Torture, 24 and the Recycled Art of Cruelty

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Torture, <i>24</i> and the Recycled Art of Cruelty

“Does torture work?” Donald Trump claims he asked intelligence officials. “The answer was yes, absolutely.”

During the Bush years, at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, FOX had a sensation on its hands with 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland as Counter Terrorist Unit super-agent Jack Bauer. A reboot, 24: Legacy, returns to television after the Super Bowl. The show comes equipped with a new hero-badass, Eric Carter (Corey Hawkins) and a new presidential candidate in Jimmy Smits, involved with the now tired real-time, imminent-terrorist-attack premise and panic.

The subtitle “Legacy” is a curious choice. 24’s real-world impact, its legacy as a piece of highly digestible pop culture entertainment, really does belong in actual history books when it comes to that tricky question of life and art and which one is leading the other around by the ear.

I’ll admit up front, I was a huge fan of the show and remained a viewer well into its exhausted obsolescence. As the country now swerves chaotically into the equivalent of a right-wing 9/11 via the Trump administration, I’d recommend putting Maggie Nelson’s 2011 book, The Art of Cruelty, in your queue. By the time you reach page 11, it reads as Nostradamus-level prescient.

As Nelson puts it, “Art which aims to extinguish the story behind the suffering and focus on the suffering itself partakes in a different, more insidious cruelty—that of depoliticization, of stripping cruelties from their contexts so that they seem pitiable, sensational, or inevitable, rather than contingent, avoidable, or explicable… Such forms of expression can seemingly act as an accomplice, even if unwittingly, to this cynicism, which turns its back on the hard work of ferreting out the reasons why a particular cruelty has occurred, who is responsible for it, who gains from it, and who suffers.”

The premise that seemingly escapist entertainment can actually intertwine and exacerbate policy seems, on the surface, just as specious as the notion that videogames are making children more violent. Yet there is a difference between a mode of entertainment causing aggression and a piece of propaganda creating a template for destructive political decisions.

24 was in the process of making its way back to television just as candidate Donald Trump was promising not only a return to water-boarding and a reinstitution of state-sanctioned torture but also targeting the families of suspected individuals for assassination and “a hell of a lot worse.” For the first time since the notion was dreamt up, an American presidential candidate ran on a platform promising war crimes.

During 24’s first run, each season was gleefully punctuated with Jack Bauer torturing mostly Arab men (although women and white people were by no means safe). The lesson of 24 was ground into the heads of viewers over and over: Jack Bauer was always correct to escalate and expand his brutality in order to save American lives from terrorists. He shot people, broke digits, cut off their heads, electrocuted them, injected a magic torture serum, and a hell of a lot worse. In the worldview of 24, any character squeamish about “getting their hands dirty” simply didn’t understand the stakes or the costs. The show egged on a hyper-masculine fantasy where brutality is the ultimate currency, where those reluctant to exercise efficient savagery are ultimately unmasked as cowards and punished appropriately.

This ethos—already well-established in cop shows where breaking the rules, infringing on people’s civil liberties, ignoring their constitutional rights, scoffing at the notion of a lawyer, and yes, beating the truth out of them—took a massive leap forward during 24’s most popular years. Suddenly, you saw the same reasoning take total primacy in most action films or television shows.

Take AMC’s perennially popular zombie show, The Walking Dead, which premiered this season with its new villain, the leather-jacketed, barbed-wire baseball bat wielding Negan barbarically bashing the heads of two main characters to a pulp while the rest of the cast looked on. The episode, airing roughly two weeks before the election, roped in 17 million viewers while being roundly criticized for its ugliness. Yet it’s not the violence of TWD but the lesson jammed down the viewer’s throat episode after episode, season after season: in order to survive, one must be willing to be the most ruthless, the most violent, the most brutal. Therefore, it’s not the explicit nature of The Walking Dead’s violence, but the ideology of violence it clearly preaches.

