Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Pulp Torture

How "realistic" are the torture scenes in "24," where they are conducted by U.S. government officials? One recent news story had this to say:

Retired U.S. Army Col. Stu Herrington, who learned interrogation techniques in Vietnam and is an expert asked by the Army to consult on conditions at Guantanimo Bay, said that if Bauer worked for him, he'd be headed for a court-martial.

"I am distressed by the fact that the good guys are depicted as successfully employing what I consider are illegal, immoral and stupid tactics, and they're succeeding," Herrington said. "When the good guys are doing something evil and win, that bothers me."

In fact, it appears that these torture methods aren't based on research into real practices. In another story (in the New Yorker magazine): Howard Gordon, who is the series’ “show runner,” or lead writer, told me that he concocts many of the torture scenes himself. “Honest to God, I’d call them improvisations in sadism,” he said.

The article describes some of these inventions: The show’s villains usually inflict the more gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. But the good guys do it, too:
With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused; almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.

That is contrary to the experience of generations of intelligence agency interrogators and military officers: torture doesn't work in acquiring information, kindness does. But that's not what viewers see--including American viewers in Iraq. One former U.S. Army specialist, Tony Lagouranis, was one of several officers who visited the set of "24" to talk about just how upset they were. One reason for their distress: some American interrogators in Iraq--usually the younger ones, who through no fault of their own hadn't received much training--were literally imitating what they saw on "24" and similar programs. A professor at a military academy said that one of his biggest training challenges is Jack Bauer.

In the real world, torture inflicts lasting wounds on both the tortured and the torturer. Now there are millions of people watching these scenes, and as fantastic as they may appear to some, many believe them. They believe the view of the world that they represent. And this view is not always there by coincidence.

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