Did "24" Prime the Pump for Torture?
Did Jack Bauer help convince Americans to accept the crimes of our government?
Posted Dec 11, 2014
"We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare."
— William Butler Yeats, “Meditations in Time of Civil War”
I’ve never made it through an entire episode of “24.” Just a couple of minutes of Jack Bauer’s sneering snarl is enough to break my resolve. Everyone breaks eventually, you know. The unabashed celebration of torturing foreign “terrorists” feels too much like brain-washing to me.
One of the show’s co-creators, Cyrus Nowrasteh, whose father was an advisor to the torture-happy Shah of Iran, explained the show’s Cheney-esque rationale to Jane Mayer of The New Yorker: “Every American wishes we had someone out there quietly taking care of business,” he said. “It’s a deep, dark ugly world out there. . . . 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.”
But of course, this isn’t a “fantasy” so much as an irrational, yet emotionally satisfying justification for a reality that was, until very recently, considered criminal by all “civilized” nations. In this, as in so many other parts of American life, the televised fantasy prepares the public to accept radical reconfigurations of reality. And accept it, they do. Researchers have found that public acceptance of torture has increased since they started polling on the issue in 2004. Mayer points out that before the attacks of September 11th, “fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time television each year,” but that, “now there are more than a hundred.” Perhaps even more significant is the fact that pre-9/11, the torturers were almost always the bad guys. But these days, it’s the “good guys” who are pulling out fingernails.
Ubiquitous Fox commenter and right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham cites the popularity of “24” as indicating political assent to America’s discarding of decades of international law prohibiting torture, noting that “[People] love Jack Bauer. 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.” Personally, she said, she found it “soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists.”
What sort of trauma must one have suffered to find watching torture “soothing?”
 The Shah was installed by the CIA in 1953 after Iran’s first democratically elected government was overthrown in “Operation Ajax.” The Shah’s U.S. trained secret police, the SAVAK, were notorious for their brutal torture of citizens, which propelled the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which propelled the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East, which fueled anti-American sentiment, and so on, all the way back around to “24.”
* Adapted from an essay I wrote a few years ago called, "Being Dexter Morgan."