Torture and '24' - because it hurts us less than the real thing?

The fiction is that it makes any kind of sense


The terrorism action show "24" is now thought to be such heady stuff to the average American, media sources have decided to complain about it. And what is the objection? The contrived plots or the utterly unrealistic grasp and use of technology? No, it's the torture.

New Yorker magazine just spun out a longish piece on how Joel Surnow, "24's" creator, is a right-winger with all the wrong friends - like talk-radio celebrity Rush Limbaugh. The show "...'makes people look at what we’re dealing with' in terms of threats to national security," is one quote the magazine attributes to him. This being the case, it is said the Bush administration loves "24."

Vexingly, that would seem to indicate some people in high places believe one can carry suitcase nukes under the arm and that computerized detonators for them are put in the trust of a teenager and stored in a shoebox hidden in a wall of a ranch house in the San Fernando Valley until needed. In this season's story, terrorists have to go through a contortion to get one nuke to work, combining two separate parts, at which point it blows up Valencia. Despite that, in subsequent episodes no one really panics and the freeways and surface streets of LA are still clear for further high-speed chases.

The principal objection, however, as explained by the New Yorker and later, the Los Angeles Times' entertainment section - yes, entertainment - is that "24's" torture is not sufficiently realistic. A committee of protesting human righs activists and pro interrogators had been assembled in Hollywood to insist that, surprise, torture doesn't work as shown on TV and that "24's" makers should desist because viewers nationwide were getting the wrong idea. "They wanted '24' to show subjects taking weeks or months to break, spitting out false or unreliable intelligence..." wrote the LA Times. "You don't get neat, tidy answers like you do on television," groused one ex-interrogator.

The complaint must elicit gales of cynical laughter. People are being misled on torture? ORLY? You don't say!

Your GlobalSecurity.Org Senior Fellow's indirect experience with torture in the war came about through the London ricin trial. During late 2004 and early 2005, in the course of it, journalist Duncan Campbell, working for the defense, shared evidence from the trial with me in consultation over the provenance of the poisons recipes seized at Wood Green. While this was going on, it was made clear that the prosecution had built its ideas on the alleged plot from the statements of an informer, Mohammed Meguerba.

I was told Meguerba was in Algerian who had been tortured and later recanted his confession. Therefore, he would not be brought as a witness, his testimony would not be told to a jury and the prosecution would have to link the accused to al Qaeda and a poison plot in some other manner. This the British government could not do and the ricin terror trial subsequently collapsed, with loner Kamel Bourgass committed to prison.

On the American side, the US government linked the London ricin ring to Iraq and al Qaeda in one infamous slide from Colin Powell's presentation on the reasons for war to the UN Security Council in February 2003. The slide pictured "a detained al Qai'da operative" as the nexus for the information. This was a man named Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who, as it turned out, was also tortured. A Senate report issued last year made it clear that not only had al-Libi been abused but also that he made up being an agent of al Qaeda in order to gain better treatment.

Between Meguerba and al-Libi, two disparate sources, the alleged London ricin ring became the center of something which appeared as a perfect storm of torture. The consequence - very bad information that wound up a useful product in the campaign to sell war with Iraq.

This is far beyond what Joel Surnow and writers could come up with for any episode of "24." And it is not because Jack Bauer's torture subjects crack too quickly and always give precise information, but because it would be hooted out of development as being too nonsensical, as serving nothing. In "24" torture is mercilessly logical, moving the show forward, providing key bits of information necessary for episodes to fit together in a straight line before the ticking of the clock expires, not ammo for rationalizing a meat-grinding war that has no end.

Perhaps a slightly different explanation for the success of "24" is in order, rather than the simple media construct that Jack Bauer is the kind of person Americans like to think is on the ramparts in the war on terror. Maybe it's because to contemplate for more than moments what has actually gone on is too painful. Experts can't even assemble all the bits of bad juju accumulated from torturing since 9/11 in one place and no one wants to hear about it anyway. There is no story other than confusion and one suspects large parts of this will never be told because it's too shameful to bear.

In "24" there is no such mystery. Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, a grimace contorting his face, plods always forward toward the next commercial break. Even the computer tech support guy in America's anti-terror bunker is agonized. The head terrorist, needing to find someone to arm his remaining suitcase nukes, chooses the IT guru because everyone knows network certification for classified computers involves learning about small atomic bombs and the protocol must be tortured from him. ®

George Smith is a Senior Fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, a defense affairs think tank and public information group. At Dick Destiny, he blogs his way through chemical, biological and nuclear terror hysteria, often by way of the contents of neighborhood hardware stores.


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