Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Torturing of Reality by the Television Series 24


Introduction

The famous television series 24 was one of the most popular shows on television during its time on the air from 2001 to 2010. During that time the show aroused much controversy, mostly having to do with its numerous scenes depicting the torturing of various suspects in order to elicit information about terrorist plots.

I first became aware of the series while in the hospital in 2001 due to a minor issue. One evening as I was flipping through the channels I came across one of the first episodes of 24. The show seemed like something I would really like. I enjoy shows that are suspenseful and leave you on the edge of your seat with anticipation about what's going to happen next, and 24 quickly grabbed my attention. In addition, one of the lead characters was played by a long-time favorite actor of mine, Kiefer Sutherland, and the actress who plays Sutherland's daughter, Elisha Cuthbert, was a nice addition to the show. Every good show needs some eye candy who also possesses excellent acting skills and Cuthbert easily filled that role.

After watching this episode I began watching it on television but I soon lost interest in the series because I was too busy at the time to keep up with all the plot twists. Over the years I thought about watching them all on DVD and several years later I decided to watch the entire series through Netflix and about six months ago I finished the entire series and just recently I bought the entire series on DVD.

When I first began watching the show I knew nothing about politics or history. Now that I've been reading so much the last several years I have an entirely new perspective about it. I have a love-hate relationship with it. I love it because one of my favorite actors plays the lead character and I think Sutherland did a fantastic job portraying CTU agent Jack Bauer. I also enjoy the fast-paced action and the edge of your seat story lines and how each show leaves you wanting more. I have problems with it because of its depiction of torture as being a useful tool for gaining needed information. I didn't like how it would often portray government agents and political leaders as heroes who engaged in grotesque or immoral acts, such as torture or dishonesty towards the American people. I did not agree with the times when the leaders decided to ignore the Constitution. I also did not appreciate how it often portrayed the U.S. as a beacon of righteousness and honor, and how it sometimes depicted (or at least hinted that) those like myself, who speak out against government crimes, as misguided, immoral, or at worst, a terrorist supporter.

24 has become one of the most popular television shows and this popularity has created some serious problems. The show's depiction of torture seems to be influencing many people into believing that torture is a useful tool to extract information from the bad guys. I can certainly understand this, since when I watched the show, sometimes even I would find myself sucked into the world of fantasy and start to wonder whether or not torture would be effective.

It was through watching this television series that got me interested in the question. After watching interviewees on Democracy Now explain to the viewers how torture is not effective, and then hearing the complete opposite from leaders in government, philosophers, and others, I wanted to look at the facts myself and come to my own conclusions.

In this post I am going to explain in detail some of the facts that I found and why I am convinced that torture is not an effective method to elicit information from suspects.

The Controversy Erupts

From the beginning, 24 garnered complaints from humanitarian rights organizations and activists who did not appreciate the television show's depiction of people of Middle Eastern descent as mere terrorists and objected to the show's portrayal of torture as an effective method of gaining needed intelligence. Even several members of the FBI would go on Democracy Nowand voice their complaints about 24's depiction of torture.

Not only did top government officials OK the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” but many U.S. soldiers (who we often forget are sometimes young, inexperienced, naïve, and immature kids) have used the television series as proof of the effectiveness of torture. This has even been confirmed in a recent book by Kurt Eichenwald called 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars [1]

In 2005 the New York Times published an article entitled Normalizing Torture on '24', by Adam Green, which criticized the show for descending “down a slippery slope” where “acts of torture” are viewed as “normal” and “justifiable.”

Even the star of the show, Kiefer Sutherland, weighed in on the debate in an interview with Charlie Rose on January 12th, 2007, saying that “...it is widely known that you can torture someone and they'll basically tell you exactly what you want to hear, whether it's true or not, if you put someone in enough pain. Torture is not a way of procuring information. The way of procuring information is in fact quite the opposite, and unfortunately that takes a lot of time.”

In later seasons the producers and writers of 24 met with many of the concerned groups and listened to their concerns about how they depicted torture and those of Middle Eastern descent. In later shows the story lines showed some Middle Eastern men and women as “good guys” rather than as just terrorists. It also began to change how torture was shown. Not every person who was tortured gave useful information, and sometimes gave false information in the hopes of stopping the acts of brutality against them. Still, others died during their torture, and some were innocent people who were wrongly accused and tortured, all things that can realistically happen. Despite some minor changes, the show continued to push the idea that torture worked.

To Torture or Not to Torture: There is No Question

Due to much ignorance and inaccurate media portrayals of torture, it is often argued that torture may be an effective method of procuring information, particularly in the infamous “ticking time bomb” thought experiment where a philosopher ponders whether or not there may be some dire need to get information quickly from a suspect.

As I've noted in the past, philosophy is not the most useful method of getting to the truth. Facts and data must be analyzed. Mere thought experiments often conflict with hard realities that are not taken into account and this is even more stark when the subject under discussion is torture.

Given the prevalence of the view that torture is a useful tactic, what are the facts that contradict the common narrative? Well, several government documents for one. It may surprise some to learn that in 1958 the CIA had written a once classified document laying out effective and ineffective interrogation methods. It was written by “Don Compos” (a pseudonym) and it was titled ”The Interrogation of Suspects Under Arrest.” In this little-known document, it explicitly says that “torture or extreme mental torture is not an expedient device.” It continues to argue that using forms of torture in an attempt to gain information are “as short-sighted as whipping a horse to his knees before a thirty mile ride.” It then goes on to say,

It is true that most anyone will talk when subjected to enough physical pressures, but the information obtained in this way is likely to be of little intelligence value.

