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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 14:49 GMT 15:49 UK
The clock's ticking on torture
By Clive James

24's Jack Bauer
Just the facts, Jack
Anti-terror agent Jack Bauer routinely beats vital clues out of suspects in TV thriller 24. But West Point military academy has asked 24's makers to tone down the torture, worried that cadets might identify too strongly with his anti-terror tactics.

Somewhere in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, there is a nondescript building where the giant creative brains get together who are responsible for creating the TV show 24.

The show stars Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, the counter-terrorist who has only one day, spread over 24 episodes, each an hour long, to stave off the latest threat to civilisation mounted by terrorists whose sole trace of human consideration is their willingness to mount threats that will exactly fit the production company's format of 24 hour-long episodes (minus time for commercials).

Richly rewarded in their task by a huge flow of international revenue and the admiration of ultra-right-wing boneheads everywhere who think the show is an educational tool, the masterminds who produce 24 have been having a more than usually good time recently, because their show, which has always been prominent in the TV preview pages wherever it screens in the world, is now in the news pages as well.

Clive James
Alert to any ticking threat, Bauer would drive a Humvee through your bedroom wall to disarm your alarm clock
Clive James

The news stories focus on the show's alleged fondness for torture scenes in which counter-terrorist Bauer extracts from the terrorists the necessary information to disarm the ticking atomic bomb or the ticking bio-war canister or whatever else is ticking.

Alert to any ticking threat, Bauer would drive a Humvee through your bedroom wall to disarm your alarm clock. Bauer doesn't really want to torture the heavies, but he has to or else the microbe bomb will go off right there in Los Angeles and there will be no more seasons of 24 - or hope for mankind.

In some scenes Bauer has to get ruthless and grit his teeth even more than usual - and there's another question. How hard can an actor grit his teeth before they shatter? Kiefer Sutherland's father had long teeth even when he was young, but he merely bared them, he didn't grit them. Kiefer grits them to the point where you imagine a Ming vase in a vice. When will they explode? Twenty-four hours from now?

Licensed to torture

But back to the first question. The torture scenes where Bauer has to get ruthless and grit his teeth even more than usual have always been a standard gimmick in 24, but recently they've been headline news because the West Point military academy has asked the producers of 24 to tone the torture theme down.

West Point cadets at the US Military Academy's terrorism center
West Point cadets in a counter-terror class
Apparently West Point cadets think the show represents their country's real situation in a dangerous world, and they have started to envisage themselves as counter-terrorists first, soldiers second, giving scant thought to the exam question about what Custer should have done at the Little Big Horn, and looking forward instead to the first time when they will be obliged to grit their teeth and torture one or more ethnically-named terrorists in order to find - or locate, as the Americans say - the microbe bomb that will go off in 24 hours.

Even more disturbing than the possibility that officer cadets might be thinking like this is that the men they command may be thinking like this. American troops are apparently surging into Iraq with DVDs of 24 stashed in their kit. It was this last part that made my jaw drop. You mean there are still people who actually care enough about 24 to carry a DVD of it? I thought that anyone with a brain in his head quit watching 24 after the first season, when it had already become clear that Jack Bauer's daughter was going to go on getting kidnapped as often as she escaped.

Admittedly she wasn't always kidnapped by exactly the same bunch of kidnappers, but that was what was so strange. She would get away from one bunch of kidnappers and run towards another bunch of kidnappers. Eventually you figured out that this was what united all the world's terrorist groups, whatever their professed religious loyalties or political aims: the desire to kidnap Jack Bauer's daughter.

People in the business of extracting information are united in the belief that pain is a clumsy inducement and that persuasion works better
Clive James
When it got to the point where Bauer could never pick up the phone without being told all over again that his daughter had been kidnapped, I gradually stopped watching 24. After half a dozen seasons had gone by, I was tuning in only for the final hour when Bauer, having determined the location of the anthrax missile after torturing everyone else in the cast who was still alive, arrived in slow-motion counterpoint against the last seconds of the countdown with his gritted teeth poised to cut the red wire instead of the blue wire, or the blue wire instead of the red wire. But anyway it was bound to be the right wire because the information had been yielded to him along with the last agonised breath of the chief terrorist and therefore had to be true.

