For the first few seasons of 24, I kept trying to get into it — I’d watch the first three or four episodes and give up. I dropped by for an episode or two this season, and it confirmed my initial impression, which is:
24 reflects a warped, adolescent view of violence and human nature. It reeks of macho fantasies, born of insecurity, entitlement, and above all fear. No problem arises on the show that cannot be solved with more force, more brutality. Anyone attempting to mitigate that brutality is an effete, naive bureaucrat. In the world of 24, torture is always necessary, and it always works.
It is a show for a nation of terrified crybabies who want Daddy to keep them safe, and it both reflects and accelerates the degradation of our national character. It’s a genuinely malign force.
I generally kept such sentiments to myself, lest I come off as a crusty old man or, worse yet, be met with the brain-dead refrain that "it’s only a TV show."
Looks like I’m not alone, though. A discussion of 24 has finally started in earnest. The proximate cause was a piece in the New Yorker about Joel Surnow, the self-confessed "right-wing nut job" who created the show. Read it and be horrified. Naturally the right has embraced the show and, in some instances, mistaken it for reality.
From 1996 to 2001, there were 102 scenes of torture [in prime time television], according to the Parents Television Council. But from 2002 to 2005, that figured had jumped to 624, they said.
What’s also changed is that the torturers are more and more often American "heroes."
Now we find out that U.S. military officials are concerned that 24 is affecting the way soldiers and interrogators think about and perform their jobs. In our culture, there is no thing as "just a TV show." The images, narratives, and tropes in popular entertainment seep into every area of our lives. Indeed, this frightened, petty machismo has ruled our foreign policy for years now.
Ezra Klein puts my sentiments into words:
There’s been an unsettling change in not only what heroes do, but what makes a hero at all. Any comic book reader knows that what separates heroes from evildoers is their unwillingness to kill, torture, or even personally punish the guilty. Restraint, in and of itself, is a heroic attribute. … You can’t transgress ever, or you blur that line separating you from your enemies (another treasured trope is the defeated villain taunting the hero to give in and kill him, the subtext being that if the evildoer can make the hero act the villain, he will have won even as he died).
Bauer, of course, is the antithesis of that attitude. His heroism stems from his brutality, his willingness to dissolve every ethical boundary in pursuit of higher ends. His is a heroism for a weak and scared nation, one that’s decided the old ways of restraint and ethical exceptionalism are insufficiently effective and is trying to convince itself that a loosening of those bonds could restore order and security. That’s a scary shift in the culture.
Finally, Matt Yglesias points out a strange aspect of the right’s embrace of the Super Agent mentality. Conservative war hawks, he says, display …
… an almost childlike faith in the competence, honesty, and efficacy of the federal bureaucracy insofar as that bureaucracy is tasked with dishing out lethal force that they would never in a million years ascribe to, say, the people in charge of the Endangered Species Act.
This all adds up to a toxic stew of fantasies about how much we could accomplish if we could just use overwhelming force, no matter the problem (see: geoengineering). It’s a deeply anti-democratic mentality. After all, democracy moves slowly, and messily, and is filled with compromises.
The horror of it all is that the lessons of history could not be clearer: force backfires. Violence sparks more violence. Brutality degrades both the brutal and brutalized.
24 is anti-love. Me, I’m pro-love. If that makes me a dirty hippie, so be it.
(Yes, I realize this has nothing to do with the environment. So
sue torture me.)