “things haven’t appeared as black and white as they once did” (18:30).
Nonetheless, her resolve remains firm. Having decided to commit US troops to remove General Juma, the ruthless dictator of the fictional Sangala, she tells the Joint Chiefs of Staff (13:34):
When I took the oath of office I swore to myself and to the American people that this country would continue to be a force for good in this world. We are a nation founded on ideals, and those ideals are being challenged today. Now, how we respond will not only define this administration, but an entire generation. And not just Americans, but Sangalans and anyone else who looks to us for guidance and strength. I won’t fail them.
This is the basis of the “moral high ground argument” used against torture. Using torture undermines the moral credibility of an individual or nation. The underlying basis of the US Army’s approach to interrogation, from President Abraham Lincoln to the current field manual, FM 34-52, is that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty” or torture.9 The same perspective is upheld by the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties outlawing torture. 24 shows how taking the moral high ground can influence international politics.
As President Taylor prepares to send US troops into Sangala, she wants assurances that General Juma will not be killed in a way that perpetuates the cycle of violence. She tells the democratically elected president, Mr Matobo (09:21), “Then punish him [Juma] according to the rule of law. That’s the only way democracy will work in Sangala: if no one is treated outside the law, not even Juma.” The same argument is made of torture. As a violent technique, it promotes further violence. As an illegal practice, it undermines the rule of law and the moral authority of those who use it.
At another point (18:30), Senator Mayer warns President Taylor that by excusing Bauer from testifying before his Senate committee, she would be sending a dangerous message that “under certain circumstances you believe his methods are acceptable … Pardon Jack Bauer and you’re telling every interrogator in the field that it’s open season again”. When America did this before, it led to “a national tragedy”. The president agrees: “It was a tragedy. I still believe that.” This appears to be a thinly veiled condemnation of recent historical events involving torture.
Upholding the law is not the easy option, as this season demonstrates. Jonas Hodges owns a weapons manufacturing company and runs a private army of mercenaries. He was one of the ring-leaders behind the terrorist plots. After he is captured, President Taylor considers ordering his torture, but decides she must uphold the law. Her principles are later tested more personally. It is discovered that her own daughter ordered Hodges’ eventual assassination. President Taylor’s family beg her to cover it up, but she declares, “I can’t just disregard the law.” In the end (07:52), she decides: “I have a sworn duty to enforce the Constitution. Failing to uphold that oath would be the worst kind of hypocrisy … as president, this is what I have to do. No matter how much it breaks my heart.” She, like Bauer, must accept the consequences of her actions. Upholding the law will break her heart and possibly cause her to lose her family.
By the end of the season, Bauer himself seems persuaded that the law must be upheld. When Alan Wilson, the high-ranking conspirator, refuses to talk, Agent Walker discusses with Bauer the need to do something, obviously considering torture (07:29). Bauer says, “I’ve been wrestling with this my whole life. I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus; everything else goes out the window. I’ll do whatever it takes to save them; and I mean whatever it takes.” But then he notes that Walker works for the FBI, unlike him. “You took an oath. You made a promise to uphold the law.” He concludes: “These laws were written by much smarter men than me. And in the end I know that these laws have to be more important than the fifteen people in the bus. I know that’s right. In my mind I know that’s right. But I just don’t think my heart could ever have lived with that.”
The Role of Emotions
Bauer here points to a core theme running through season seven: the balance between thinking and emotion in ethics. Until very recently, many held that ethics was a rational activity which required keeping emotion at bay. At best, emotions were a distraction from clear thinking; at worst, they promoted irrational behaviour. More recently, renewed attention has been given to the role of emotion in ethics. Emotions are acknowledged to be central to how we perceive ethical dilemmas and how we are motivated to act upon our ethical beliefs. Ethics is now acknowledged to involve a complex interplay between thinking and emotion. In addition, narratives, including television dramas and films, play an important role in helping us examine and reflect on ethical problems and situations.10
Traditional torture narratives have been more straightforward. In films like Marathon Man, torture is repulsive and difficult to watch. The torturer, Dr Szell in this case, is clearly sadistic and immoral. In 24 and more recent torture narratives, things are more complex. What are we to make of the hero who tortures? The impact can therefore be more complex, as when US Army cadets claim that if their hero, Jack, tortures people, it can’t be that bad.
