The Tortured Logic of Filtering Torture Through ’24’

Attention, pundit and political classes: Can we please, please, declare a moratorium on filtering the torture debate (or if you prefer, “harsh interrogation techniques,” or “enhanced interrogation methods”) through the prism of the Fox series “24”?

24_5PM6PM-running_0034  This is hardly a new issue, and one of the program’s co-creators, Joel Surnow, probably contributed to perpetuating the discussion in a chest-puffing New Yorker interview in 2007. In the piece, Surnow jokingly proclaimed himself a “right-wing nut job” and boasted about his relationship with Rush Limbaugh.

Seriously, though, I’m beginning to wonder if the punditocracy A) thinks its audience is so stupid that they can’t engage a policy discussion without dramatic visual aids; B) is so desperate to link news to pop culture that they’re grasping at straws; C) somehow made it all the way to adulthood without ever watching a James Bond or “Dirty Harry” movie; or D) thinks “24” is actually a reasonable facsimile of reality — you know, the kind of reality where African dictators can assault the White House by water with an elaborate Scuba attack. Sadly, it’s probably all of the above.

Yes, “24” premiered shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which made all those spy shows introduced that fall (the others being “Alias” and “The Agency”) seem oddly prescient, when it was mostly just one of those weird coincidences. As a consequence, the show’s questions about how far America and its defenders would go in the name of thwarting terrorism got sucked into the national discourse. As he suffered to save us, Jack Bauer went beyond being just the unluckiest counter-terrorism agent on the planet to become a symbol, especially for those who feel the end justifies virtually any means.

The convenient amnesia here is that there have always been heroes that pushed into vigilante territory, without trying to extrapolate from that to yield a referendum on torture. Bond had a license to kill, and did so cold-bloodedly. Dirty Harry shot down a suspect and stepped on the bleeding wound to get information. Batman swooped in from rooftops to mete out justice.

These characters are entertaining on a number of levels, not the least being that violence and vengeance can be extremely cathartic when they’re done well. But that doesn’t mean the people tuning in or anteing up for tickets are gung-ho to see alleged real-life terrorists and criminals dangled off buildings or have electrodes attached to their vital areas.

Perhaps conservatives were so desperate for a Hollywood production that appeared to endorse one of their own that they got carried away and sought to conjoin this hyper-stylized thriller to current events. My guess is it’s more a sign of the fact that news organizations see pop culture as the Holy Grail to lure younger viewers and women to newscasts they wouldn’t otherwise be caught dead watching. So we get Paris Hilton’s arrest being covered like a national emergency, and constant references to “24” in the context of how the public feels about torture and “ticking-bomb” scenarios.

Call me wacky, but I’d like to think that most people can tell the difference between fiction and reality. And if they can’t, then they’re such pathetic, hopelessly befuddled lost causes that they probably have a future in cable news.

Update: “The Daily Show” weighed in on torture in a big way on Tuesday, as Jon Stewart went back and forth with Cliff May, president of the impressive-sounding-but-I-have-no-idea-what-it-does Foundation for Defense of Democracies, one of those groups that seems to exist largely to have its founder/leader/front man booked on cable news.

Click here for the interview, which Comedy Central has broken into multiple parts.

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