We are supposed to feel bad for Jack Bauer, the lead character on FOX's hit show "24." Only he and a handful of his colleagues, it seems, have the moral strength necessary to do what has to be done. While Senators whine and his superiors wring their hands about what is "right," Bauer acts and saves the nation.
What this means - and has meant for more than six seasons of "24" - is that Bauer is a not-so reluctant torturer. He beats up the bad guys because, as he has said so many times, "there is no other way."
The reality is that there are more reliable and effective ways. Resorting to torture isn't heroic, it's stupid. Reliance on it has resulted in strategic mistakes and has made the nation less safe. The torture chorus has yet to document a single instance of a "but for" success, and that refusal looks more and more like a criminal cover-up.
I taught interrogation and the law of war for 18 years to U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine interrogators. The truth is that torture is just as likely to lead to false information or no information, not solid intelligence. History is replete with victims who have refused to talk or lied or died under torture. American torture has killed or addled suspects who might have provided vital intelligence if interrogated humanely. One problem with TV fiction is that viewers assume that if Jack Bauer can break some fingers and crack the case in an hour, anyone could.
Unfortunately that is exactly the message that some have gleaned from this program. After watching torture work over and over again, some junior soldiers (and, sadly, some very senior policy makers who ought to know better) have copied the tactics they have seen on "24" and other action programs, according to evidence gathered by journalists and Human Rights First. Military educators have also reported that "24" is "one of the biggest problems" they have in their classrooms.
If "24" is going to continue to show so much torture - they have shown 89 scenes of torture in their first six seasons - I would like to see abusive interrogation techniques portrayed in a more realistic and nuanced fashion so that people do not walk away from the program with the impression that this stuff works. What if an episode focused around false information that was gathered through torture, for example?
I understand that Human Rights First brought Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the Dean of the Academic Board, US Military Academy at West Point, to Hollywood to talk to Kiefer Sutherland and the Executive Producers of the program. "I told them to stop showing torture in a way that suggests torture is effective," Finnegan told The New Yorker after the visit. To date, the producers of "24" have ignored Finnegan's request.
In Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq, life has too often imitated art. It is particularly regrettable that Jack Bauer, in his new season, is shown persuading a "naïve" FBI agent that torture is the ultimate weapon in democracy's arsenal. After all, it was the FBI whose truly expert interrogators were aghast at what they saw at Guantanamo and who were finally quarantined by the Director lest they be implicated in war crimes. As the 7th season begins, I am joining Human Rights First in asking the producers to stop showing torture so irresponsibly.
For a look at what really works in the interrogation booth, I recommend a look at Matthew Alexander's book, "How to Break a Terrorist" or Eric Maddox's book "Mission: Blacklist #1." These interrogators - acting separately - developed the intelligence that led to al Zarqawi (the former head of Al Qaeda in Iraq) and Saddam Hussein. As their books show, what works in the field is patient interrogation tactics that depend on brains not brutality.
Brigadier General David R. Irvine is a retired Army Reserve strategic intelligence officer who taught prisoner interrogation and military law for 18 years with the Sixth Army Intelligence School. He currently practices law in Salt Lake City, Utah.
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