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Reel Impact: Movies and TV that Changed History - “24,” Jack Bauer, and the Torture Lie

History is written and rewritten in films and on TV. Frank Deese pulls back the curtain on the beginnings of the hit television series "24" and how it soon influenced contemporary events in America and beyond.
24, Fox Network

24, Fox Network

In the late spring of the year 2000, TV writer and show creator Joel Surnow was standing in his bathroom dreading the upcoming television season. He had just finished supervising 22 episodes of the series La Femme Nikita and was thinking about the inevitability of the next 22 episodes. It was an immutable number that he wished was smaller – so he could do other things in his life – but his mind went instead to a larger number: 24. 24 episodes – like 24 hours. What if there was a 24-episode season of a TV show covering only one day in real-time? Each episode was an hour… Whoa! He called his friend and fellow TV writer Robert Cochran who dampened his enthusiasm with all the ways a real-time series couldn’t work or shouldn’t work. But Surnow didn’t give up and insisted they meet halfway between their San Fernando Valley homes at the International House of Pancakes.

Fueled by coffee and imitation maple syrup, they brainstormed how a real-time one-day show could be realized. What if it were like the 1970 comedy film Lovers and Other Strangers and took place around the planning of a wedding? You could cut back and forth between the various characters in real-time. But… In order for this to be truly real-time in 24 hours, the characters would have to stay awake and active for 24 hours; and who does that except TV writers under deadline? There has to be something big at stake to keep the characters out of bed. Their minds drifted to films like The Day of the Jackal and In the Line of Fire and imagined the show’s 24 hours was about stopping something awful like a political assassination. That was their lightbulb moment in the IHOP. Soon they developed the character of Jack Bauer, an ambitious agent for the fictitious United States “Counter Terrorism Unit,” or C.T.U. whose daughter was also kidnapped, giving them everything they needed to fill 24 hours and justification for keeping characters awake. The 24-hour day would be the day of the California Presidential Primary and the target of the assassination would be a U.S. Senator running for President. They also decided to make the character black because, as Joel Surnow later recounted, “If Los Angeles (following Rodney King) had a black Presidential candidate assassinated, it could cause a race riot in the city – so let’s keep the stakes up.”

Joel Surnow

Joel Surnow

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With a fully-realized concept, they pitched 24 to Fox Network executive David Nevins who bought it the same day. But when Surnow and Cochran began outlining the series and pilot episode, they quickly discovered the challenges of real-time scripting. Any time Jack Bauer needed to go somewhere, they had to take into account the travel time – especially in traffic-clogged Los Angeles – and cut away to other stories to accommodate that time. But the writers met the challenge with a variety of concurrent storylines and the show was set to premiere in September 2001.

When the 11th of that month happened, Surnow and Cochran feared that was the end for their terrorism-themed show. Five episodes had already been shot, but who would want to spend an hour every week with Jack Bauer and his fictitious “Counter Terrorism Unit” after live-witnessing human beings jumping to their deaths, the second plane hitting the south tower, both towers individually collapsing simultaneous to scenes of the Pentagon burning and news that passengers had seized control of a fourth plane and crashed it into the fields of central Pennsylvania? Apparently, a lot of people would.

In addition to the horrors of that day, envelopes filled with deadly anthrax powder soon arrived at the offices of prominent senators and news people with the message “Death to America! Death to Israel! Allah is great!” – killing five postal and office workers. This turned out to be of domestic non-al-Qaeda origin, but at the time it seemed like America was under a sustained foreign attack. On September 14th, President Bush stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center promising payback for the devastation and on the same day both houses of Congress nearly unanimously voted to give Bush authorization to pretty much do whatever he wanted to achieve that payback.

President Bush's speech at Ground Zero

President Bush's speech at Ground Zero

The United States’ October 7th attack on the al-Qaeda-harboring Taliban regime in Afghanistan began with a bang from the air, but soon whimpered along on the ground as cities methodically but slowly fell to the U.S.-backed proxy while al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden slipped through U.S. Army fingers into Pakistan. The hunger for fast success and quick action Americans sought in the news could now, however, be better satisfied on TV as the rescheduled and re-edited 24 finally premiered on November 6th – delayed, in part, due to a need to remove an exploding passenger jet from the pilot episode.

