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Zero Dark Thirty Doesn't Endorse Torture, and Neither Did 24

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Zero Dark Thirty finally opened wide last weekend, which means that the general movie-going crowd finally got to see what all the fuss was about.  But while I don't want to rehash the various 'No, it doesn't endorse torture!!' arguments that I've made here and elsewhere yet again (review, essay 01, essay 02), I would like to take a moment to address a side issue.  In many of the discussions about Zero Dark Thirty, be it pro or con, we've seen the television show 24 being used as a shorthand for being a mainstream entertainment that did all of the things that Zero Dark Thirty is accused of.  I intended to write something of this nature back when the show left the air in May 2010, but life got in the way.  24 premiered in November of 2001, not directly inspired by the 9/11 attacks but unfortunately in their shadow.  I wrote extensively about that first season when it ended (read it HERE), but looking back, it's clear that the show wasn't intended to be a lightning rod of controversy and/or the go-to talking point when discussing the post 9/11 'war on terror.'  Throughout its eight seasons, 24 was never 'the torture show,' nor was it intended to represent one political ideology (or political party) over another.

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) barely tortured anyone for the first three years.  In fact, aside from administering a painful and lethal injection to his kidnappers (who had just tortured him nearly to death, natch) before extracting information and putting them out of their misery in season two (as well as a scene where Jack fakes the death of a suspected terrorist's son in order to get him to talk), I can't recall a single 'Jack tortures someone for intel' in the first three years.  OK fine, Jack and the CTU gang did some very bad things to Nina Meyers (Sarah Clarke) in season 3, but that was more about 'Jack works out his anger against the woman who killed his wife' than any kind of political statement.  For the first three years, torture was seen as a net-negative, either used by the bad guys or used by the good guys in way that would backfire (President Palmer's use of torture in season two would come back to haunt him during a late-in-the-season coup).  I would argue that much of the talking points regarding 24 stem from its fourth season.  Aside from being both its breakout year ratings-wise as well as its most consistently good season, it was also of three seasons which charted Jack Bauer's descent from flawed hero to genuine anti-hero.  So yes Jack tortured people in season four and beyond of 24, but something lost in the discussion was the fact that torture failed or was used against innocent people at least as much as it was somewhat successful.

In the two-hour premiere, Jack shoots a suspected terrorist in the leg, which results in intel of a terrorist attack that CTU still fails to prevent. A CTU mole (one of many over the years) frames a colleague for her crimes, which results in said innocent person being tortured by her superiors. Jack later tortures the ex-boyfriend of his current girlfriend, a British national who turns out to be completely innocent.  And the show even dealt with the morality of such behavior toward the end of the season, although it was easily the dumbest episode of the season, if not the series.  In short, the team debates whether they can torture an American citizen while no one bothers to offer him an immunity deal for his testimony.  It wouldn't be the last time the show confronted Jack's extra-legal actions, but it was certainly the stupidest.  Throughout the series from season four until season eight, the use of torture was not about 'this was what we have to do to save the day' but rather 'look how far Jack Bauer is sinking'.  Jack tortured his own brother in season six, which in turn caused the big bad to kill that man and frame Jack for his murder.  And while Jack Bauer and agent Renee Walker (Annie Wersching) had a season-long back-and-forth about Jack's rogue methods versus the by-the-book methodology of the FBI (it got a big apologetically ham-fisted at times), season seven was clearly about Jack bringing himself back from the abyss following his three-season plunge.

Jack mostly played by the rules for the first two-thirds of season eight, until he went completely vigilante for reasons too dumb to explain (actual reason: Fox wanted a movie spin-off that never materialized).  Jack's 'anything goes' ethos in the last five years was always contrasted with a more conventional (and often more successful) approach.  24 was never about the general 'war on terror' and certainly not a referendum on torture (which was more often to be shown as ineffective or used by the villains), but rather a character drama specifically about Jack Bauer and the emotional/mental costs of his actions over the decade or so in which the drama unspooled.  While Bauer was unapologetic about his methods, he never considered himself above the law, always willing to offer himself up to lawful consequences and warding off those currently in active duty (be they FBI agents or the like) from doing what he was doing.  It may be a technicality, but the fact that the show so often had Jack make that distinction (the actions of a rogue former agent versus the actions of a duly decorated officer of the law) means that the show, too, gave the idea genuine thought.

While I would never say that 24 represented any kind of explicit condemnation of torture, nor did it remotely celebrate or condone the practice as a matter of use in a civilized society.  Torture, when it occurred, was either the last act of desperate good guys or the first act of the bad guys, and it was just as likely to end in failure for both respective parties.

