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Fictional ‘24' brings real issue of torture home
TV hero's tactics debated in world after Abu Ghraib

USA Today | March 15 2005

In the post-9/11 world, torture has hit the public radar in news reports about Abu Ghraib, congressional questioning of Cabinet nominees and, increasingly, as a featured interrogation tactic on Fox's serial thriller 24 (tonight, 9 ET/PT).

As politicians, pundits and the public debate extreme interrogation, 24 — which is enjoying a surge in critical praise and a 32% jump in viewers this season — has jumped to action.

To thwart a terrorist plot, hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) and his Counter Terrorist Unit have shot a suspect in the leg while interrogating him; subjected the son of the defense secretary to high-tech sensory disorientation; stun-gunned a suspected but innocent colleague; and used a lamp cord to shock information from a businessman.

For 24's producers, in their fourth season of constructing a save-the-world scenario that must be completed in one day, the use of torture is about “real-time” drama, not politics.

“It goes with the 24 conceit that we need information and don't have days to break this person. Sometimes we don't even have hours,” executive producer Howard Gordon says.

24's writers aren't taking a political stand, but they know that the real-world debate, with its pros and cons, is in the public consciousness, Gordon says. The substance of an upcoming episode will hinge on whether the president allows a suspect's torture, he says.

Outsiders have drawn connections between the real world and the fictional 24. The Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the depiction of Muslim terrorists; a New York Times column compared 24's focus on domestic terror threats to the Bush administration's focus on Iraq; and Karen Greenberg, co-editor of The Torture Papers: The Road to Abu Ghraib, mentioned the series in a Baltimore Sun column about U.S. torture policy.

Alistair Hodgett of Amnesty International credits 24 and A&E's MI-5, which follows the British security service, with realistic depictions that provide “a clearer idea of what torture involves. … They do more to educate than desensitize.”

Gordon says 24 taps into the public's “fear-based wish fulfillment” of having protectors, such as Bauer, who will do whatever is necessary to save society from harm. But it shows a dark side, too.

“Jack Bauer is a tragic character. He doesn't get away with it clean. He's got blood on his hands,” Gordon says. “In some ways, he is a necessary evil.”

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