24's Joel Surnow: The Chicken-Hawk's Chicken-Hawk

Saturday, February 10, 2007

24 - Jack Bauer

The New York Daily News is one of a handful of news venues to pick up on a key revelation in the New Yorker's recent profile of "24". The show was approached by military and FBI leaders, who asked them to stop glorifying torture.

The grossly graphic torture scenes in Fox's highly rated series "24" are encouraging abuses in Iraq, a brigadier general and three top military and FBI interrogators claim.

The four flew to Los Angeles in November to meet with the staff of the show. They said it is hurting efforts to train recruits in effective interrogation techniques and is damaging the image of the U.S. around the world, according The New Yorker.

"I'd like them to stop," Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, told the magazine.

Finnegan and others told the show's creative team that the torture depicted in "24" never works in real life, and by airing such scenes, they're encouraging military personnel to act illegally.

In sharp contrast to the military and FBI brass: "24" creator Joel Surnow. He's pretty sure torture is a good idea. From the New Yorker:

In a more sober tone, he said, “We’ve had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, ‘You don’t realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.’ They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that.

So how does Surnow know so much more than actual military and FBI interrogators? I wanted to know a little more about his background. From Wikipedia:

Surnow was born in Michigan, however his family moved to Los Angeles when he was ten years old. His father was an itinerant carpet salesman. He graduated from Beverly Hills High in 1972 and attended UC Berkeley before transferring to the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television in 1975.

Soon after graduation, he began writing for film; he then switched to television. His breakthrough came when he began writing for "Miami Vice," in 1984. By the end of the year, Universal Studios, which owned the show, put Surnow in charge of his own series, "The Equalizer," about a CIA officer turned vigilante.

He has five daughters, two from a previous marriage and three with his current wife.

Impressive resume but something seems to be missing... Oh I know. Any mention of a military background, or police work, or any martial training whatsoever, that would qualify him to make pronouncements on the efficacy of torture. Yet Surnow concludes that he knows more than the people who face these realities every day and disregards the nervous nellies who worry about trifles like the safety of our troops.

Surnow is the chicken-hawk's chicken-hawk; rubbing shoulders with draft-dodgers like Rush "Boil On His Butt" Limbaugh, Karl "Dubious College Deferment" Rove, and the psychotic wife of Dick "5 Deferments" Cheney, who describes herself as "an extreme '24' fan."

The show with its prominently featured torture porn has become a rallying point for neo-conservatives.

In fact, many prominent conservatives speak of “24” as if it were real. John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who helped frame the Bush Administration’s “torture memo”—which, in 2002, authorized the abusive treatment of detainees—invokes the show in his book “War by Other Means.” He asks, “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?”

But the "ticking time bomb" device that the show uses week after week, is truly a fictive construct. Torture as an interrogation method is known by experts in the field to be unreliable and ineffective.

But Navarro, who estimates that he has conducted some twelve thousand interrogations, replied that torture was not an effective response. “These are very determined people, and they won’t turn just because you pull a fingernail out,” he told me. And Finnegan argued that torturing fanatical Islamist terrorists is particularly pointless. “They almost welcome torture,” he said. “They expect it. They want to be martyred.” A ticking time bomb, he pointed out, would make a suspect only more unwilling to talk. “They know if they can simply hold out several hours, all the more glory—the ticking time bomb will go off!”

That these "enhanced" measures would be embraced by chicken-hawks, in direct contradiction of pragmatic reality should come as no shock. After all, living vicariously through bizarrely idealized visions of the martial experiences of others is what they do. And like cosseted Romans at the collisseum, the gorier the spectacle, the more they enjoy it.

Laura Ingraham, the talk-radio host, has cited the show’s popularity as proof that Americans favor brutality. “They love Jack Bauer,” she noted on Fox News. “In my mind, that’s as close to a national referendum that it’s O.K. to use tough tactics against high-level Al Qaeda operatives as we’re going to get.” Surnow once appeared as a guest on Ingraham’s show; she told him that, while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, “it was soothing to see Jack Bauer torture these terrorists, and I felt better.” Surnow joked, “We love to torture terrorists—it’s good for you!”

Real military commanders like Finnegan worry that life is beginning to imitate art, and that it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach cadets to adhere the laws of war, because of the pervasive influence of shows like "24." But Surnow did not hear out his concerns. Just as he did with any kind of military service, Surnow avoided the meeting.

Several top producers of “24” were present, but Surnow was conspicuously absent. Surnow explained to me, “I just can’t sit in a room that long. I’m too A.D.D.—I can’t sit still.” He told the group that the meeting conflicted with a planned conference call with Roger Ailes, the chairman of the Fox News Channel.


Anonymous said...

Well, actually...maybe the American people DO favor torture.

There's a 2004 poll that claims that 63% of respondents opposed torture.

But--and it's quite a condition--these respondents favored maltreatment that the pollsters defined as "physical abuse" that "borders" torture but isn't really torture.

Given pro and con arguments, 63 percent in an ABC News/Washington Post poll say torture is never acceptable, even when other methods fail and authorities believe the suspect has information that could prevent terrorist attacks. Thirty-five percent say torture is acceptable in some such cases.

There's more of a division, though, on physical abuse that falls short of torture: Forty-six percent say it's acceptable in some cases, while 52 percent say not.

Majorities identify three specific coercive practices as acceptable: sleep deprivation (66 percent call it acceptable), hooding (57 percent) and "noise bombing" (54 percent), in which a suspect is subjected to loud noises for long periods.

Source: http://abcnews.go.com/sections/us/Polls/torture_poll_040527.html

Small problem: sleep deprivation IS torture (and "noise bombing" is a form of that). International legal experts have declared that sleep deprivation violates Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court of Israel have ruled sleep deprivation inhumane and unlawful.

And the US Army's own training manual (an FM, or field manual)declares that sleep deprivation is torture: FM 34-52 describes "abnormal sleep deprivation" as a form of mental torture.

I have never watched a single episode of "24" but people have described them to me--and I was appalled, horrified. Many of the people watching them have reported that they approve of Jack Bauer's actions (like shooting one suspect and threatening to shoot another if they didn't divulge the information he wanted). And these people describe themselves as "liberals".


Anonymous said...

I think you're being a little hard on Mr Surenough here. When he said They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that. what he meant (obviously) is he doesn't believe torture doesn't work to increase viewer numbers. I mean, that's what it's all about, right?

Curmudgette said...

Anonymous said...

I think you're being a little hard on Mr Surenough here. When he said They say torture doesn’t work. But I don’t believe that. what he meant (obviously) is he doesn't believe torture doesn't work to increase viewer numbers. I mean, that's what it's all about, right?

In a strange way, I wish that were the case. The thing about this guy is that he's a true believer. While some of the other producers and talent think of the show as entertainment and fantasy, and Keifer Sutherland hopes that it doesn't have unintended consequences, Surnow's intent is to have a political and social impact.