Airing Tuesday nights at 9 pm on the Fox Network, 24 was an immediate success with high ratings and rave reviews like Tom Shales in the Washington Post: “Jack Bauer is in for a helluva day, and you may well want to be there with him for every agonizing twist and turn.” And Time Magazine: “Forget sleeping through this one--you won't even want to blink. 24 is the most distinctive, addictive new TV series this season.” And: “It's relentless, tense, and deliciously paranoiac, with more twists than a Twizzler. But it's also boldly different. Most notably, there's its clever visual signature: picture-in-picture screens that show two, three, and even four different scenes simultaneously.”

24, Fox Network

24, Fox Network

Counter Terrorism Unit’s Jack Bauer was always moving, always pushing, never patient, never compromising both in finding his kidnapped wife and daughter and thwarting a political assassination. On the 10th episode (depicting 10 am to 11 am) he finally resorts to torturing two different well-deserving scoundrels to extract information on the whereabouts of his loved ones. Of course, the torture is immediately effective and quickly gets him to where he needs to be for the 11th episode.

Split-screen to the actual White House where President Bush and Vice President Cheney are having a more complex real-world dilemma: what do they do with all the prisoners American forces in Afghanistan had rounded up and detained? Some were likely al-Qaeda operatives, so… wouldn’t it be nice to extract more than just names, ranks, and serial numbers agreed to by the Geneva Conventions of 1949?

With Jack Bauer presently finding success with torture, President Bush signed the secret and Orwellian-titled "Humane Treatment of Taliban and al Qaeda Detainees," a formal abandonment of the most inconvenient provisions of the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Split-screen again to Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran now conceiving the second season of 24, fully embracing post-9/11 anger, dread, and paranoia. “The first season lived in the world of fiction, and the second season lived in the world of post-9/11 America; and it has ever since,” Surnow recounted. “The world of terrorism has invaded our lives.”

24, Fox Network

24, Fox Network

The first episode of the second season opens in South Korea with an unknown man getting tortured with electricity, the first spoken line being “talk and the pain will stop.” He does talk after a few more shocks and screams and reveals that a nuclear bomb is set to explode in Los Angeles that day. This is enough to bring Jack Bauer out of retirement and his first action is shooting a detainee in the chest (on-screen) and cutting off his head (off-screen) with a hacksaw. The whole basis for the second season is, basically: information extracted by torture moves the story forward towards more torture and more useful information. The independent media watchdog Parents Television Council counted 67 instances of torture in five seasons, more than one every other episode. Highlights from Season Two include a man repeatedly shocked with defibrillator paddles while his bare feet soak in a tub of water and Jack Bauer staging the remote execution of a detainee’s entire family until he gives up the location of the nuclear bomb in L.A. (It worked. Only one child needed to be pretend murdered.)

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While the Fox Network was airing Season Two in 2002, with its regular delivery of do-what’s-necessary interrogation torture, prisoners from the war captured in Afghanistan were being subjected to mock burials, waterboarding, sleep deprivation, hypothermia, and death at secret “black sites” around the world, as well as at Guantanamo Bay by Army and C.I.A. interrogators with much less success than Jack Bauer on TV – in fact, not much success at all. (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the actual architect of 9/11 attack, was water-boarded 183 times and did not reveal anything that was at all useful.)

The United States resorting to torture was not, however, caused by a television show. Jack Bauer did not lead America to abandon its long-held principles about the treatment of prisoners. That was President Bush immediately playing to the crowd on the hot rubble of the twin towers and acquiescing to Vice President Dick Cheney’s resorting to the “dark side” which he explained to journalist Tim Russert on Meet the Press: “A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies... That's the world these folks operate in, and so it's going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.”

If 24 didn’t strike the U.S. torture match, it was undoubtedly an accelerant and a considerable one at that. Jack Bauer was very popular and widely watched by the armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo. “The military loves our show,” Joel Surnow bragged to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer during the middle of the sixth season, showing the reporter the American flag that once flew over Baghdad sent to him by soldiers there who passed around a boxed set of Jack Bauer DVDs before the discs were destroyed by a bomb. At Guantanamo Bay, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, who commanded a group whose task it was to come up with novel ways of extracting information from detainees, admitted that Jack Bauer was very popular back in the fall 2002. “He gave us a lot of ideas.”

In late 2006, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, was so troubled by how his cadets had internalized the “do-whatever-it-takes-everyone-breaks” torture lessons of 24 that he accepted an invitation from Human Rights First to meet with the producers of the show in Los Angeles along with the three other experts in actual interrogation techniques. General Finnegan told reporter Jane Mayer “The kids see it, and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about 24?’” He felt the show was having a widespread and toxic effect on future officers, as well as present soldiers in the field, and he asked 24’s creative team to please stop perpetuating the lie. Torture was neither legal, moral, nor effective. One of the veteran interrogators, Stuart Herrington, brought a list of seventeen non-abusive but successful interrogation techniques for the writers to incorporate into the show.

