Charles Petzold

“24” Bad for America?

February 26, 2007
New York, N.Y.

In November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, paid a visit to the producers and writers of the television show “24.” His basic message: Cool it with all the torture already. In real life, he tried to tell the show's creative team, torture is illegal, immoral, and simply doesn't work.

Finnegan teaches a course in law at West Point, and has found it increasingly hard to convince his students of the necessity to respect law and human rights. The cadets keep bringing up examples from “24” where torture is not only patriotic but it works. DVDs of the show are popular among soldiers stationed in Iraq, who sometimes emulate the techniques they've seen.

What has “24” done to Americans watching the program? Finnegan believes that the American audience has come to be more accepting of the use of torture, and hence don't respond to abuses at prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantánamo Bay with the same shock and outrage as the rest of the world.

All of this — and much more — is in an article by Jane Meyer entitled “Whatever It Takes” in the February 18 and 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker and available online here.

If you're a fan of “24” (as I am) you might not want to read this article. It will ruin the show for you.

Many of the plot lines of “24” involve a "ticking time bomb" scenario: There's a bomb about to go off and only the terrorist (or terrorist sympathizer or terrorist dupe) in Jack Bauer's custody knows how to stop it. We cheer along as he does "whatever it takes" to get the information. We consider ourselves cheated if the show doesn't begin with a warning about "graphic violence."

In reality, the "ticking time bomb" scenario never happens. It's a complete fantasy. And even if it did happen — even if someone were in custody who knew how to stop the bomb — it's highly unlikely that he would break after a few hours of torture. The terrorist would know that all he had to do was hold out for another couple hours and the bomb would go off.

The fantasies of “24” might just be chalked up to Hollywood nuttiness were it not for co-creator and executive producer Joel Surnow, who treats the portrayal of terrorism and torture on “24” as part of his personal political agenda. Surnow has been a guest among pro-torture elements in the White House, and some of them obviously don't see the show as benign fantasy. "Frankly, it reflects real life," says Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff.

In his book "War by Other Means," former Bush administration Justice Department lawyer and "torture memo" writer John Yoo has used scenarios from “24” as examples, and talk-radio host Laura Ingraham has indicated that the popularity of the show is a "national referendum that it's OK to use tough tactics against Al Qaeda operatives." What other television show has influenced national policy in such a horrifying way?

It's becoming increasing obvious that “24” doesn't reflect reality about the nature of terrorism — but is molding reality about the response. The very popularity of the show sends a shameful message to the rest of the world that Americans believe torture to be a valid national policy.

I'll probably be watching “24” tonight, but I'm not going to feel good about it.