Herein lies one of the dangers in how 24 portrays torture. The torture scenes usually avoid the shocking, grotesque images of some films. However, in doing so, they also avoid the reality of how repulsive torture actually is. In previous seasons, innocent people are tortured and then return to life as usual. The most ridiculous example occurs in season five when Bauer interrogates his girlfriend, Audrey. CTU believes she has information, so he grabs her by the throat, yelling and screaming at her to stop lying. She is then handed over to the official CTU torturer and tortured. When they discover that she was telling the truth all along, she and Bauer hug and kiss and their relationship goes back to normal.
The reality is that torture is physically and psychologically destructive for those on whom it is inflicted. Accounts of actual torture show it to be more horrific and repulsive than what we see in 24. While some scenes are gruesome, they are sanitised for living-room consumption. By hiding scenes that would elicit stronger emotional reactions against torture, 24 promotes the lie that torture is not that bad. Accurate portrayals of torture reveal that it is barbaric and inhumane, akin to rape. That is why it has been called “the most profound violation possible of the dignity of a human being”.11
Actual accounts of torture note also that torturers themselves are psychologically destroyed through torturing. This contrasts with how 24 portrays torturers, as “kindly torturers rather than tyrants”.12 Philosopher Slavoj Zizek claims that one of the ideological lies of 24 is that agents like Bauer “are warm human beings—loving, caught in the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people”.13 In contrast, Joe Navarro, a leading FBI interrogator told Jane Mayer, “Only a psychopath can torture and be unaffected. You don’t want people like that in your organization. They are untrustworthy, and tend to have grotesque other problems.”
Season seven does at least address some of the emotional impact torture has on torturers. After Walker tortures Tanner and threatens to kill Vossler’s wife and son, Agent Moss tells her (16:10): “I’m scared of what is happening to you. You put these people through hell and it doesn’t bother you.” She replies, “I didn’t say that it didn’t bother me. I said that it worked. Of course it bothers me. I see that woman’s face. See her child staring at me with such … She had no idea her husband was a killer, a traitor to his country. And she looked at me as if I was the monster.” She is shown looking deeply at herself in a mirror, possibly reflecting on who she is becoming.
At the beginning of the season (08:03), Bauer tells Senator Mayer that he has no regrets about what he has done during his career. Later (17:42), he tells him: “Every day I regret looking into the eyes of men, women and children knowing that at any moment their lives might be deemed expendable in an effort to protect the greater good. I regret every decision or mistake I might have made that resulted in the loss of a single innocent life.” By the end of the season (07:45), as he lies seemingly dying, he is deeply conflicted. “I made so many mistakes. And I always thought I would have the time to correct them.” (Presumably in season eight we will learn how Bauer defies death and whether he finds relief from his regrets.)
However, what seems important in 24 is whether the agents feel bad when their questionable decisions don’t have good outcomes. For example, a waitress named Marika was dating one of the terrorists, Dubaku. After Walker and Bauer pointed out Dubaku’s true identity, Marika agreed to help them capture him, even though she had no training. She was killed during a car chase, leading Walker to get angry with Bauer (17:46). “I want to know that you feel something. I want to know that you feel the same sort of pain that I do.” She slaps his face. “Do you feel that?” Another slap. “Do you feel that?” Bauer replies: “You’re going to be alright. It’s gonna take a while but you will learn to live with it.”
As the season’s final episode shows, however, it is questionable whether Bauer has learned to live with his actions. Ruthlessness changes people. Being tortured and conducting torture has hugely detrimental effects on people. The father of a Greek military torturer said at his actual trial, “I had a good boy, everybody said so. Can you tell me who turned my son into a torturer and destroyed him and my family psychologically?”14
24 fails to show this side of torture and therefore grossly distorts the perspective the general public is given on torture.
