24 and the Tortuous Politics of Torture

"Jack Bauer is on his own," declared promos for the hit show's just concluded seventh season. Maybe not.

The longtime hit TV series 24 has just wrapped a tumultuous seventh season in the midst of national debate about the past national policy of interrogation by torture of terror suspects. And, while 24 returned to past form as a crackling thriller, it's done it in the midst of presenting a running debate about torture, mostly coming down on the side of torture.

Which, in its way, is appalling. There's one thing, though. Torture may be more popular than many of us would like to think.

At the end of April, the Gallup Poll found that a slight majority of Americans wants a full investigation into the use of torture in interrogation. But that a bigger majority says that torture was justified in defense of national security. (Gallup, incidentally, is not an anti-Barack Obama poll. The president consistently ranks in the 60s in job approval.)

The poll on the controversy over the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists brings very mixed tidings for critics. By a 51% to 42% margin, Americans want an investigation into the the use of torture, a crusade-level issue for much of the left. But by a 55% to 36% margin, Americans say that torture is justified in defense of national security.

I think the poll is too broadly framed. I don't believe that 55% of Americans support torture as a matter of national policy. A better way of asking would focus on the question of torture as a national policy, which it became in the Bush/Cheney Administration, as distinguished from torture in certain circumstances, and of course a strict abolition on torture in any circumstances. But either way, the results probably wouldn't make a lot of people happy.

Perhaps this is one reason why the Obama administration, after releasing highly revelatory Bush/Cheney era memos justifying torture in interrogations as a national policy from the highest levels on down, doesn't seem very interested in making this a central issue.

Speaking Monday before the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, CIA Director Leon Panetta said that the focus should be kept on the future in discussing the interrogation of terror suspects.

Decrying "hyper-partisanship" on both sides, Panetta said: "If they start to use these issues as political clubs to beat each other up with, then that's when we not only pay a price, but this country pays a price."

"As a creature of the Congress," the longtime California congressman and former Clinton White House chief of staff said, "I don't deny them the opportunity to learn the lessons from that period. I think it's important to learn those lessons, so that we can move into the future. But in doing that, we have to be very careful that we don't forget our responsibility to the present and to the future."

John McCain -- a big 24 fan who did a cameo on the show -- said that interrogation in the real world isn't like 24.

Panetta declared that Al Qaeda remains "the most serious security threat" to America. "We are a nation at war. We have to confront that reality every day, and while it's important to learn the lessons of the past, we must not do it in a way that sacrifices our capability to stay focused on the present, stay focused on the future and stay focused on those who threaten the United States of America."

Panetta said he's working with Congress to reveal the abuses that occurred when torture was a national policy, which it no longer is. But he doesn't want the Obama Administration's policies to become sidetracked.

"What I'm most concerned about," he said, "is that this stuff doesn't become the kind of political issue that everything else becomes in Washington, D.C., where it becomes so divisive that it begins to interfere with the ability of the intelligence agencies to do our primary job, which is to focus on the threats that face us today and tomorrow."

Jon Voight, a peacenik movie star in the 1970s who is now a staunch conservative, played the head of Starkwood, a Blackwater-like mercenary outfit launching terrorist attacks inside the United States.

There's also the not-so-little matter of what top Democrats knew, when they knew it, and what they did about it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in more than a bit of pickle over when she knew about waterboarding. She has been backed by former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham about briefings in 2002. CIA records claim that officials told both of them about the practice of torture. Pelosi denies it, and Graham backed her up. In any event, Pelosi acknowledges knowing in 2003, though not as a result of being briefed by CIA. And her response to knowing? Not a national anti-torture crusade, but her customary effort to elect more Democrats.

Nevertheless, there was a critical revelation in last month's Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainees. Namely, that torture was used to elicit what we know to be false information -- the fictitious Saddam Hussein/Al Qaeda alliance -- as a means of selling the invasion of Iraq. That reminds of us of something very important.

All you know for sure about information elicited by torture is that the answer is intended to make you stop.

Which gets us to the question of efficacy, and back to 24.

In January, just days before President Obama's inauguration, the show kicked off its just concluded seventh season with Kiefer Sutherland's darkly iconic Jack Bauer character testifying before a Senate committee busy investigating and decrying his ruthless anti-terror methods. But he was soon back in the thick of the action, working to foil what turned out to be a nested series of conspiracies by various elements of the military industry to stampede the country into turning over national power to them.

A new FBI agent, Annie Wersching's sharply played Renee Walker -- Bauer was with the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit before chucking it all to help people in Africa, only to be (naturally) caught up in a genocidal civil war -- begins as something of a stand-in for the audience. She thinks Bauer can help figure out how terrorists have seized control of the air traffic control system, but questions his methods. Only to be drawn in, all too quickly, by, if you will, the dark side of the force.

Still, during typically brief respites between the byzantine plotting and frenetic action, the two wonder about the morality of the ruthless, brutal methods they employ during this very long day.

Which is actually beside the point.

24 producer Howard Gordon discussed season 7 and the show's role in the torture debate.

If 24's producers were really serious, they would show Bauer, a throwback to the classic anti-heroes of the '70s, using torture as usual to elicit the information needed to save the day.

Only to find out the hard way that the information is false, the bomb does go off, the innocents die, and Bauer has been played as much by his belief in his own infallibility as by the terrorist who finally realized the obvious, that all he had to do to succeed was to con Jack Bauer for half an hour with misdirection.

Notwithstanding his increasing angst and the overall verisimilitude of Sutherland's performance, which more than updates Inspector Harry Callahan, Bauer is such an unrealistic paragon that he makes James T. Kirk look like a semi-competent mope. Not only can he size everyone up in a moment, and nearly always get the information he needs, he himself is utterly immune to torture, even after years in a Chinese prison.

A big splash of the skepticism of Britain's fine series about the MI5 counter-terrorism agency, Spooks, would do wonders for 24.

Bauer can still win the day. It is, after all, a show. But making Bauer's dilemmas a bit less preposterous -- his problem isn't his own fallibility, it's the fallibility of the rest of the US government and the endless waves of fiendishly clever and resourceful opponents the writers throw at him -- would be a breath of fresh air.

Far right talk show host Laura Ingraham, who thought McCain was a dangerous liberal, says the popularity of 24 is "a national referendum" in favor of torture.

And it might do something about the problem of right-wing politicians who seem to think that Jack Bauer is real. And who either don't get, or choose to ignore, that the ultimate baddies on the show generally turn out to be power-hungry conservatives or profiteering capitalists.

The Republican presidential candidates actually debated a 24 scenario. There's a ticking bomb, you have only a few minutes, what do you do? Gee, I don't know. Call the ACLU? It's a non-serious question.

The Bush/Cheney administration essentially adopted the action thriller approach to politics. What underlies that? The knowledge that most anything seems plausible if you keep things moving too fast for the audience to think about it.

It's all spelled out in Jack Bauer's typical line: ''You're running out of time -- you don't have a better option.''

If that's how you define the logic of the situation, then extreme measures always seem more plausible.

The entire premise of the show is that a terrorist disaster is just about to happen, in fact several disasters in the same day.

Powers Boothe, who narrated the McCain campaign commercials, played a nefarious Cheney-like vice president on 24.

That became, in essence, the metaphorical rationale for the Bush/Cheney administration's policy of torture. It was Vice President Dick Cheney's notion that if there's a one percent chance of a terror plot existing, it should be treated as if it is a certainty.

That's hysteria masquerading as rationality, a stampede to suspend disbelief.

It's one thing when that sort of manipulation is employed to entertain, and quite another when it's used to govern.