Jack Bauer, Homeland, and the CIA Torture Report

December 12, 2014

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
Joseph Williams is a constitutional lawyer and ERLC Associate Research Fellow.

Joseph Williams

Joseph Williams, a native Tennessean, is an attorney and founding partner of The Peacefield Group, a legal and policy consulting firm in Nashville. Prior to founding The Peacefield Group, he practiced law at the American Center for Law & Justice, advising national and international clients.  Before beginning his legal career, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24