Is it any wonder that during the campaign a meme quickly made its way around social media: Donald Trump’s head on Negan’s body, hefting his barbed-wire bat, smirking down menacingly at Hillary Clinton’s coiffed blonde hair, making it clear who some of the shows’ viewers thought the real hero actually was. It didn’t take long for the Negan-as-a-post-apocalyptic-Trump take to bloom across the internet. When the show returns in a few weeks, the story will inexorably hurtle toward a moment when Rick Grimes and the rest of the protagonists realize within themselves an even deeper level of gruesome possibility in order to confront Negan.

But this is just television, you say. Everyone can understand the difference between life and art.

Which brings me back to The Art of Cruelty. Nelson spends a chapter of her book recounting 24’s most ignominious episode. As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq raged on, the U.S. military actually dispatched Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan to meet with the show’s creators to ask them to stop glorifying torture because it was a having a real-world effect on young soldiers. Lest we think poorly of those callow youths, let us not forget that late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, recalling Season 2 as justification for torture policy, said, “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives… Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? … Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.”

The sheer number of politicians and pundits who cited 24 as justification for torture reached the level of farce. Contrast this widely shared attitude with the Bush administration’s actual catastrophic policies. Not only was the torture program ineffective, it also created widespread enmity for the United States, aided in radicalization, and kept several actual terrorists from going to trial because evidence obtained through torture is not admissible. As the 2014 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee made clear, this entire program was a complete disaster. When 24: Legacy premiers, one wonders if the ticking digital clock will chronicle, in real time, CTU’s members sitting around trying to clean up eight years’ worth of intelligence failures and anti-American sentiment.

24’s return will coincide with the third week of our new chief executive, who proudly claims to never read and who clearly takes 100% of his news and views from television. He appoints or tries to appoint people like Monica Crowley and Larry Kudlow not for their expertise or credentials but because they frequent the infotainment he favors. Now he will move to fulfill his campaign promises while surrounded by a cadre of reactionaries at various legal and national security posts, men who seem all too eager to get a barbed-wire baseball bat in their hands. Mike Pompeo at CIA and Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor are both on record as defenders of that ripped-scab-sounding euphemism “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and even if Defense Secretary James Mattis doesn’t think those methods are effective, his boss certainly still does. Finally, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will make a fine rubber stamp for just about any abhorrent practice.

The thing about barbarism is that a little is never enough. If you start from the base of saying, “We are going to use these techniques,” you can bet when those techniques don’t work (as they will not, because the science tells us they don’t), getting “tougher” will be the only logical step for weak minds and craven souls.

When Barack Obama came into office, he immediately said there would be no investigation or prosecution of the clearly criminal behavior of the Bush administration. To call George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld et al., “war criminals” sounds like hyperbolic, partisan craziness, but now we’re about to find out why the rule of law matters so much. Because those torturers went unpunished, it’s going to be that much easier for the next set of sadist cowards thinking themselves brave to go over to, as Cheney famously put it, “the dark side.”

In The Art of Cruelty, Nelson warns against “the hope that shame, guilt, and even simple embarrassment are still operative principles in American culture and political life—and that such principles can fairly trump the forces of desensitization and self-justification. Such a presumption is sorely challenged by the seeming unembarrassability of the military, the government, corporate CEOs, and others repetitively caught in monstrous acts of irresponsibility and malfeasance.”

Art and life do not so much imitate each other as they are entwined in an ever-inscrutable symbiosis that’s impossible to predict, let alone control. One of the key issues of the coming four years will be the normalization of cruelty and barbaric behavior by the state. How do people of conscience stand against this? How do we prevent a slide into the cultural exaltation of cruelty that gins up an appetite for actual policy in a disturbing feedback loop? How do we stop this culture from sifting down through the ranks of the military and law enforcement? One wonders if anyone will stand up to Trump when, from the comfort of the Situation Room, our new president has his first opportunity to embolden interrogators with his wildest pop-culture-soaked fantasies.