February 23, 2007
The Jack Bauer Effect
Sometimes when I'm out with the girls, I'll get fed up of talking about fashion or relationships and say something provocative just to stir things up. Most of the time, it's just martini-fuelled commentary about our celebrity-obsessed culture, the impact of widespread economic illiteracy, the exploding market for self-help books, etc. Whatever pops into my head, really.
A few weeks ago, while the ladies were chattering about Britney Spears' latest meltdown, I tapped my fingers on the table and said, "Do you think Americans might be more accepting of torture because of Jack Bauer?"
Having long ago accepted my mercurial oddball tendencies, they shrugged and returned to their original conversation. I, however, became rather fixated on the idea and spent much of the evening muttering to myself about cultural icons and their ability to shape popular opinion.
Anyway, someone at the New Yorker obviously had the same idea and thankfully decided to run with it. Whatever it Takes: The Politics of the Man behind "24" is a detailed examination of the hit show, its impact on American audiences and the conservative bent of its executive producer Joel Surnow:
For all its fictional liberties, “24” depicts the fight against Islamist extremism much as the Bush Administration has defined it: as an all-consuming struggle for America’s survival that demands the toughest of tactics. Not long after September 11th, Vice-President Dick Cheney alluded vaguely to the fact that America must begin working through the “dark side” in countering terrorism. On “24,” the dark side is on full view. Surnow, who has jokingly called himself a “right-wing nut job,” shares his show’s hard-line perspective. Speaking of torture, he said, “Isn’t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow—or any other city in this country—that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do?”
The show's reliance on the ticking time bomb scenario as a plot device has made it hugely popular with audiences who praise Jack Bauer's "results-oriented" attitude and apparent disdain for legal procedure. Recalcitrant terrorists are swiftly broken by Bauer's tactics, which lately seem to involve pain-inducing pharamaceuticals rather than beatings and gunshot wounds.
Now, I freely admit to enjoying 24 because it's great "action porn". Simple good vs. evil plotlines, excellent pacing and a dark (well, bordering on sociopathic) hero. That doesn't mean I apply such a black and white worldview to my foreign policy analysis, but I can see how that might happen in the current climate. 24 presents a simplified problem and offers a simplified solution, along with some nice gunfights. However, repeated use of the ticking time bomb formula can erroneously suggest to viewers that torture is the first, best option for extracting information. In fact, the US military recently visited with the show's creative team to argue for a more balanced take on the issue:
[US Army Brigadier General] Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise — that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security — was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires”...
Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally.
Echoing Finnegan's concern, a retired West Point law professor recounted arguments with his students about Jack Bauer's tactics:
He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.” Yet the motto of many of his students was identical to Jack Bauer’s: “Whatever it takes.” His students were particularly impressed by a scene in which Bauer barges into a room where a stubborn suspect is being held, shoots him in one leg, and threatens to shoot the other if he doesn’t talk. In less than ten seconds, the suspect reveals that his associates plan to assassinate the Secretary of Defense. Solis told me, “I tried to impress on them that this technique would open the wrong doors, but it was like trying to stomp out an anthill.”
One of the most interesting observations in the article was the assertion that American viewers have an increased tolerance for torture scenes:
Before the [Sept 11] attacks, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization. Now there are more than a hundred, and, as David Danzig, a project director at Human Rights First, noted, “the torturers have changed. It used to be almost exclusively the villains who tortured. Today, torture is often perpetrated by the heroes.”
Although 24 is by far the worst offender (67 torture scenes in the first 5 seasons), definitively proving a causal relationship between the show and American support for torture policy is difficult. Certainly the show's popularity reflects an abiding interest in "revenge fantasies". It may also suggest a strong desire for simple solutions in the face of highly complex issues. Surnow's conservative agenda is obvious, but is he actually shaping his audience's views or simply responding to market demand?
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Good question. I'd say it's demand-driven more than anything else, but then I tend to be sceptical of arguments about the Big Bad Media indoctrinating hapless citizens.
The concerned military officers interviewed in the New Yorker article are actually part of the Human Rights First campaign to balance out pop culture messages on torture that soldiers might be absorbing, and while they recognise that there's a demand for this stuff (clearly there's a reason why a show like 24 is a big hit now as opposed to ten years ago), they want soldiers to be briefed on why the TV depiction of torture is misleading. Their response to the problem of a show like 24 raising public support for torture is to start an awareness-raising anti-torture campaign and get at least some support from the film/TV industry.
Posted by: SP at February 23, 2007 03:44 PM
I feel a certain need to link to this whenever the torture/24/ticking bomb scenario comes up.
Posted by: Tom Scudder at February 23, 2007 04:24 PM
It is simple: media images/stereotypes/presentations influence thoughts and behavior of the public. It is not a difficult proposition. It is not always going to happen, and it is not the only cause, or necessarily even main cause, but it does affect outlook and analysis of issues.
