Monday, September 7, 2009

24’s Tortuous Logic

Last Spring, President Obama released the “Torture Memos” in an effort to close “a dark and painful chapter in our history.” Instead, he reignited a national debate on the issue. Fox’s hit show, 24, incorporates news items like this and for many Americans, provides the framework in which to think about the problem. An espionage series occurring in real time, the show depicts U.S. Government agents combating terrorist threats to the country. With a storyline like that, the show can look at the torture question from a variety of angles and vantage points. The thoughts and emotions of the interrogator, suspect, and victims are all on display for the viewing public to see and discuss. Tonight’s episode will be debated tomorrow at the water cooler.

The most recent season, especially, supplies ammo for both sides. The pro-torture camp can cite the show’s hero Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, who constantly talks about “national security” and “doing what’s necessary.” On the other hand, there are plenty of incidents, from mistaken identities to blowback, which provide fodder for torture opponents. Nevertheless, 24’s attempt to be balanced should mislead the viewer into thinking the show’s writers are neutral; far from it. There is an underlying preference for interrogation techniques so advanced, they would make even Dick Cheney blush. For instance, take this quote from Jack Bauer in the season finale:

“You took an oath. You made a promise to uphold the law. When you cross that line, it always starts off with a small step. Before you know it, you're running as fast as you can in the wrong direction just to justify why you started in the first place. These laws were written by much smarter men than me. And in the end, I know that these laws have to be more important than the 15 people on the bus. I know that's right. In my mind, I know that's right. I just don't think my heart could ever have lived with that. I guess the only advice I can give you is... try to make choices that you can live with.”

Bauer has conceded nothing to the other side up till this point, but he appears to acquiesce, at least partially, to the anti-torture camp. But notice he is placing the burden of proof on them. Jack’s testimony that he could not live with the deaths of innocents is meant to convince the listener of the guilt he would most certainly feel in that situation too. In other words, the person who tortures has a clear conscience while the person who does not will be burdened by guilt. The anti-torture advocate has a hurdle to overcome which the pro-torture defender does not.

What Jack leaves out of the moral equation is the guilt which will come from torturing the suspect. Furthermore, he places the responsibility for the deaths of the innocents on the wrong set of shoulders. The interrogator did not place a bomb on the bus, the terrorist did.

Regardless, this reevaluation of the scenario is still unable to address a host of other problems. The people on the bus are certainly innocent while the suspect probably is not. Moreover, even if the interrogator is not personally responsible for the attack, he will surely feel guilt of some kind. Finally, placing guilt on a set of scales is rather subjective. When the stakes are so high, ‘what your gut tells you’ can be a bit fuzzy. All of these complications suggest scrapping Bauer’s view and looking elsewhere for a solution.

In an earlier episode, the character Jonas Hodges, played by Jon Voight, says the following: “But do not forget that every war worth fighting involves collateral damage. And what we're doing is fundamentally and absolutely necessary.”

Hodges is a villian in the show, but his reasoning is eerily similar to Bauer’s. Both justify ‘necessary’ actions despite the collateral damage which results. Even their situations are similar, something Hodges points out to Bauer. They were both employed by the government to do unsavory things and are now being attacked by that same employer for those very actions. Jack is unable to rebut Hodges’ claim about their similarities, so he simply dismisses it.

Bauer’s defenders would probably argue that Hodges engages in actions Jack would never do, like directly attack innocent civilians. But Jack is open to doing such things, which he demonstrates when he tells FBI Agent Renee Walker to ‘visit’ a guilty Secret Service Agent’s wife and two year old child in order to get the him to reveal critical information. Bauer does not flinch when Walker’s boss, Larry Moss, questions the morality of torturing innocents in the name of the greater good. Even a toddler is not immune to Bauer’s utilitarian calculus. The difference, in the end, between Bauer and Hodges is only a matter of degree; Hodges is willing to attack more innocents.

By displaying Hodges claim and Jack’s curt dismissal of it, the writers hint at the moral equilavence between the show’s hero and villian. This can only be hinted at because most viewers would be unwilling to admire Jack if he was no different from Hodges. This is probably why we never see Jack torture a child or the wrong person. By hearing his words, but not seeing the corresponding deed, the viewer’s disapproval is averted. Traditionally, the line between heroes and villians has been a clear one: there are certain things bad guys will do, which good guys will not. As Larry Moss tells Bauer, “It’s the rules which make us better, Jack.” But more and more, we are seeing writers and directors say that line is fuzzy. From The Dark Knight to 3:10 to Yuma, the traditional division of labor is either called into question or eliminated altogether.

24 does not go that far, but the suggestion is there. The belief that the old distinction no longer suffices is based on the idea that we live in a world more complicated than the one our parents grew up in. The complexity of the world creates situations and dilemmas which were unimaginable before now. This is the justification for why Jack has to do things which we find morally questionable.

Obviously, aspects of this claim are true. The Spanish Inquisitors never had to deal with a ticking time bomb scenario. Modern Technology creates a whole host of possibilities which have never been contemplated before: the number of casualties, the speed of the attack and so on. Yet torture is not new; it is as old as civilization itself. The situations might change, but the principles at stake do not. The questions raised by torture are in the end simple and straightforward: Do the ends justify the means? Is there such a thing as an intrinsically evil act? If so, what particular acts would fall under that category? Is torture one of them? These are the fundamental issues at the heart of the debate. And it does not matter whether we are discussing it in the modern or middle ages.

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