Saturday, October 27, 2007

Jack Bauer's Turn for the Worse

Jumping the shark doesn't even begin to describe what is going on with 24, especially Season 7. Not even close. There has to be some other catchphrase for veering so completely off course that the show becomes unwatchable. 24 has accomplished that, both in plot and theme. *Obligatory spoiler alert*

As for plot, not only is Tony Almeida, who played an uneasy Tonto to Jack Bauer's Lone Ranger, alive -- but he is the bad guy for this season. 24 has always required suspension of disbelief. So bringing Tony back from the dead isn't completely shocking. But turning Tony into a terrorist leader is so wrong that I cannot even speak clearly. 24 has always made plot supreme to all non-Jack characters. But character development has to mean something. Just because Tony and Jack have had an uneasy relationship is not enough for Tony to be the bad guy.

Thematically, 24 has been at the forefront of our national debate about torture. Jack has rarely hesitated to use all means necessary to either stop a suspected terrorist or get the information he needs. And the new season begins with Jack defiantly telling Senator Red Forman that he does not apologize for what he did. But 24's "contribution" to the debate has always come with a basic assumption: torture works. If you send Jack Bauer alone in the room with the terrorist, the Truth will come out. If you start from the presupposition that the ends will always turn out right, it becomes easier to make the ends justifying the means as your primary argument. If you create scenarios in which the evil mastermind will tell you exactly when the ticking time bomb planted in the subway station will go off if you only smack him hard enough, wave a gun in his face and threaten to inject him with a disabling potion, it becomes that much easier to convince viewers that torture is a necessary evil.*

But that isn't how it works in practice. Because we know that we don't want to have bamboo shoots under our toenails or want to be waterboarded or be put on the rack, we assume that our enemies will give it all up to avoid that pain. It goes to human nature's desire to avoid unnecessary pain. But read this memo. It may have been written over 60 years ago, but human nature hasn't changed much since then. You cannot beat the truth out of the opposition. Some of them harden and will see stoically taking your abuse as a point of pride (cf. how our soliders heroically state "name, rank, serial number" upon capture and Sen. John McCain's shame that he signed a propaganda statement as a result of torture**). Others will tell you what they think you want to hear if it will stop the beatings. But the notion that torture is automatically effective is a dogma that should be put to rest. Until 24 is willing to truly look at the issue from all sides of the debate, it doesn't deserve the soapbox it so clearly relishes.

* -- 24 has gone beyond "necessary evil" into the realm of torture porn. If you look at the comments section, apparently the UK version of the trailer included this exchange.
Female agent to Jack: Torture him if you have to.
Jack: I'm going to enjoy this.
I don't even know what to say. Even if we accept the argument that sometimes torture is a necessary evil (i.e. the ticking time bomb scenario), torture should not be relished. Whatever torture may do to its victim, the effect on the perpetrator is monstrous. Torture makes its victim subhuman -- and allows the torturer to treat another human being as such. The psychological effect is stunning. If 24 is going to advance the "ends justify the means" argument, they should have the dignity to make Jack the reluctant hero rather than the gleeful torturer.

** -- Sen. McCain signing a clumsy propaganda statement is not proof that torture works. He refused to sign a second statement, resulting in 2 or 3 beatings per day. He could have been released early, but refused, taking nearly six years of additional beatings. Look at the general lack of information and cooperation from our soldiers in Vietnam and compare the methods of the Viet Cong to those used by Hans Joachim Scharff -- you have more success interrogating your enemies if you don't violate basic human rights.