Posted by: matthew hogan at February 23, 2007 09:02 PM
Reminds me of a "joke":
The FBI impressed by the Tunisian police's results in catching wanted people registered for a training with them.
So there, the FBI team arrives at the airport and is received by some proud Tunisian officers.
"Wow guys, you're good, how do you do that? In 200 years, we never achieved anything close", says an admirative FBI agent.
"Look at this rabbit" a Tunisian officer shows off, "we're going to let him go, and within 24 hours, we'll find him back". And he lets the rabbit go.
24 hours later, the joint team brings a dog to fetch the rabbit. The Tunisian officer puts the dog in the basement and beats the hell out of him.
"Where's the rabbit?", the Tunisian officer asks.
"I don't know", the dog barks faintly.
The Tunisian officer takes two electric cords and crosses them, sparks spout up. He then squashes them on the dog's body.
"Where's the rabbit?", the Tunisian officer asks again.
"I am the rabbit", the dog yelps.
Haha! Reminds me of a very similar one I heard in Syria (it might be funnier when told in a low voice at a Damascus café):
- - -
One sunny afternoon, the CIA, the Mossad and the Syrian Mukhabarat decide to hold a contest. They make a bet who will first be able to bring an elephant to a small, deserted island.
Just a few hours later, an elephant wrapped in the Israeli flag is airdropped by parachute to the island. The judges are duly impressed, and decide that the Mossad have won, but they wait to see how the others will do.
After about a day, a submarine shows up, and an elephant is driven ashore by American agents in a speedboat. Everybody waits for the Syrians.
After three long weeks, a miserable old wreck of a ship pulls ashore, nearly sinking as it approaches the island. A big, dumb-looking Syrian agent walks up to the judges, dragging a bruised, bloody sheep with broken legs and burn-marks from cigarettes in its face.
The CIA and the Mossad agents look at each other.
"That's not an elephant", they say.
The Syrian shrugs, grabs the sheep at its ears and yells:
"TELL THEM! TELL THEM NOW!"
Posted by: alle at February 23, 2007 10:17 PM
> Now, I freely admit to enjoying 24 because it's great "action porn".
I must admit I feel less dirty watching real porn, although I grant 24 is more socially acceptable in most circles.
The good General may want the producers to depict torture going wrong, but the producers could argue that they *do*. It's just that it's always Not Jack who tortures the wrong person.
The moral of the show is that Magic Jack Is Always Right, and if everyone else would Just Listen To Magic Jack, we could stomp out all the turrrrists.
Posted by: blue92 at February 23, 2007 11:10 PM
That's the third and fourth variation of that joke I've heard now. Told now about the CIA. It is quite remarkable how quickly USA has changed, but during the nineties the rot was simmering below the surface, the Newt Gingrich congress was the first telltale sign.
If I remember the Old Testament right, it's seven good years followed by seven bad years. 8 years of Clinton and 8 years of Bush. What happened then?
ticking time bomb scenario
oh fucking hell. I would be quite curious to read a translated version of the article mentioned in the wikipedia entry that says the point was mooted... It's written off quite rapidly.
Dersowitz's point is fascinating, notwithstanding the fallacy of that bloody scenario.
It's fascinating that the Army thought it necessarily to ask for a balanced take on torture.
As for the West Point law prof, duh. Children are the worst fascists, and most university students haven't grown out of that phase yet. Actually, looking at the evidence, most people never will. But I do think it diminishes over time.
Posted by: Frandroid Atreides at February 24, 2007 02:12 AM
As salaam alaikum.
Earlier this week I wrote this reflection:
Ultimately, the waters of secularism cannot drown the ruh, but only lift it above them - for, insh'allah, this is the purpose for which they were created.
Our Ummah just need to float on top of the secular cesspool.
Posted by: nuh ibn zbigniew gondek al kitab at February 24, 2007 09:47 AM
The moral of the show is that Magic Jack Is Always Right, and if everyone else would Just Listen To Magic Jack, we could stomp out all the turrrrists
Isn't is the real problem with the US foreign policy also? Torture, in principle, is wrong, but torture by US is always right because Magic Uncle Sam is Always Right and above the laws.
Trite, but right. Add to this the American cultural disposition to do something, be proactive, whatever. As opposed to looking at a situation (Iraq, Iran), saying "well, it stinks, but there's not really anything we can do that won't make it worse, so let's just react and contain and wait for our enemies to make the mistakes." Like the Czech adage, "Do nothing and you won't mess anything up."
Posted by: Antiquated Tory at February 26, 2007 05:36 AM
Check this out - Patrick Finnegan, the West Point guy who has been working with Human Rights First on the Stop Primetime Torture campaign, has convinced Kiefer Sutherland to go talk to West Point cadets and explain why the tactics shown on 24 are wrong:
Posted by: SP at March 1, 2007 10:21 AM