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February 14, 2007

Filed under: movies»television»24


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?"

That's the creator of 24, Joel Surnow, speaking to the New Yorker. He's responding to criticisms by civil rights lawyers (including the dean of West Point) that 24 has made it harder for the Army to discourage abusive behaviors among recruits, for whom the show provides a compelling "time bomb" scenario of the kind largely dismissed by intelligence experts. Note that Surnow does not technically refute whether or not the experts are right and torture doesn't work. He's more interested in whether or not someone would torture, regardless of efficacy, when placed in a crisis situation. I thought I had a grim outlook on humanity, but combined with Surnow's statement that "young interrogators don't need our show," this is a quote from someone who lives in a pretty harsh internal life.

Before I get into the issue of this, can I mention how writing about these kinds of issues makes a mockery of my home-grown categorization system? Is this in "movies," where I've decided to put the television posts for the flimsiest of reasons? Or is it "politics," due to the outrageously wingnutty content of the show? These are the reasons that my "random" folder has become increasingly cluttered.

But excuse the digression. The point is not that 24 is a bloody show that flaunts its circumvention of the Geneva Convention at every possible opportunity. It's that the program has contributed to a public dialogue where torture has become an actual valid option for policy. That these goalposts have been moved (or, perhaps more accurately, had their fingernails pulled until they revealed the location of the real goalposts) is dismaying. I'm still sometimes shocked by the surrealism of seeing references to "the President's interrogation policy" in newspaper headlines, not to mention Surnow's other comment in the article that he'd like to rehabilitate the image of Joe McCarthy--"an American hero, or maybe someone with a good cause who went too far." Yeah, if anyone could be the ironic spokesman for wrongful accusations, surely Tailgunner Joe tops the list.

But then, to some extent that's already occurred. Anyone covering the extreme political right in this country already knows that the redemption of McCarthyism (as well as the revival of detention camps and other WWII-era outrages) has been a priority--and for their constituency, not unsuccessfully so. To sophisticates and elites--and I mean that in the very nicest sense of the word--Ann Coulter and her book Treason may be a joke, but those books sell. People agree with them. I know several who do. You may as well.

Here's another fun digression: guess who's Surnow's partner in creating a "conservative network" (Bravo with guns instead of gays) that became a right-wing Daily Show pilot, soon to appear on Fox News? None other than Manny Coto, the same writer who apparently rescued Star Trek: Enterprise from mediocrity shortly before it was cancelled. The tiny, dark cloud spotted hovering over NewsCorp's headquarters right now would be the ashes of Gene Roddenberry, attempting to spin in their orbital grave.

I don't really have a solution to 24's torture problem. I'm not sure we can. If you're going to be in favor of free speech, you can't limit it just because the speech isn't something you'd want to say yourself, or because you think it's a bad influence. I can't condemn 24 outright without taking part in the same demonization campaign of groups like Brent Bozell's Media Research Center (Motto: "Counting penis jokes and semi-exposed breasts since 1987"). But I think it's unfortunate. I'd like for people to talk about how torture, even fictionalized torture, makes them feel, and whether they think that's healthy. But my most considered impulse is largely pity for the writers: to sit in a small room, week after week, being paid to create new and fresh ways to inflict physical pain on hero and villain alike, does not sound particularly fun or sustainable to me. It sounds worse than watching it, frankly. I wonder if Surnow would have made such a grim statement as the quote above in 2001, before producing 24 for six years.

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