Prime-time torture gets a reality check

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  1. Prime-time torture gets a reality check

    By Barry Bergman, Public Affairs | 05 March 2008

    The United States, President Bush has declared, “doesn’t torture people.” The president, presumably, is aware of the vast, often-graphic evidence of inmate abuse at Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib prison, which sparked worldwide outrage and put a handful of U.S. military police behind bars. His own administration recently confessed to the use of waterboarding, an extreme interrogation technique widely considered torture and denounced as a violation of military, civilian, and international law. Vice President Dick Cheney has explicitly defended waterboarding, and Bush himself has endorsed “enhanced” methods of dealing with suspected terrorists.

    How, then, to understand such a sweeping denial? If America does it, Bush seems to be saying, it cannot be torture. As demonstrated weekly by Jack Bauer, the torture-happy superpatriot of the Fox TV drama 24, the “ticking time bomb” scenario — in which hundreds of thousands of lives hinge on the prompt extraction of critical information from a captive evil-doer — is its own justification for what might otherwise be viewed as brutal, dehumanizing interrogation techniques: We have no choice. There’s no room for legal niceties when you’re fighting a “war on terror.”

    “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explained at a conference last year in Ottawa, referring to an episode of 24 that had the City of Angels in the grip of terrorists plotting to detonate a nuclear weapon. (The program, which Newsweek once called “a neocon sex fantasy,” is also a hit with such prominent conservatives as Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and Scalia’s high-court ally Clarence Thomas.) “Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” challenged Scalia. “Say that criminal law is against him? ‘You have the right to a jury trial?’ Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t think so.”

    Scalia’s high opinion of Bauer, the fictional character played by Kiefer Sutherland, prompted surprise in some quarters. But it isn’t just Supreme Court justices who have taken the gonzo federal agent’s escapades to heart. In late 2006 David Danzig, the director of Human Rights First’s Prime Time Torture Project, led a delegation of retired military personnel to Hollywood to deliver an urgent message to 24’s producers: While Washington’s ruling elite may enjoy Bauer’s onscreen antics, soldiers responsible for handling detainees in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo are emulating them.

    Danzig admits to having “become kind of hooked” on 24 even as his concern grew over “negative fallout” from the portrayal of torture on TV, including programs like Lost, The Wire, and Sleeper Cell. He was on campus last Thursday to take part in a panel discussion titled “Does TV Persuade Us That Torture Is OK?” — the second in the Human Rights Center’s three-part colloquium on “The ‘War on Terror’ and Human Rights.” The event took place at the School of Law, which co-sponsored the discussion.

    Among those who joined Danzig on his Hollywood mission was Tony Lagouranis, who served as a U.S. military interrogator for four years and spent a year in Iraq, part of it at Abu Ghraib. Lagouranis left the Army in 2005 and recently published a book about his experiences, Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq (NAL, 2007).

    “I had a breakdown when I got back,” he said Thursday, a grim reminder that torture exacts a price from the torturer as well as the victim.

    Before he and his classmates left for Iraq, he said, “We were trained to do interrogations according to Geneva Conventions, very strictly. However, the administration decided to muddy those clear rules, and when we got to Iraq we believed the Geneva Conventions did not apply to these people. So we had no training, basically, on what we were supposed to do, what our limits were.”

    Although a Pentagon-issued document on rules of engagement “had some suggestions” on interrogation techniques — among them, Lagouranis said, the use of dogs, sleep deprivation, isolation, and environmental manipulation — “it didn’t tell us we couldn’t do other things, too. It told us to be creative. And so we often turned to television.”

    Lagouranis said he “definitely saw instances where people took specific ideas from TV shows,” including 24-inspired techniques like mock executions and electrocutions. But more than techniques, “what we took from television was the idea … that torture would work.”

    “I don’t believe that,” he said. “Having actually used these methods in Iraq, I can tell you that torture did not work for me in any case.” Nor, he added, did he ever see it work for other interrogators.

    Cast as the evening’s skeptic, Richard Walter, chair of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA, mocked the notion that military recruits are getting their training from TV. “That says something sorrowful to me,” he said, insisting that viewers are able to draw a distinction between entertainment and reality. “It’s pretend.”

    But Margaret Stock, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and an associate law professor at West Point, noted that even Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, has said that the show “reflects real life.”

    Yet the “ticking time bomb scenario” is mainly fantasy, she insisted, as is the argument — which 24 makes “over and over and over again” — that torture works. Even in the rare instance where aggressive methods do elicit accurate information, she said, they also create a counterproductive “climate of fear” that serves to undercut U.S. security efforts — the opposite of the always-favorable consequences of Jack Bauer’s regulations-be-damned approach. Bauer, in fact, “wouldn’t get security clearance in the real world…. He’s not really a hero. He’s kind of a psycho in my mind.”

    Stock said that “contrary to what some may believe,” soldiers and officers continue to receive regular training in the “law of war,” including an understanding of the constraints on interrogation techniques imposed by the Geneva Conventions. She added, though, that while it’s now “crystal-clear that torture is illegal” throughout the Defense Department, that wasn’t the case for the five years following 9/11.

    During that “gray period,” she said, her students, “when confronted with a discussion of torture, would say, ‘But what about Jack Bauer? What about this episode?’ ”

    “Some people say, ‘Well, what happens on TV can’t possibly influence people in the military, that’s crazy,’ ” she said. “Well, it does influence people in the military. It does influence the public, and people in the military are just like members of the public.”

    She and Lagouranis offered another reason for both the military and the public to view 24’s world view with skepticism.

    “The interesting thing about 24 is not just the torture portrayals, although those are bad,” said Stock. “But the really pernicious thing is that Jack Bauer has made people think that government actually works…. that the government has perfect information about people, that the guy you’ve got is the one with that really critical information in his head, and if you just apply the knife correctly it’s gonna squirt out somehow.

    “24 does not show the real world of the error-prone, information-lacking government, where databases have numerous errors in them, information’s faulty, where we spend millions of dollars on high-tech computer systems that don’t work very well, where the things you think are enhancing your security are actually hurting it.”

    For Lagouranis, that “real world” seems impossible to forget. “The vast majority of people I interviewed were innocent,” he said. “The vast majority of people we tortured were innocent.”
  2. This article makes some interesting points about the use of torture, and how again, it doesn't work.

    The thing I found surprising, and very hard to believe, is that in some cases, US soldiers were apparently getting ideas about torture from something on the television called '24', which I've never seen.
  3. You've never seen "24"??? Let me explain the premise behind the programme. It's set in a day in the life of Jack Bauer, an agent for CTU (counter terrorism unit) in Los Angeles, the actual episode is, with the adverts thrown in, exactly an hour long (a clock shows the real episode time every now and then). By the time the 24th episode has been shown, the day is over and Jack Bauer is once again the hero. TBH, the amount of injuries and beatings he gets/takes, I'm surprised he lasts until lunch, but hey ho, that's TV for you.
  4. The US are like xenophobic children. It is ok to torture people as long as they are not American. International law applies to evryone but us. Terrorism is bad unless it is us doing it etc.
  5. Thanks for the summary, saintstone.
    Well apparently some US soldiers were basing 'enhanced interrogation techniques' on this programme.