Exaggerating Torture’s Efficacy
Another inaccuracy in 24 is the frequency with which it shows torture working successfully. Experienced interrogators hold that aggressive interrogation rarely works. Tony Lagouranis was a US Army interrogator in Iraq who told Jane Mayer that soldiers there would imitate what they saw on 24. He would intervene because, “In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence.” Rather, “physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.” Several former military and FBI interrogators have stated that the way torture is portrayed in 24 and other recent shows and films is completely unrealistic. Executive producers from 24 and another highly successful television series, Lost, stated in a documentary filmed by Human Rights First that their scenes were invented on set and are divorced from reality. The fact that anyone takes them as realistic has caused the producers to realise that they need to present torture in a more responsible way.15
In contrast to previous seasons, when 24 declared that everyone had his or her breaking point, season seven notes that some people can resist torture. We are told that military and counter-terrorist training has given Vossler and Almeida the ability to withstand torture. When Agent Moss discovers that Walker tortured Tanner (12:04), he reminds her that information obtained that way “may not even be valid. You know as well as I do: coercive interrogation is unreliable”. When she says that Tanner was not lying, he replies: “You know that? How do you know he wasn’t just telling you what you wanted to hear?” Such claims are made frequently by those experienced with interrogation in the field. In 24, President Taylor points to the ultimate irony (18:36): “Torture was originally intended to force false confessions. Now we use it to try and find the truth.”
While torture sometimes produces useful information, it undermines legitimate interrogation and, more importantly, trust-building. Lagouranis told Jane Mayer that military and FBI experience shows that the best way to gather intelligence is through rapport-building—“the slow process of winning over informants”—and non violent ruses that take suspects by surprise. In season seven, the terrorists pull off such a ruse (23:05). Knowing that Tony Almeida would not break under torture, Jonas Hodges’ right-hand man tricks him into thinking he will help the FBI. The plan works to lure the FBI into a trap which buys Hodges valuable time. In many instances, basic police work and building trust between various parties produces good intelligence more effectively than torture, and upholds the rule of law designed to protect those same military and police personnel.
The basic ethical reasoning behind the justification for torture is that the ends justify the means. National security sometimes requires torturing those believed to have crucial information. The rights of a few must occasionally be dismissed for the sake of the many. If this is true, the means are amoral.
Season seven reveals a fundamental problem with such reasoning. Throughout, the terrorists and Bauer use similar tactics to achieve their ends. Both sides beat and torture people. Commonly in this season, someone is kidnapped to force a family member to co-operate. The terrorists kidnap the president’s husband and threaten to kill him unless she co-operates. Agent Walker threatens to kill Vossler’s wife and son unless Vossler co-operates with Bauer. If the ends justify the means, Bauer must have different ends compared to the terrorists to avoid being seen as equally unethical.
But as we get to the climax of the season, we see the fallacy in this reasoning. While being interrogated by Bauer, Jonas Hodges claims the two of them are the same. Both should be regarded as heroes, not criminals. Hodges says they both have the same ends: they both follow their instinct to protect their country. Hodges justifies his terrorist attacks on the United States (03:27) with the same utilitarian argument Bauer uses: “Yes, a few innocent lives would be lost but only to save the greater number. Having the courage to make those hard choices gives us a lot in common, Mr Bauer.” Emotionally, Hodges expresses regrets similar to Bauer’s (21:07):
I get no pleasure from the knowledge that people will die at our hands. One single soul, the loss of one soul, is tragic to me, let alone the numbers we are talking about. But do not forget, that every war worth fighting involves collateral damage. And what we’re doing is fundamentally and absolutely necessary.
Bauer vehemently rejects this association and insists he has nothing in common with Hodges. Yet Bauer has dismissed the rights of the few in order to save the lives of the many. He has threatened the innocent to get terrorists to co-operate with him. He risked an innocent person’s life “to protect the hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives” (17:46). Hodges shows that Bauer’s utilitarian ethic can be used to justify almost anything—including crashing commercial aeroplanes and releasing a biological weapon.
The Necessity Defence
The measures Jack Bauer takes are portrayed in 24 as dictated by “necessity”. Actions are not right or wrong, but “necessary”. Bauer defends his use of torture by saying (08:03) that he does “what I deemed necessary to protect innocent lives”. He defends the decision to involve Marika, which ended in her death, by saying (17:46): “What we did wasn’t wrong, it was necessary.” The sense is that one particular action is always necessary, but part of the problem is that it is always what seems necessary to Jack.
