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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Jack Bauer Effect

The terrorist-torturing hero of 24, Jack Bauer, is a pretty unfortunate role model for the war on terror. In the show, there's always a nuclear bomb about to go off, or a canister of nerve gas about to be released, and Bauer is there to save the day by torturing suspects to give up information. According to Wikipedia,
24 routinely includes scenes of torture, both physical and psychological, in its storylines. In many cases, the protagonists employ torture to extract vital information from suspects in "ticking time bomb" situations. According to the Parents Television Council, 24 has depicted 67 scenes of torture in its first five seasons, more than any other show on television.

Don't underestimate the effect this can have on framing public views of this issue. There is, of course, ample evidence that torture is ineffective as an intelligence-gathering tool, to say nothing of the obvious moral line that it crosses. But most people don't have details of real-life instances to think about this with...so when a hit television show repeatedly creates narratives where torture is not only effective but the right thing to do, it's really the only concrete way they have to think about it, and thus extremely persuasive. The show's point of view even worried the military enough that they made an (ironic) appeal for them to reduce the use of torture.

But ordinary citizens are apparently not the only ones influenced by 24. Andrew Sullivan discusses some disconcerting remarks by Supreme Court Justice Scalia at an international law conference:
"Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. ... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Judge Scalia said. Then, recalling Season 2, where the agent's rough interrogation tactics saved California from a terrorist nuke, the Supreme Court judge etched a line in the sand.
"Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?" Judge Scalia challenged his fellow judges.

Good grief.

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