That last part is open to question even on the practical level. People in the business of extracting information are united in the belief that pain is a clumsy inducement and that persuasion works better. People questioned under torture will make up the wrong answer if they don't know the right one. And they can be quite resistant to torture, and even welcome it, if they think that the fact that you are torturing them proves that you are indeed the devil painted in their propaganda.

Extraordinary rendition

It really is a better plan to try proving to prisoners that they will eat better in your prison than they do at home. The only conceivable circumstances when torture is the only way is when time is tight, and the creatively fertile writers of 24 have to invent those circumstances because the ticking clock scenario is unlikely in real life. Terrorists usually take their time. The real problem is with people who want to be torturers.

At the Expose War Crimes, Criminalise War conference in Kuala Lumpur
The shadow of abuse in Abu Ghraib looms large
These include nearly all terrorists, but they also include, unless we're careful, far too many people in the home team. Abu Ghraib under the Americans would have been regarded as paradise by anyone who was in the same place under Saddam Hussein, but it has to be faced that the soldiers who were subsequently convicted of abuse weren't alone in their dumb eagerness to turn up for work there. There is always a supply of sadists in any army. The thing to avoid is creating the demand. Instructive, then, that West Point doesn't want the maniacs to be encouraged.

When democratic states favour torture, either directly by themselves or indirectly by rendition - a fancy word for handing over people you suspect of loathing you to people you know you loathe - it not only destroys the credibility of any claim you might have had to be defending a value, it also encourages the formation of a gung-ho, pseudo-realist, would-be-warrior caste that thinks that ruthless is not just permitted, but desirable, in order to rule by fear. But rule by fear works only if it's total.

In the old Soviet Union, a regime that did rule by fear right to the end, there would have been no question of the Red Army politely asking a Moscow television station to tone down its 24-part show about Janko Baurovitch torturing the captured CIA agent in order to locate the nerve gas capsule buried under Red Square.

The state would simply have declared its will. The US, despite what its countless enemies think, is not a state that can simply declare its will, which is the very reason why we aren't wasting our time when we vocalise our scorn after Vice President Dick Cheney's wife plays hostess to the creators of 24 as if they were a school of philosophers.


For the US, flirtation with torture would be a terrible strategy simply for the way it squanders the last of the goodwill that the Americans still had going for them at the end of WWII when the Germans surrendered in their direction. Even the Japanese got the point instantly when the first stick of gum appeared.

Abu Ghraib guard lights cigarette of a prisoner
Inside Abu Ghraib
In the US there has always been torture on the screen, both large and small. In NYPD Blue, a genuine television creation in a way that 24 conspicuously isn't, Andy Sipowicz routinely battered the truth out of the villains.

Whether what happens on the screen is a trigger for what happens in real life is a big question, but it turns out that even West Point thinks it might be. West Point representatives, when they go to Los Angeles to plead their case, have no weapon available to them except persuasion. They are up against one of the many drawbacks of a free society, which wouldn't be free if it weren't full of things we didn't like. In a free society, creative types are free to explore possibilities.

One of the possibilities that the 24 masterminds feel free to explore is the possibility that a state based on legality might not be strong enough to defend itself. The same possibility preoccupied Lincoln. The question might never be settled.

But the question about torture was settled more than 200 years ago, by Montesquieu. The first great exponent of multiculturalism, Montesquieu hailed its variety as a fact but also saw its drawback as an ideology. He could quite see that torture might be functional in some cultures, but he said it was wrong in all of them.

So it is, and we'll just have to find another way of getting at the truth if we are to foil the most frightening plan of the Universal Blessed Jihad against Jack Bauer's Daughter - to develop a microbe bomb that will blow up in 23 hours.

Thanks for your comments.