Such decision-making takes away the importance of explaining why one approach is more ethical than another. Ironically, it also takes away moral responsibility. The use of torture becomes “necessary”, just as 2 + 2 is necessarily 4. No debate, no justification needed. Unlike the psychopath, Jack does not want to torture or use people as pawns. But he has to. Once we see him weighed down by regret and sadness, we can excuse him. Unlike the terrorist, he didn’t really choose this path. However, Hodges reveals the fallacy in this reasoning.
A related problem is an emphasis on black-and-white thinking. Season seven shows it on both sides. Bauer tells President Taylor that she must let him pursue the terrorists (15:02): “Madam President, you don’t have another choice.” Bauer argues with the FBI agents over how to rescue President Taylor’s husband (15:23): “You’ve got one of two choices. Now you can either phone the president and explain to her that your conscience won’t allow you to do what is necessary to save him. Or you can simply do what is necessary. Pick one.” After Marika is killed, Bauer claims they had no choice over whether to use her or not. As the president considers whether to give Hodges a pardon for his information, her chief of staff declares (18:43): “With coercive methods off the table, it’s our only option.”
But often there is another option, one that can achieve the same ends but by legal means. Success is not guaranteed, but neither is it with torture. Actual interrogators favour the use of rapport-building or non violent ruses. Throughout season seven, rational argument and basic police work produce results. Senator Mayer persuades Bauer (21:42) “to start trusting the institutions that you sacrificed so much to protect”. One of the tragic moments of the season then occurs as Senator Mayer is murdered, leaving Bauer to resort to his usual tactics.
Shortly afterwards, Bauer and Almeida enlist the help of a port authority security guard whom the terrorists bribed to help them unwittingly. Bauer promises to protect him as he goes to meet the terrorists. But when they prepare to kill him, Almeida says (22:31): “Forget about him, Jack. He was dead the minute he stepped out that door. You and I both know that.” Bauer is torn between his promise and the mission. Almeida continues: “Don’t break your own rules. You may save one man. But what about the thousands of people who could die in a biological attack?”
In Bauer’s system, necessity requires that one man be sacrificed for the many. He accepts that for himself. But now he wavers. Will he uphold his promise to the security guard, or be led by necessity? He discovers that he does have a choice. He finds another option which allows him to rescue the guard and still accomplish his mission. Later (23:32), Walker tells him, “You did the right thing.” In spite of what they may say or do, the “good guys” in 24 still know that the means matter.
The Ticking Bomb
According to Jane Mayer, the appeal of 24 “lies less in its violence than in its giddily literal rendering of a classic thriller trope: the ‘ticking time bomb’ plot”. I have examined the ethical and philosophical problems with the ticking-bomb argument elsewhere.16 Here, I will comment on its use in 24 to create a heightened sense of urgency. The regularly displayed ticking clock reminds viewers that valuable time is passing—even during commercial breaks. Split screens are used to show that the action continues on many fronts. Even while the authorities plan and debate, the terrorist plot unfolds and progresses. Time is of the essence, and the moral wrangling is delaying the inevitable: the bomb is about to go off, and someone in custody has vital information.
The way the show engages one’s emotions is ethically significant. “Such a sense of urgency has an ethical dimension. The pressure of events is so overbearing, the stakes so high, that they necessitate a kind of suspension of ordinary moral concerns.”17 The sense of urgency suggests that the protagonists don’t have a choice. This means torture is necessary.
The assumption is that Jack’s gut reaction will lead to the right decision. He sometimes gets it right, but he also gets it wrong. Circumstantial evidence linked Vossler to the terrorists, so they threatened his family and got crucial information. But circumstantial evidence also led Jack to burst into Marika’s apartment, threatening those inside who turned out to be innocent. He judged Almeida’s loyalties wrongly over and over throughout the season. Emotions alone are not good ethical guides.
What makes 24 so insidiously dangerous is its infusion with ticking-bomb scenarios. These drag the viewer along with a sense of urgency and the necessity of stopping the bad guys at all costs. Just as advertising uses sight, sound and all our senses to suggest we buy this or that, 24 uses similar means of persuasion. It elicits emotional reactions to suggest that although what we see may or may not be ethical, it is necessary. Lieutenant-Colonel Beaver noted that 24 contributed to an atmosphere in Guantanamo where interrogators believed they were at the battlefront, urgently needing to make difficult but necessary decisions.18 In such situations, rules and calm reasoning get thrown out the window. Yet it is in the midst of turmoil and uncertainty that rules and principles are crucial to provide reasoned justification for ethical decisions. The emotional aspects are important, and must be considered, but not in isolation from careful thinking.
