Credit where credit is due. The TV show 24 is probably the most significant piece of political drama in the last decade.
On one hand, it is very likely that Barack Obama got elected because America had already had a serious black presidential candidate (one season) and two black presidents (one season each). And he was always the most decent guy in the room. Often, the only decent guy in the room. Just like Obama.
On the other hand, there's torture.
• Terrorists are going to nuke Los Angeles in three hours.
• Agent Jack Bauer has a suspect who knows where the bomb is.
• If Jack Bauer tortures the suspect, he can force him to say where it is, get there in two hours and fifty-nine minutes, stop the bomb, and save ten million people.
• What should, what must, Jack Bauer do?
That's a no-brainer. Clip the electrodes to his balls and turn on the juice.
I don't know how many people have actually watched 24, but there's not a person in America who is not familiar with the "ticking bomb scenario."
It sounds so darn logical that it's hard not to buy into it. A remarkable number of people have.
Dick Cheney and Michael Chertoff (ex-head of Homeland Security) are big fans. They thought that they were directing real life Jack Bauers.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said a Jack Bauer should not be prosecuted, because "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
If he were prosecuted, Alan Dershowitz has already laid out the defense!
As drama, the ticking bomb is thrilling. 24 is the Perils of Pauline on crack.
In reality, it is a pernicious and deceitful fantasy.
The reference point is, of course, 9/11.
Before that day, we were soft and naïve. If only we had tortured someone we could have stopped it. And saved American lives!
That, of course, is utterly false.
We had quite enough information to have prevented 9/11. It had been gathered through normal and legal police and intelligence methods. It was not used due to bureaucratic infighting, ineptitude, incompetence, excess secrecy, and, most of all, the willful and pointed disregard of that information by Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and George W. Bush.
Now, we're smart and tough. We do torture light and outsource the really evil stuff. Has it worked?
In October, 2001, the FBI put out a Most Wanted Terrorists list. It had 22 names on it. As of 2006, 17 of them were still "at large." Including Osama bin Laden. Mullah Omar wasn't on the list. But he's the other guy we invaded Afghanistan to get. He's still around and actively leading the Taliban.
Yeah, well, I bet going "to the dark side" stopped a bunch of terrorist attacks.
None that we know of.
Yeah, of course not. When our secret intelligence services secretly foil a secret terrorist plot, it's gotta be secret! National effin' Security! Period. Dot. Exclamation point! End quote!
The Bush administration trumpeted every arrest, capture or kill they ever made:
• the Lackawanna Seven,
• the Sears Tower Plot,
• the Shoe Bomber,
• Jose Padilla, who was going to use a "dirty bomb."
Each and every one of them sounded like a job for Jack Bauer when they were first announced. Then, somehow, all the "terrorists" they caught turned out to be inept losers. The terror plots turned out to be bull sessions, attempts to buy weapons from FBI agents, or visits to Afghanistan long before 9/11.
Bush was even willing to disrupt a two-year, 600 man, British terrorist investigation in order to get a good headline before the 2006 election. The result was that "the mastermind" escaped after he was arrested and the prosecution of the plotters fell apart due to lack of evidence.
If there had been a real plot and these guys had actually stopped it, they would not have kept it secret, they would have made McCain campaign commercials out of it.
Here's a real life ticking bomb scenario.
It's 1943. A German soldier has been captured.
We have a lot of people in captivity today, in Guantanamo, in Iraqi prisons, in secret CIA prisons around the world, and prisons run by other countries. It has been amply demonstrated that many of the people in captivity are not "terrorists."
But back in WWII, when we captured that German, we could be dead sure certain that he was an actual enemy.
He was part of an organization planning to kill Americans in the immediate future. Within hours or, at most, days.
We could be certain that they had lots of weapons of mass destruction. And factories that were make more.
He represented a country that committed war crimes, crimes against humanity, and that had mistreated both POWs and civilians in violation of the Geneva Conventions.
So let's torture the mutha-fuggin' Nazi pig plugger!
That's a no brainer, right?
He refuses to give more than his name, rank and service number. We say OK and accept our obligation to feed and cloth him, give him medical attention, allow him to follow his religion, read books, and even have access to a musical instrument if that is his inclination.
Why don't we torture him?
It has been against American policy since George Washington fought the British.
It is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, to which we were signatory back before WWII. We accepted those standards even though the enemy did not live up to them.
According to Army Field Manual FM 34-52 - Intelligence Interrogation, torture does not produce reliable information. How do they know?
Experience indicates that the use of prohibited techniques is not necessary to gain the cooperation of interrogation sources. Use of torture and other illegal methods is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.
FM 34-52, 1987
Clearly they tried it, probably quite often, and it failed.
Revelation of use of torture by U.S. personnel will bring discredit upon the U.S. and its armed forces while undermining domestic and international support for the war effort. It also may place U.S. and allied personnel in enemy hands at greater risk of abuse by their captors. Conversely, knowing the enemy has abused U.S. and allied [prisoners of war] does not justify using methods of interrogation specifically prohibited by [international law] and U.S. policy.
FM 34-52, 1987
Most of all, what we were fighting for, and fighting as, was to be a country that is committed to the dignity of the individual, even an enemy, and to the rule of law, even in difficult circumstances.
Okay, time for a different movie. Judgment at Nuremburg (1961),
It has "all star" cast, including: Burt Lancaster, Spenser Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Marlene Deitrich, and Richard Widmark.
It's based on a real trial.
The men being prosecuted are very interesting.
They didn't run the death camps, plan the Final Solution, run wars of aggression, or even fill the top ranks of the Nazi Party. They were judges. Men who simply put the legal veneer on the laws of genocide and oppression, which were national policy.
It is hard to say that today's terrorists are either more evil or more fearsome than the Nazis and Wehrmacht. Yet these men were kept in decent condition and had real trials. They could meet with their attorneys, confront their accusers, and all the rest.
Burt Lancaster plays a judge who, before the Nazis, had been a highly esteemed jurist, an internationally recognized scholar of the law. He explains how he came to be a functionary of the Nazi regime.
"Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbours, fear of ourselves. ... There are devils among us. ... Once the devils will be destroyed, your miseries will be destroyed.' ... What about those of us, who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights?"
It is a perfect description of the American mentality after 9/11.
It is a perfect description of the fantasy represented by 24.
The impulse to torture, and excuses that are made for it, are well understood. That's why
The Convention Against Torture, which the US signed and became US law as federal statute 18 U.S.C. §§ 2340; 2340A, says:
No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
Yet that is what we did.
We had lawyers in Washington who came up with legal theories that:
• Created a class of people who were beneath the law, like Jews and Gypsies once were.
• That evaded the Geneva Conventions.
• That legitimized torture.
• And said that "I was only following orders" would be a legitimate defense against war crimes charges.
The chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials for war crimes, US Associate Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said:
Certain acts in violations of treaties are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.
In light of that, let me point out who some of those lawyers are, Jay Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge, John Yoo, teaching law at UC Berkeley, and Alberto Gonzales, recently the Attorney General of the United States.
Larry Beinhart is the author of Wag the Dog, The Librarian, and Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin. All available at nationbooks.org His new novel is: SALVATION BOULEVARD. Website: larrybeinhart.com
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