Joel Surnow is the man behind FOX’s popular action drama, 24. Personally, I like 24. Despite the show getting increasingly insane, I find it enjoyable. Jack Bauer does, in fact, kick ass. But I also recognize it’s fiction. Torture works on 24, every time, but – perhaps because I’m a member of the reality-based community – I know that torture does not work in real life.
Generally, I’m not a person who will run away from art – or even just popular media like a TV show – because I disagree with it’s politics. In fact, I tend to make fun of people who stopped listening to Green Day just because of the lyrics of “American Idiot”, or stopped watching Battlestar Galactica because they had the humans utilize the tactic of suicide bombing against an occupying Cylon force, and showed the insurgency in a positive light, or boycotted the Dixie Chicks because they said they were embarrassed that Bush was from Texas. While I’ve had some issues with 24 (the fact that they demonized a lawyer who insisted due process was applied to a US citizen was especially obnoxious), I can live with the fact that Jack Bauer tortures and maims, and never gets the wrong man (unlike real life), because our current real life anti-terror policy would make a lousy action drama. The ticking time bomb scenario really doesn’t exist.
Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, ?Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ?ticking time bomb? situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.? According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book ?Torture and Democracy,? the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lart?guy?s 1960 novel ?Les Centurions,? written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book?s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of ?Les Centurions? provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lart?guy?s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies?that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.
And now we reach our dilemma – 24 is, more often than not, a thrilling counter-terrorism ride. Crazy plot twists, a willingness to kill any character (other than Jack), and a race against the terrorists to stop the most over-elaborate plots you’ve ever seen. I can live with some of it’s abuses, because I know it’s fantasy. Unfortunately, it seems like many do not, and so we get to the point where mass media is distorting the view people have of reality.
For all its fictional liberties, ?24? depicts the fight against Islamist extremism much as the Bush Administration has defined it: as an all-consuming struggle for America?s survival that demands the toughest of tactics. Not long after September 11th, Vice-President Dick Cheney alluded vaguely to the fact that America must begin working through the ?dark side? in countering terrorism. On ?24,? the dark side is on full view. Surnow, who has jokingly called himself a ?right-wing nut job,? shares his show?s hard-line perspective. Speaking of torture, he said, ?Isn?t it obvious that if there was a nuke in New York City that was about to blow?or any other city in this country?that, even if you were going to go to jail, it would be the right thing to do??
Since September 11th, depictions of torture have become much more common on American television. Before the attacks, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year, according to Human Rights First, a nonprofit organization. Now there are more than a hundred, and, as David Danzig, a project director at Human Rights First, noted, ?the torturers have changed. It used to be almost exclusively the villains who tortured. Today, torture is often perpetrated by the heroes.? The Parents? Television Council, a nonpartisan watchdog group, has counted what it says are sixty-seven torture scenes during the first five seasons of ?24??more than one every other show. Melissa Caldwell, the council?s senior director of programs, said, ? ?24? is the worst offender on television: the most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in the trend of showing the protagonists using torture.?
Gordon, who is a ?moderate Democrat,? said that it worries him when ?critics say that we?ve enabled and reflected the public?s appetite for torture. Nobody wants to be the handmaid to a relaxed policy that accepts torture as a legitimate means of interrogation.? He went on, ?But the premise of ?24? is the ticking time bomb. It takes an unusual situation and turns it into the meat and potatoes of the show.? He paused. ?I think people can differentiate between a television show and reality.?
In fact, the US Military Academy (ie, West Point) says the show is having a very real, very caustic effect.
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.?
Surnow skipped out on the meeting. I wonder why. Even Kiefer Sutherland, the actor who plays Jack Bauer, is able to portray the hero, whose actions he condemns, and separate the real from the fantasy.
Afterward, Danzig and Finnegan had an on-set exchange with Kiefer Sutherland, who is reportedly paid ten million dollars a year to play Jack Bauer. Sutherland, the grandson of Tommy Douglas, a former socialist leader in Canada, has described his own political views as anti-torture, and ?leaning toward the left.? According to Danzig, Sutherland was ?really upset, really intense? and stressed that he tries to tell people that the show ?is just entertainment.? But Sutherland, who claimed to be bored with playing torture scenes, admitted that he worried about the ?unintended consequences of the show.? Danzig proposed that Sutherland participate in a panel at West Point or appear in a training film in which he made clear that the show?s torture scenes are not to be emulated. (Surnow, when asked whether he would participate in the video, responded, ?No way.? Gordon, however, agreed to be filmed.) Sutherland declined to answer questions for this article, but, in a recent television interview with Charlie Rose, his ambivalence about his character?s methods was palpable. He condemned the abuse of U.S.-held detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq, as ?absolutely criminal,? particularly for a country that tells others that ?democracy and freedom? are the ?way to go.? He also said, ?You can torture someone and they?ll basically tell you exactly what you want to hear. . . . Torture is not a way of procuring information.? But things operate differently, he said, on television: ?24,? he said, is ?a fantastical show. . . . Torture is a dramatic device.?
Unfortunately, we are starting to see real evidence (and review the original article for more anecdotal evidence) supporting the claim that the show is having an effect on the real world. While I’m sure that many people who work on the show, like Sutherland or Gordon, don’t intend such an effect, I have little doubt that Surnow does.