This same advice is just as true today as it was in the 16th Century, when a criminal handbook observed that “those tortured often succumb to 'the pain and torment and confess things that they never did.'” [2] It's a horrendous shame that the U.S. failed to heed the words of this criminal handbook, or the more recent CIA interrogation manual, because if they had, they wouldn't have unknowingly given false information to the U.N.

Some time after November 14th, 2001 a group of Pakistani forces trapped the high ranking al-Qaeda leader Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and delivered him to U.S. forces. [3] The U.S. wanted to extract as much intelligence from al-Libi as possible, so they secretly shipped him off to Egypt where he would be brutally tortured by Egyptian forces at the behest of the U.S. government.

The U.S. was very familiar with the details of the brutal torture methods used by the prisons in Egypt. The CIA had “voluminous files” explaining the ways in which twelve prisoners had been tortured to death by the authorities there since the year 2000. [4] It was for this very reason that the U.S. “rendered” al-Libi to Egypt. The U.S. put much pressure on Egypt to obtain any information, by any means necessary, about connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda.

Egypt was renowned for its brutality when torturing prisoners. Not only was the U.S. keenly aware of this, but so was al-Libi. Because of this he knew what would happen if he didn't tell them what they wanted to hear, so he simply made up false information to avoid being beaten when initially being asked for any information about Hussein and al-Qaeda. It didn't work. Apparently, the Egyptians weren't happy with the information they were told, so they began to mercilessly beat him and proceeded to throw him into a box “so small that just a minute inside was agony.” After more than fifteen hours inside the Egyptians took him out and asked him again to “tell the truth.” It was then that al-Libi decided that “small lies hadn't worked” so perhaps a “big one” would. He told his tormentors that “three al-Qaeda members had traveled to Iraq to be trained in the use of nuclear weapons.” [5] It was this false information which then Secretary of State Colin Powell passed onto the U.N. in a bid to gain support for the war against Iraq. [6]

It should be obvious that centuries of data and real-life examples of torture proving to be ineffective and immoral would outweigh any naïve “thought experiments” or the ramblings of deranged and frightened political leaders. Unfortunately this doesn't seem to be the case for most people. Perhaps another, better example, of the failure of torture to produce real intelligence is in order.

Another al-Qaeda operative, Abu Zubaydah, was captured in Pakistan in 2002. During his several interrogations at the hands of both the FBI and the CIA a distinct pattern soon emerged. The FBI, in order to lure their prisoner into a false sense of security and trust, used rapport-building techniques which worked to get Zubaydah talking. He identified other members of al-Qaeda and other plots to attack the U.S. With each new piece of information the FBI sent reports to Washington so further intelligence could be gathered on these leads. The CIA, however, was not impressed (there was some obvious dick measuring taking place between the two agencies). They believed that Zubaydah knew much more than he was letting on and believed that rough treatment would force more information out of him much quicker than the FBI's more methodical methods.

The CIA began to utilize common torture techniques, such as stripping him naked and turning the temperature in the room in which Zubaydah was being held to such low temperatures that “at times [he] turned a bluish hue.” In addition, the CIA inflicted sleep deprivation and blasted loud music into his cell. Unfortunately, Zubaydah didn't say a word to his tormentors, despite the harsh treatment. With the CIA running out of patience, they once again asked the FBI to come back in and talk to him. And once again, after slowly regaining the FBI agents' trust after such abusive treatment, he began to talk. This time, he told the agents about another plot by an Islamist who “had plans to use a 'dirty bomb' that would spread radiation over a small area of the United States.” [7]

The lesson should be clear. Torture merely creates resentment towards your interrogators, which makes it much less likely that any useful information will be obtained, assuming the subject talks at all during this kind of treatment.

There are other examples I could cite, such as Abdullah Almalki, who was wrongly believed to be a terrorist and who was for two years held and tortured in Syria. During this time he falsely admitted to knowing Osama bin Laden under pain of torture and falsely implicated another innocent man, Ahmad El-Maati, as being a terrorist just to stop the torture that was being inflicted upon him. [8]

The above facts just barely scratch the surface of the complete failure of torture to procure useful intelligence. If the evidence and real-life case studies provided have taught us anything it's that torture essentially leads nowhere and often results in the abuse of innocent people. Of course, if the idiots at the CIA had dug into their own archives, they could have found the interrogation manual that told them what they would later discover themselves first hand.

Years of experience and unfortunate acts of torture have shown that these brutal and immoral methods are not effective, nor expedient, and they often ensnare innocent people. Any statement to the contrary is merely propaganda spread by ignorance.

Conclusion

It's a sad state of affairs when the majority of society is taken in my mass government propaganda and especially by entertainment television. Many shows on TV are meant to do just that: entertain. 24 certainly did an excellent job of that. It was a gripping dramatized thriller that kept millions glued to their television sets. Unfortunately, the fact remains that it was responsible for convincing so many that torture was a sure-fire method of quickly getting needed information. Hopefully the above facts will help to change at least a few minds.




1. 500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars, by Kurt Eichenwald, Touchstone, 2012; 420

2. A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, by Alfred W. McCoy, Holt, 2006; 17

3. 500 Days; 185

4. Ibid.; 219

5. Ibid.; 233

6. A Question of Torture; 118-119

7. 500 Days; 277-279

8. Ibid.; 271-277

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