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TV torture scenes trouble human rights activists

Reuters | March 8, 2007
Steve Gorman

Desperate to get answers from a terrorism suspect who is refusing to talk, steely eyed U.S. intelligence agent Jack Bauer bursts into an interrogation room and shoots the prisoner in the leg.

In an instant, the squirming, grimacing villain fesses up, revealing the target of an assassination plot.

On other occasions, our hero seeks to obtain crucial information from bad guys by suffocating them with a plastic bag, administering pain-inducing intravenous drugs or even cutting off a finger.

Welcome to an evening of television in post-September 11 America.

Whether it shocks the conscience of civil libertarians or warms the hearts of vigilantes, this kind of drama has made the Emmy-winning spy thriller "24" one of the Fox network's biggest hits, and actor Kiefer Sutherland, who plays agent Jack Bauer on the show, one of its hottest stars.

It also has sparked debate about the link between Hollywood's portrayals of coercive interrogation and the treatment of real U.S.-held detainees in places like Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. In fact, some military interrogators say they have based their techniques on what they have seen on television.

In a recent trend that troubles human rights activists, depictions of torture have grown far more prevalent in numerous TV dramas since the September 11 attacks.

Moreover, TV's tormentors are more likely than before to be the good guys -- using brutality to extract information from recalcitrant evil-doers for the sake of truth, justice and national security.

From 2002 through 2005, TV watchdog group the Parents Television Council counted 624 torture scenes in prime time, a six-fold increase over the previous four years. The group also found that "24" alone accounted for 67 such scenes in its first five seasons, more than any other show.

Fox and "24" producers declined comment for this article. But executive producer Howard Gordon recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer he would tone down the show's torture quotient because "it is starting to feel a little trite."

As recently as this week, however, Jack Bauer was up to his old tricks. In Monday's episode, he raided the office of a corrupt Russian consul to the United States, punched the diplomat in the face, then cut off one of his fingers with a cigar clip. In less than a minute, our hero learned the approximate whereabouts of three suitcase nuclear bombs.


Syracuse University media scholar Robert Thompson said such TV melodrama, while shocking to some, serves as a kind of wish fulfillment for the masses.

"If you can't be shown kicking the enemy's butt in real life, we then demand it in fiction. And that's what's so satisfying about '24.' It's the Lone Ranger fantasy," he said. "So while I would never want to support the kinds of torture that go on in '24' in real life, I would miss them if they went away in the show."

"24" is hardly alone. ABC's castaway thriller "Lost," NBC's "Law & Order" and the FX cop drama "The Shield" are among many shows that have featured their protagonists physically abusing heavies to solve crime or otherwise save the day.

Most disturbing, according to some experts, is that such entertainment has inspired real-life American soldiers assigned to question prisoners without proper training, or under controversial new interrogation directives that critics say permit torture and disregard the Geneva Conventions.

During his time in Iraq, military interrogators were told "to be creative," said Tony Lagouranis, a veteran U.S. Army interrogator who worked at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"We got an open-ended interrogation rule of engagement saying you can basically do whatever the hell you want," Lagouranis told Reuters. "And so, in the absence of training, because we weren't trained how to torture, we turned to what we saw on television."

Lagouranis is one of three former U.S. interrogators who joined the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and representatives from the group Human Rights First last fall for a meeting with producers and writers for "24." Similar talks were held with the creative team at "Lost."

Their goal was to urge the writers to make their depictions of torture and interrogation more realistic, In other words, to show torture as a highly fraught, untidy process that generally fails to produce reliable information.



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