Much has already been written about Fox’s 24 and its role in mainstreaming the use of torture. (The show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer, is a frequent and effective torturer.) But the seventh season of the show, which premiered Sunday, seems to be turning away from the incidental normalization of torture (in which torture was shown to be necessary and effective but was rarely discussed) and is now instead making an explicit argument for the use of torture. I won’t spoil much about the two-episode premier by telling you that Jack Bauer was called before a Senate hearing to account for his “crimes,” but was conveniently pulled away at the last minute because of a pressing national security matter. Kevin Drum also watched on Sunday. He writes:
[I]t’s obvious that the show is going to deal head on with the subject of torture this season… Is there any way for this end other than badly? After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don’t live in the world of 24, guys. And we don’t. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won’t do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it’s your call blah blah? Pretty low, I’d guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.
After watching the third and fourth episodes of the season on Monday night, I’d be pretty surprised if Kevin is surprised by the writers. Over at Kevin’s blog (where there’s a great discussion going on in the comments), commenter Cuttle gets it exactly right, and is worth quoting at length:
I just don’t see how this premiere could be seen as anything but defiantly pro-torture. It could have been scripted by Dick Cheney. The senator questioning Jack, the show’s hero, was held up as an enemy of America for deploring, and wishing to punish, techniques that had allegedly saved American lives.
In the second (Monday night) half, the FBI agent goes from disapproving of Jack’s torture techniques to using them herself on a man in a hospital bed, all under the rubric of the “ticking bomb” defense.
And of course “regular” people, like the FBI driver, are on Jack’s side against those nasty liberal senators. The point of Jack’s little speech to that guy about how the hearings are probably necessary, etc., is clearly that the American people need to know just what terrible things (e.g., torture) a good patriot like Jack is required to do to keep them safe.
I haven’t really been surprised by 24‘s actual plot points in a long time (this season’s terrorist plot seems to be a healthy mix of Die Hard 2 and 4), but I was definitely blown away by how the show seems to be throwing away any veneer of ambiguity about torture this season. The message is actually quite simple: the “law”, the “rules,” the morality or immorality of torture—all that gets in the way of what The Good Guys have to do to keep us safe. Liberal pantywaists, while perhaps (Perhaps! We don’t know yet whether Nasty Liberal Senator #1, played by Red from That 70’s Show, is actually conspiring against The Good Guys) well-meaning, are just getting in the way of The Good Guys doing their jobs. That’s it – that’s the whole message thus far. It’s really just the basic wingnut defense of torture. If I wanted that, I could just read RedState.
Thankfully, I won’t have to depend exclusively on 24 for my America-in-the-age-of-terrorism television for much longer. Battlestar Galactica returns on Friday, and that show at least knows how to make viewers challenge their assumptions. There’s no character on BSG that is a “Good Guy” in the way Jack Bauer is. They’ve all done questionable things, and viewers are never explicitly told who is right or who to root for. They all have doubts. Jack, as he so proudly told Nasty Liberal Senator #1, has none. Absolute moral certainty is probably Bauer’s most prominent character trait, and it’s one he shares with the real-world president and vice-president of the United States, who authorized the use of torture. Like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Jack Bauer knows that whatever he did was the right thing to do. Even if it wasn’t.