The meeting, which lasted a couple of hours, had been arranged by David Danzig, the Human Rights First official. Several top producers of ?24? were present, but Surnow was conspicuously absent. Surnow explained to me, ?I just can?t sit in a room that long. I?m too A.D.D.?I can?t sit still.? He told the group that the meeting conflicted with a planned conference call with Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News Channel. (Another participant in the conference call attended the meeting.) Ailes wanted to discuss a project that Surnow has been planning for months: the d?but, on February 18th, of ?The Half Hour News Hour,? a conservative satirical treatment of the week?s news; Surnow sees the show as offering a counterpoint to the liberal slant of ?The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.?
A few pointers – I think people who think “The Half Hour News Hour” is a good idea are completely missing the point of TDS. TDS is a satire of news programs, not conservative politicians. TDS makes people of all political stripes equal opportunity targets. TDS is a comedy show, on a comedy network. “The Half Hour News Hour” is a conservative hitman, taking swings at liberals for being liberal, not for doing something stupid, and perhaps most ironically (if the aim is to be “TDS for conservatives”), running on a news network! “The Half Hour News Hour” misses the mark, and it does so in a painfully unfunny way.
Fox News Channel does not know how to do slashing comical commentary. The channel debuts “The 1/2 Hour News Hour” at 10 p.m. Sunday and repeats it at 10 p.m. Feb. 25. This show was meant to be a conservative version of “The Daily Show.” It is a botch.
“The 1/2 Hour News Hour” does not comment on what is happening; it simply takes swipes at people. These people include Howard Dean, Hillary Clinton, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama and Ed Begley Jr. Other joke topics are the ACLU, Time magazine, children’s books and global warming.
Laughter, of an awfully canned variety, greets all the gags. Nothing happening on screen justifies these outbursts.
Hey, I’m all for a good dig at the high and the mighty. But these satirists fall short of hitting their targets with wit, timeliness or punch.
Which raises the point: What is a comedy show doing on a news channel?
“The 1/2 Hour News Hour” was developed by Joel Surnow, who has given the world many minutes of entertainment through “24.” On the basis of the premiere, Surnow should stick to political thrillers.
Don’t believe it? Check out this incredibly racist bit from the forthcoming debut episode of the show.
It seems clear that Surnow is not treating 24 as a piece of art, intended to ask hard questions and challenge beliefs, even if I don’t like the questions. No, it seems clear that it’s intended to be propaganda.
Surnow?s rightward turn was encouraged by one of his best friends, Cyrus Nowrasteh, a hard-core conservative who, in 2006, wrote and produced ?The Path to 9/11,? a controversial ABC miniseries that presented President Clinton as having largely ignored the threat posed by Al Qaeda. (The show was denounced as defamatory by Democrats and by members of the 9/11 Commission; their complaints led ABC to call the program a ?dramatization,? not a ?documentary.?) Surnow and Nowrasteh met in 1985, when they worked together on ?The Equalizer.? Nowrasteh, the son of a deposed adviser to the Shah of Iran, grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, where, like Surnow, he was alienated by the radicalism around him. He told me that he and Surnow, in addition to sharing an admiration for Reagan, found ?L.A. a stultifying, stifling place because everyone thinks alike.? Nowrasteh said that he and Surnow regard ?24? as a kind of wish fulfillment for America. ?Every American wishes we had someone out there quietly taking care of business,? he said. ?It?s a deep, dark ugly world out there. Maybe this is what Ollie North was trying to do. It would be nice to have a secret government that can get the answers and take care of business?even kill people. Jack Bauer fulfills that fantasy.?
In recent years, Surnow and Nowrasteh have participated in the Liberty Film Festival, a group dedicated to promoting conservatism through mass entertainment. Surnow told me that he would like to counter the prevailing image of Senator Joseph McCarthy as a demagogue and a liar. Surnow and his friend Ann Coulter?the conservative pundit, and author of the pro-McCarthy book ?Treason??talked about creating a conservative response to George Clooney?s recent film ?Good Night, and Good Luck.? Surnow said, ?I thought it would really provoke people to do a movie that depicted Joe McCarthy as an American hero or, maybe, someone with a good cause who maybe went too far.? He likened the Communist sympathizers of the nineteen-fifties to terrorists: ?The State Department in the fifties was infiltrated by people who were like Al Qaeda.?
In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of ?24? as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration?s ?torture memo??which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees?invokes the show in his book ?War by Other Means.? He asks, ?What if, as the popular Fox television program ?24? recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?? Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show?s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. ?They love Jack Bauer,? she noted on Fox News. ?In my mind, that?s as close to a national referendum that it?s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we?re going to get.? Surnow once appeared as a guest on Ingraham?s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, ?it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.? Surnow joked, ?We love to torture terrorists?it?s good for you!?
In a more sober tone, he said, ?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. I don?t think it?s honest to say that if someone you love was being held, and you had five minutes to save them, you wouldn?t do it. Tell me, what would you do? If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I?d do it. There is nothing?nothing?I wouldn?t do.? He went on, ?Young interrogators don?t need our show. What the human mind can imagine is so much greater than what we show on TV. No one needs us to tell them what to do. It?s not like somebody goes, ?Oh, look what they?re doing, I?ll do that.? Is it??
I’m starting to have a hard time justifying, no matter how enjoyable I find the fiction, nor how much I enjoy Sutherland as an actor, continuing to support this propaganda. Outside of the context it was designed to influence, propaganda can be excellent entertainment, or even beautiful art. But in this context, 24 appears to be harmful. It seems like too many people cannot separate the fantasy from the reality. Maybe it’s time to stop watching this program and encouraging Surnow and his propagandizing.