As for the show's politics, they were pretty much all over the map.  It is telling that the liberal commentators were out in force during the fourth and sixth seasons of the show, while conservative pundits didn't give two hoots about the liberal fantasies that were the second and fifth seasons.  Season one is almost completely apolitical, aside from investing us in the fate of a Democratic African-American presidential candidate and somewhat dealing with the notion of 'blowback' as the motive for the evil plot involves revenge for a black-ops assassination that went awry (there is an amusing moment where Palmer is wistful at the notion that this attempt on his life has nothing to do with his presidential aspirations or his race).  Season two was the first year constructed entirely after the 9/11 attacks, and it is in hindsight an incredibly courageous piece of political theater. While films like Prince of Persia tackled the Iraq war eight years after the run-up to war, the second year of 24, which ran during the 2002/2003 season, dealt with Islamic terrorists setting off a nuke in LA at the behest of American corporate evildoers (oil companies, if I recall) for the express purpose of starting a war with the middle east, a war based on fraudulent intelligence no less.  Right as America was being conned into war with Iraq, we witnessed Jack Bauer racing against time to provide evidence of corporate conspiracy to President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), alone in his belief that America was being misled into war with three unnamed middle eastern countries who have been framed for the failed attack.

Season three was apolitical, dealing with Mexican drug dealers and a lethal virus unleashed by a pissed-off former British intelligence agent.  That was actually a running theme for the show, where the apparent actions of foreign hostiles turned out to be the work of American or European (read -- white) corporate villains who were secretly pulling the strings.  Only season four started and ended with an Islamic terror cell on a rampage in and around Los Angeles, and I'd imagine much of what you've heard about 24 being conservative propaganda (the scary Islamic baddies living in your neighborhood, the periodic scenes of torture, etc.) comes from the admittedly superb fourth season.  Even that season had a subplot where Republican president Charles Logan found himself unable to handle the terror crisis and calling former president Palmer to help him.  But season five followed up with another liberal fantasy, beginning with the shocking murder of former president David Palmer and eventually revealing the evil mastermind to be none other than the Republican President Charles Logan (a diabolical Gregory Itzen).  While the obvious parallel was Richard Nixon, it was hard not to see the stereotypical liberal's idea of George W. Bush instigating a plot involving Russian nerve gas attacks and the murder of a former Democratic president all in order to gin up the need for more war profiteering.  Seasons four and five represent 24 at the peak of its critical acclaim and ratings popularity.  If we acknowledge that season four was rather Conservative in its storytelling than we must also acknowledge that season five was something of a dark liberal fantasy, with righteous Jack Bauer saving America from a murderously corrupt fascist Republican president.

Season six was also the one that came under fire from lefties, mostly for its first four hours.  The two-part opener began with an Islamic terror spree already in progress that had already killed 1,000 people, continued with another seemingly friendly Muslim revealed to be a terrorist, Jack struggling with getting his 'torture mojo' back after two years in a Chinese labor camp (long story... ) and climaxed with the actual detonation of a nuclear bomb in Valencia, California.  The rest of the season, aside from being terrible (the two worst seasons of the show were 6 and 8), was pretty generic, highlighted only by some insane revelations for Jack (meet his father and his brother, both puppet master terrorist masterminds working for the Chinese!) and the always dignified Peter MacNicol doing his best in a plot that took him from playing John Aschcroft to being the most reasonable and least moronic cabinet member in the room.  The last two seasons followed the path set by season two, with a threat seemingly coming from scary foreigners (a genocidal African dictator in season 7 and Islamic terrorists trying to kill a pacifistic Middle East leader in season 8) only to reveal the scary white guys behind the scenes (Russians working in collusion with Charles Logan in season 8, and Will Patton in season 7 as the man behind every act of villainy ever committed anywhere ever).  While I'm not a fan of the show's final left-turn, where Jack killed his way up the Russian government food chain even while a flustered U.S. president tried to keep Russia's evil involvement secret in order to forge Middle East peace, it did highlight something that the show had been dealing with from day one: Is absolute morality worth committing acts of immortality to achieve it, even at the cost of long-term progress?  

The consensus on 24, that the show was torture-happy and operated as a weekly propaganda vehicle for the GOP in the eight years after 9/11, is a classical case of selective memory.  The show was a character drama about Jack Bauer, a drama that involved a number of issues that unfortunately came about after 9/11.  It periodically involved torture, a tactic that even less periodically worked as intended.  Its politics literally changed from season to season.  And, unlike Homeland, it took pains to not paint every Muslim as a would-be terrorist.  It was a sprawling eight year saga that certainly had a few moments here that there that played into the Conservative dogma, just as it had any number of moments that played into the stereotypical Liberal ideology.  To condense it down to several moments, or at best two of its eight seasons, is to be willfully ignorant and selectively judgmental.  Seasons four and six no more made the show into Conservative propaganda anymore than seasons two and five should cause the show to be labeled as a Liberal wet dream. Zero Dark Thirty doesn't endorse or support the use of torture as a terror-fighting tactic, but even those who agree with that are all-too quick to use 24 as an example of a popular entertainment that did.  And frankly, over the scope of eight years, neither did 24. It's time to give this lazy meme a rest.  After all, for all Jack Bauer sacrificed over eight long days of starvation, insomnia and constipation, it's the least we can do not to smear his reputation as he patiently awaits the movie spin-off that will probably never arrive.