So after a long hiatus, I’m giving the erstwhile relevant 24 a second chance. So far, I’d be compelled to give it a B: it’s entertaining television and still chock full of absurdly bad-ass Jack Bauer moments (and of course, the return of Tony Almeda and Bill Buchanan is welcome). But 24‘s significance was never just about the absurd antics of Jack Bauer. Rather, the show reflected a particular moment of US history following 9/11 when the entire country was fairly paranoid about terrorist attacks and we all hoped and prayed that people just like Jack Bauer were keeping us safe. Of course, we’ve now I think realized — despite the best efforts of Republicans and DHS color coded warnings — that there isn’t always a terrorist lurking just out of sight, ready to cause immense psychological and physical damage. As such, the show’s lost a bit of its bite, and my sense is the producers understand this, and thus the topic of torture and “extreme interrogation” is now a featured theme. But this sort of misses the point.
Namely, Jack Bauer and 24 are a particularly bad vehicle for exploration of this theme because without fail, the facts always vindicate Jack’s actions. This has not often been in the case in the world in which we live. In fact, the primary problem with the U.S. torture policy — beyond the fact that it rarely produces anything useful — has been the problems engendered by its sheer notoriety.
I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq. The large majority of suicide bombings in Iraq are still carried out by these foreigners. They are also involved in most of the attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. It’s no exaggeration to say that at least half of our losses and casualties in that country have come at the hands of foreigners who joined the fray because of our program of detainee abuse. The number of U.S. soldiers who have died because of our torture policy will never be definitively known, but it is fair to say that it is close to the number of lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001. How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don’t count American soldiers as Americans.
This provoked response is endemic to the U.S. public policy of openly torturing and illegally detaining anyone they choose, but not to the Jack Bauer “black ops” style of battlefield information gathering. It really doesn’t seem to be the worst thing in the world if special forces teams extract intelligence in the field with the use of force; rather, the problem emerges when indignantly arguing the U.S. has a right to ignore international law it has so long championed. As the former military interrogator argues in the piece linked above, this deleteriously impacts both our safety and foreign policy goals by distressing allies and justifying the actions of our enemies. Again, this couldn’t be further from the Jack Bauer brand of sub rosa torture, which always yields results. Of course, this brings us back to the original problem that Jack Bauer inhabits the delusory fantasy land of neoconservatives where of course torture is justified because the government is so blisteringly incompetent we’re lucky they can operate traffic lights. Andweredarnlucky too, because if it weren’t Jack Bauer’s disrespect for civilized society, the turrerists would win.
More succinctly, the real world debate about torture and 24 world debate about torture aren’t actually arguing under the same set of terms, which makes the 24 take pretty irrelevant.