By Geoff Martin and Erin Steuter
Within the last decade, pop culture has been invaded by “pop torture,” a term that has come to describe the frequency of images of torture and violence in mainstream culture. Since 9/11 torture has been particularly common in media in the United States, exemplified by television shows such as 24, which wrapped up on May 24, attracting a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and generated millions of dollars through DVD sales. The series, a product of the Rupert-Murdock-owned Fox Network, covers the events of one 24-hour day, in “real-time,” as viewers follow the exploits of US counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. As a commercial and critical success, Jack Bauer and his brutal forms of interrogation, including torture, have seeped into the public consciousness. In the show’s eight seasons, Bauer has tortured terrorists, criminals, even colleagues who may have crucial information, acting out numerous improvised and grisly acts of torture that serve to justify his end of extracting information. For example, this attitude was clearly expressed after Bauer shoots and kills a restrained criminal in front of his superior, George Mason, in an episode that aired during the second season. When Mason condemns Jack’s action as unnecessary and extreme, Bauer fires back, “That’s the problem with people like you, George. You want results, but you’re never willing to get your hands dirty.”(1)
Pertinent to the controversy surrounding 24 is the consensus that there is no proof that torture is a successful method of extracting accurate information, although Bauer’s methods unrealistically continue to draw out the information he is seeking. Actor Kiefer Sutherland, portraying Jack Bauer of 24, has conceded that “You torture someone and they’ll basically tell you exactly what you want to hear whether it’s true of not, if you put someone in enough pain.”(2) Additionally, Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq, has stated:
In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence…I used severe hypothermia, dogs and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.(3)
However, the prevalence of torture on television as a means to extract information has helped to justify its widespread use, particularly as seen in the Iraq War. For example, on March 8, 2008, George Bush used his veto power to preserve the right to torture, under his preferred term “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Bush expressed his belief that “‘hardened terrorists’ merit different treatment from captured soldiers.”(4) In November of 2006, US Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, an Army lawyer and Dean at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, arrived in Southern California to meet with the creative team of 24 to voice concern about the premise of the show. Finnegan argued that it is becoming more difficult to convince the students at the Academy (cadets who become battlefield commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan) to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists do not. He suggests that this is because of the message of torture spread by 24. “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about 24?’ The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”(5)
As we might expect, popular culture is not immune from movements in Obama’s America. Perhaps sensing a change in the wind, the seventh season of 24, aired in early 2009, presented a stronger counter-argument against the will-to-torture that is so dominant in the show. There is FBI Agent Larry Moss, who consistently argues against “aggressive interrogation,” and Jack Bauer confides in his colleague and friend, Renée Walker, that his propensity to defend the innocent “at all costs” is what his heart tells him, not his head. He knows the importance of the rule of law, he says, but he just can’t help it.
While the final season provides multiple scenarios of Jack Bauer torturing a host of characters with effective and immediate results, there is more of a sense that the viewers and cadets may not want to try this at home. Jack’s friends and colleagues are worried that in his relentless pursuit of revenge for his lost comrades, that he may have lost his moral center, as he eviscerates a Russian suspect and bites off the ear of a American official. Nevertheless, the storyline continues the series theme that the government may be corrupt, the international community naive in their support for a mythical peace process, but Jack Bauer is left as judge, jury and executioner. Jack as the lone, rogue soldier knows the real truth; that vengeance for the fallen cannot be achieved unless someone, like him, is willing to do the dirty work and bear the cost of having blood on their hands. The Fox Network series closes with rumors of a movie spin-off. Jack is a fugitive and an outcast, but those who know his motives, are grateful for his sacrifice. Joel Surnow, creator of 24, defines his show as “patriotic,” others may find this sort of entertainment to be a disturbing rationalization of war crimes.
- Knapper, Nate. “Jack Bauer ‘24’ and the Acceptance of Torture in American Culture,” The National Ledger, September 13, 2006.
- Faiz Shaker, “US Military: Television Series ‘24’ Is Promoting Torture in the Ranks,” Think Progress, February 13, 2007.
- Jane Mayer, “Whatever it Takes: The politics of the man behind 24.” The New Yorker, February 19, 2007.
- David Cole, “The Torture Veto,” The Nation, March 13, 2008.
- Jane Mayer, “Whatever it Takes.”
Geoff Martin is assistant professor of continuous learning and political science at Mount Allison University. Erin Steuter is professor of sociology at Mount Allison University. They are the authors of Pop Culture Goes to War: Enlisting and Resisting Militarism in the War on Terror.