Jadedly cold and calculating intelligence officers and field operatives doing whatever it takes to stop terrorists and save lives, sometimes approaching a dangerous zone of sacrificing their own humanity in the process. Boorish bureaucrats making it difficult for interrogators and officials to get the clearance or opportunities necessary to save these lives. Ambitious, partisan politicians wanting America and our allies to be safe while also striving for influence, power, and prestige.
Is this the plot of the latest seasons of 24 or Homeland? Or is this description stripped from the headlines of the CIA Torture Report released by Democratic Senators days before they lose majority control of the chamber and the committee?
Earlier this week, I caught up on the fourth season of Homeland, a season that has reset the storyline of the gripping Showtime drama that follows CIA operative Carrie Matheson as she tries to stop terrorist plots around the world. This season has found Carrie struggling with her bipolar disorder as she coordinates the CIA field office in Pakistan in the aftermath of a drone strike-gone-horribly-wrong. A significant reason the show has returned to its first-season, Emmy-award winning glory is its reflection of our nation’s most recent foreign policy debates, from drone strikes and uneasy alliances with corrupt regimes in the Middle East to the attacks on our embassy in Benghazi.
The debates on the show mirror the debates happening in the halls of Congress and on our social media pages. But this is nothing new. Political reporter Matt Bai, in his recent post “The ‘24’ Effect,” poses the question whether 24 convinced us that torture really works. Bai excellently discerns the effect of 24 on our national conversation, stating:
“What we do know, looking back now, is that “24” became, in some ways, a stand-in for the national debate on torture that the political class never wanted to have and that the rest of us never demanded. Instead of hearing this argument about morality and urgency play out in the Capitol or in the media, Americans watched the show and discussed it among ourselves, instead, in lunchrooms or online.”
Yet Matt Bai mischaracterizes 24, its place in this pop culture debate, and its politics.
Like much of the media’s recent portrayal of the national debate on torture, his analysis is far too broad. It lacks necessary nuance required to fully analyze these issues.
When Bai and others state that 24 and its pop culture lineage could be the cause for why so many believe that torture really works, they not only mischaracterize what the tales of Jack Bauer, Carrie Matheson, Jason Bourne and others stand for, but they also underestimate the complexity of most Americans’ beliefs about torture.
Let there be no doubt: 24, especially in its early seasons, often glamorized torture in overly simplistic storylines straight out of our biggest fears after 9/11. But later seasons revealed more nuance and consequences of torture, revealing personal, political, and legal costs for all parties involved, including the United States of America. But shows like 24 and Homeland do not have to be determinative of our beliefs on torture. Rather, these fictional worlds can lead us to a more open dialogue about our country’s present realities and what morality requires of our leaders and soldiers on a very murky battlefield.
Some pop culture history…
The premiere of 24 was delayed after 9/11 due to the eerily sensitive storyline in the pilot in which a terrorist blew up a commercial airliner. Once the first season concluded, the series went on to capture the changing times and mores during the George W. Bush administration. There were controversies about the depiction of Muslim-Americans, plotlines questioning the definitions, efficacy and necessity of torture, and even subtle reflections upon the effects of torture upon the wrongfully tortured and the torturer.
No scene seems more prescient than the opening scene of Season 7 that found Jack Bauer testifying before a Congressional hearing concerning an incident in which he tortured someone.
While Matt Bai and others may conclude that the series was an unabashed defense of torture whenever a rogue agent deems it necessary, this scene reveals otherwise. Embedded in that brief scene are the ideas that (a) torture is illegal and should be illegal as a public policy, (b) the definitions of torture are not always clear, (c) circumstances could provide mitigating or aggravating factors that could come to bear on convicting someone of torture, and (d) there may be some officials who admit that torture is wrong and yet are still willing to pay the legal, personal, and political prices for what they deem is the greater good.
Homeland has further muddied the media waters on these points, as the morally ambiguous, Obama-era successor to 24. On Homeland, rogue agents conducting enhanced interrogations aren’t mythical hero archetypes like Jack Bauer, but instead volatile, unstable individuals. Does that make their decisions right or wrong? The viewer is left to wade through the ambiguous causes and effects of the characters’ actions in the service of security and liberty. The answers are not clear.
Through these shows, we get a glimpse into the nuances of the real decisions and wars our nation, its leaders, and its servicemen and women face every day. Talking points such as “Torture never works” and “Torture always works” ring true only if spoken into a vacuum separated from the rest of society. Yet these characters remind us that no such vacuum exists. Fallible human beings must make tough decisions in the face of real danger to save their fellow man.
This does not mean that, having watched these shows, we now believe that torture is ever right or morally permissible, nor does it drive us to making utilitarian calculations that trample upon the imago dei of fellow humans. But ironically, these fictitious scenes force our cultural, legal, and political debates into a realm of reality instead of the ideological ivory towers of academia and social media.
Certain components of this debate are clear: torture is immoral and criminal. Period. The public policy of the United States and any other civilized nation should be a strict prohibition against torture. Full stop.
But some important questions remain, e.g. which techniques constitute torture and should there be mitigating circumstances considered when sentencing someone convicted of torture? It is imperative that we get away from extreme statements when discussing torture and acknowledge that there is as much need for nuance in this debate as there is for courage to stick to our strong ideals and principles in the face of fear.
As 24 and Homeland have done, we must take an honest look at the threats we face, the ideals we hold, the lines we refuse to cross, and a judicial system that upholds the rule of law while realizing there may be some men and women out there willing to push the envelope and accept whatever consequences may come.
This is an important debate worthy of great nations and great people, and must not simply be left to great characters on great TV shows.
Joseph Williams is a constitutional lawyer and ERLC Associate Research Fellow.