The beginning point of justice must be that all humans are entitled to be treated humanely and with respect. That implies no one should be tortured, even enemies in war. Lieutenant-Colonel Beaver stated that a key moment in the justification of aggressive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo was the removal of the protections afforded under the Geneva Conventions. Without those rights, few constraints remained on interrogation techniques. Each technique was justified “so long as the force used could plausibly have been thought necessary in a particular situation to achieve a legitimate government objective, and it was not applied maliciously or sadistically for the very purpose of causing harm”.19
This comes remarkably close to Bauer’s justification for torture—and Hodges’ justification for terrorism. Bauer warns that once agents start down the road of harsh interrogation, they are on a steep and slippery slope. He reminds Walker (07:29) that there is an important legal line in interrogation: “You cross that line, it always starts off with a small step. Before you know it you’re running as fast as you can in the wrong direction just to justify what you started in the first place.” Reports from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib follow a long history of similar instances of harsh interrogation getting out of control.
Although the rational arguments against torture are presented in 24, especially in season seven, they tend to be swept away in a torrent of cinematic emotion and exciting action. A fundamental problem with Bauer’s position, which is predominant in 24, is that people can be treated as assets and pawns in the war on terror. When he describes Marika as such (17:03), even Walker reacts: “She’s not an asset, Jack. She’s a human being.” Torture undermines that perspective. It is an extreme way of treating someone as an asset, just a source of information. To torture people is to deny them their fundamental status as a human being with dignity. They become little more than “assets” or “collateral damage”, a view that diminishes the dignity of every person.
2. Decca Aitkenhead, “One Hour with Kiefer Sutherland”, Guardian (London), 2 February 2009.
3. Jane Mayer, “Whatever It Takes: The Politics of the Man behind ‘24’ ”, New Yorker, 19 February 2007.
4. Aitkenhead, “One Hour with Kiefer Sutherland”.
5. Mayer, “Whatever It Takes”.
6. Philippe Sands, Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betrayal of American Values (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 61−2.
7. Jan Crawford Greenburg, “Does Terror Trump Torture?”, ABC News, 12 February 2008 [http://blogs.abcnews.com/legalities/2008/02/does-terror-tru.html].
8. Andrew Ironside, “Conservatives Continue to Use Fox’s 24 to Support Hawkish Policies”, Media Matters for America, 2 February 2007 [http://mediamatters.org/items/200702020015].
9. Sands, Torture Team, p. 2.
10. The issues of ethics, emotions and narrative are explored in more depth in a different context in Dónal P. O’Mathúna, Nanoethics: Big Ethical Issues with Small Technology (London: Continuum, 2009).
11. David Sussman, “What’s Wrong with Torture?”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 33, no. 1 (January 2005), p. 2.
12. David Luban, “Liberalism, Torture, and the Ticking Bomb”, Virginia Law Review 91, no. 6 (October 2005), p. 1436.
13. Slavoj Zizek, “The Depraved Heroes of 24 Are the Himmlers of Hollywood”, Guardian (London), 10 January 2006.
14. See Mika Haritos-Fatouros, “Psychological and Sociopolitical Factors Contributing to the Creation of the Iraqi Torturers: A Human Rights Issue”, International Bulletin of Political Psychology Online 16, no. 2 (2005) [http://security.pr.erau.edu/read.php?kind=html&article_volume=16&article_issue=2&article_title=Psychological%20and%20Sociopolitical%20Factors%20Contributing%20to%20the%20Creation%20of%20the%20Iraqi%20Torturers%3A%20A%20Human%20Rights%20Issue].
15. Martin Miller, “ ‘24’ Gets a Lesson in Torture from the Experts”, Los Angeles Times, 13 February 2007.
16. O’Mathúna, “Torture Ethics and Torture Narratives”.
17. Zizek, “The Depraved Heroes of 24”.
18. Sands, Torture Team, p. 62.
19. Ibid., p. 67.