24 is a great TV show and is designed like a lot of shows to draw an audience by being controversial and shocking. It's perfect junk TV, that doesn't attempt to teach us right from wrong, simply to provide an hour of entertainment.
Claire Knowles, Cornwall, UK

Great discussion about torture. The one point which is seemingly not raised in the whole "War on terror" and extraordinary measures debate, is that torture is not an effective way to get to the truth. Torture is only a method of showing superiority and power over people.
Chris, Nazareth, Israel

Clive, it's a TV show that provides entertainment to the politically-moronic and educated alike. It is written to be suspenseful and, more importantly, to make Fox televison lots of money. I don't think it would have the same appeal if Jack Bauer was trying to extract vital information from terrorists with a pack of Juicy Fruit. Go back to watching Poirot and leave the chin-dribbling machismo to the rest of us boneheads.
Mike, US

Fascinating that people are so convinced that television has absolutely no effect on attitudes whatsoever. Clearly, it does - it just isn't obvious and conscious. What is on tv is what is culturally acceptable, especially when it's run for several series, and it is a source of much conventional wisdom. Add the idea that torture a) works, and is b) acceptable when your nation is under attack to the Milgram and Zimbardo experiments on the abuse of power, and you have a scary mix indeed.
Kaz, Macclesfield, UK

What a great article, it has left me with a very large smile on my face which in hindsight may well be perceived as a ghoulish enjoyment of all things within the torture domain. But I can put your mind back in a state of ease as it's the Americans that again have provided me with much amusement. West Point, I thought, taught people to become soldiers and is done (as in this country) by a stick regime of obedience, physical and mental exercise, and the learning of you specialised craft. Surely if a TV program is able to interfere with this form of training it's not the program maker's problem; if the training being offered was direct and absolute there would be little chance of it being diluted by the media. If this were to be the case then maybe we should show the American forces the back episodes of "the good life", may give them the edge in rebuilding what they were so ready to destroy.
Steve, Glasgow

I have never watched a full episode; out of curiosity I did start to watch one episode part way through. However, I found it unpalatable that someone with such a high profile (such as Kiefer) would jump on the bandwagon and become involved in anti-Muslim propaganda. Perhaps I didn't do it (24) justice by watching only few minutes, but it came at a time when everything Muslim was being branded as being bad.
Nawaz, UK

24 is a ludicrous but addictively entertaining TV show which is watched by millions of non-"right-wing boneheads" everywhere. Yes, a few stupid American military recruits will use it as a licence to do bad but the vast majority won't. Anyone with a brain in their head might suggest that Clive James actually watched the show (and not just half of series one) so he could be better informed and not write such fatuous columns. Another snobbish pseudo-intellectual having a cheap shot at America and popular culture. It's just a TV show.
N Murdoch, Scotland

The only serious questions I would raise would be directed more towards the boneheads who go around believing what they see on telly and copying such things. These people simply require a reality check.
James Owen, Lancashire, UK

Torture is a slippery slope and it separates the good guys from the bad. When you use torture where do you stop, old men? women? children? At what age to you start? what level is acceptable. Where do you stop. What do you say to the innocent!
James Clarke, UK

24 happens to take examples from the real world and translate them to screen - not the other way round. I doubt very much any one has watched 24 and been encouraged by terrorism. 24 hasn't hidden away from the dubious nature of torture and has in fact questioned its use throughout the seasons - maybe if you carried on watching it you would have seen that, and also noted how Kim has been absent (bar for three or so episodes in the last season). Jack is never shown to enjoy the torture scenes and actually offers up more psychological questions than perhaps you are willing to read into it.
Paul Blakeley, Maidstone

I've often wondered of some branch of the US government is involved in producing the scripts for 24. This probably isn't the case, but an administration intent on building public support for the War on Terror couldn't hope to produce better propaganda than 24. Maybe the writers just want a pat on the back from Bush.
Steve, UK

What is most disturbing is the inability of many young people to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction. Remember these young folk in the US Army are the same age as those at college who thought that the Lord of the Rings is historical fact...
Emma, Brighton


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