The willingness of our so-called intellectuals to use fiction as a basis for justifying barbaric policy decisions is truly astounding.
I have written before about how people who should know better (and probably do) continue to evoke the TV program 24 to justify the use of torture because the main character routinely uses it to extract information from captives. It should come as no surprise that the creator of that program Joel Surnow describes himself as a “Bush fan” and plans to continue to use torture even though people who do interrogations professionally say that such practices are actually harmful.
In a recent New Yorker article (Whatever it takes by Jane Mayer, February 19, 2007), some senior army interrogators and trainers of soldiers tried to get the program to not push this idea so much because it was giving army recruits the wrong idea of what kinds of interrogation techniques work, let alone are legal.
This past November, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, flew to Southern California to meet with the creative team behind “24.” Finnegan, who was accompanied by three of the most experienced military and F.B.I. interrogators in the country, arrived on the set as the crew was filming. At first, Finnegan—wearing an immaculate Army uniform, his chest covered in ribbons and medals—aroused confusion: he was taken for an actor and was asked by someone what time his “call” was.
In fact, Finnegan and the others had come to voice their concern that the show’s central political premise—that the letter of American law must be sacrificed for the country’s security—was having a toxic effect. In their view, the show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected the training and performance of real American soldiers. “I’d like them to stop,” Finnegan said of the show’s producers. “They should do a show where torture backfires.”
Finnegan told the producers that “24,” by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally. Finnegan, who is a lawyer, has for a number of years taught a course on the laws of war to West Point seniors—cadets who would soon be commanders in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right. However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by “24,” which was exceptionally popular with his students. As he told me, “The kids see it, and say, ‘If torture is wrong, what about “24″?’ ” He continued, “The disturbing thing is that although torture may cause Jack Bauer some angst, it is always the patriotic thing to do.”
Gary Solis, a retired law professor who designed and taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, told me that he had similar arguments with his students. He said that, under both U.S. and international law, “Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted.”
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The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as “24″ circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.”
But Surnow does not care for the testimony of experts in interrogation because, like his hero George W. Bush, what matters is what he feels in his gut: “We’ve had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, ‘You don’t realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.’ They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that.”
So we have TV program creators helping to create a mindset in the country where illegal and immoral acts are considered just fine. When combined with media commentators and academics who also advocate barbaric acts, it is depressing but perhaps not surprising that there is little outcry when we hear of the torture of people held in the war on terror.
As Austin Cline points out in his essay Medicalizing torture and torturing medicine, the widening rot that is produced by encouraging and condoning torture extends to the medical profession. Torture cannot take place without the complicity of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel who have to treat the tortured and hide the evidence that it has occurred. Although the recent revelations about conditions at Walter Reed hospital had nothing to do with torture, he points out that it could not have escaped notice for so long without the complicity of medical personnel as well and he argues that it is due to a public mindset that is becoming increasingly comfortable with people being dehumanized.
Once we shrug our shoulders at people being tortured and rationalize it by saying that they would be treated worse by other countries, it is not that far a step to view mistreated hospital patients as whiners who should be grateful for what they get rather than complain about what they don’t get.