The 24 producers who were present at the meeting were sympathetic to the concerns of experts and receptive to their suggestions, but it gradually became clear that one of the primary reasons for the regular use of torture is that it kept the fast-paced show moving fast. Establishing a rapport with a detainee took up valuable screen time between commercials, while a bullet to the leg was narratively quick and efficient. "Most terrorism experts will tell you that the 'ticking time bomb' situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely,” admitted 24 co-creator, Robert Cochran. “But on our show, it happens every week."

And every week requires a lot of invention. Writer Howard Gordon related how thinking up torture methods became regular “improvisations in sadism.”

“For the most part, our imaginations are the source,” he told The New Yorker’s, Jane Mayer. “Sometimes these ideas are inspired by a scene's location or come from props on the set."

Not only is the ticking clock scenario rare, the use of torture to extract usable information rarely, if ever, proved successful, especially on al-Qaeda detainees who are exceptionally determined and tended to take pride in martyrdom. Though not perfect, the United States has a long tradition of humanely treating prisoners of war dating back to George Washington who implored his soldiers to treat prisoners with humanity. "Let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army.” Torturing prisoners had always been what the “bad guys” did in Hollywood movies, while the heroes stubbornly revealed only their “name, rank, and serial number.”

But if the fiction of Jack Bauer infected actual soldiers and interrogators in the field, it was also unabashedly embraced by high-level officials in the U.S. government. Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, the principal author of the memo used to circumvent the Geneva Conventions, justified himself in his 2006 book War by Other Means: “What if, as the popular Fox television program 24 recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon in an American city? Should it be illegal for the President to authorize harsh interrogation short of torture to elicit this information?”

"Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles,” Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said at a legal conference in Canada regarding the same nuclear plot device. “He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? I don’t’ think so.” And later… "So, the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes?"

24, Fox Network

24, Fox Network

Additionally, President Bush’s second Secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff, was a huge fan of 24 and spoke glowingly: “24 reflects real life. That is what we do every day in the government.”

24 co-creator Joel Sarnow chose not to attend the meeting with General Finnegan and the experienced torture-rejecting interrogators but was instead, in the split screen, on a phone call with Fox News founder Roger Ailes to discuss producing a conservative version of the liberal Daily Show. Sarnow jokingly describes himself as a “right-wing nutjob” and a close friend of Rush Limbaugh. But not everyone involved with 24 leans right.

Kiefer Sutherland, the actor who portrayed Jack Bauer, considers himself center-left and very much against the use of torture in real life. He was horrified by Guantanamo Bay and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But he considers 24 a “fantastical show” with torture as simply a dramatic device. “It’s just entertainment,” he has said more than once.

Entertainment it is, but with a significant impact and possibly serious consequences, and not just for the abused victims of the show’s avid watchers in the Army and C.I.A.

To justify the pending invasion of Iraq, President Bush revealed in 2002: “Iraq has trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases,” establishing a direct connection between the religiously-zealous terrorist organization and the secular Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. Then Secretary of State Colin Powell repeated the claim to the United Nations Security Council weeks before the war: “bin Laden and his top deputy… did not believe that al-Qaida labs in Afghanistan were capable enough to manufacture these chemical or biological agents. They needed to go somewhere else. They had to look outside of Afghanistan for help. Where did they go? Where did they look? They went to Iraq.”

This connection, that was so instrumental in getting the necessary support for the Iraq War, was based solely on the testimony of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi who was captured in Afghanistan, tortured, and later admitted he told his interrogators the lie they wanted to hear so he would not be nailed again inside a coffin-sized box. His reasoning was similar to that of Mohammed El-Gharani, a fourteen-year-old boy who was randomly picked up at a mosque in Pakistan and handed over to American forces for interrogation. The adolescent had no connection to al Qaeda or terrorism and had loved to watch old cowboy movies and believed Americans were the good guys. Those good guys proceeded to subject the teenager to electric shocks, beatings, sleep deprivation, and cigarette burns. He later recalled telling his possibly Bauer-inspired interrogators at Guantanamo Bay: “‘Yes, whatever you ask, I’ll say yes.’”

“I just wanted the torture to stop.”

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