Jack off…the television: Reflections on the end of 24


In approximately three weeks time, the terrorists will have finally prevailed when our friend and saviour Jack Bauer either dies, retires, or is revealed to have been a Cylon all along. I am referring, of course, to the series finale of 24, set to air on May 24th (Oh, those fucking marketing geniuses at Fox!). Though I’ve never been a fan of the show – more on that later – I cannot help but lament the fact that the writers will no longer have the opportunity to explore so many new avenues now that the series has met its demise. For example, I’ve always envisioned a season taking place on Jack’s day off from saving the world. Six episodes of said season would consist entirely of our man Jack lounging on his back porch, consuming beer by the case and vigorously scratching his ballsac as one does on a day off. “Groundbreaking television” would be an understatement in describing such riveting and risk-taking drama.

Nonetheless, I figured it would be appropriate to reflect on what has always irritated me about the show and why I could never take it seriously. Namely, I am referring to its explicit endorsement of torture in the “War on Terror” and its consistent use of the so-called “ticking time-bomb” scenario to justify such techniques. This, I should say, is not unique to 24. In fact, it seems that every debate surrounding the issue of liberty vs. security and the role of torture in that dilemma seems to come down to a scenario wherein an entire city faces imminent destruction which can only be prevented by violently extracting information from one of the conspirators, whether through waterboarding, sleep deprivation, psychological torture, etc.  When the entire question rests upon such a narrowly framed and unlikely situation, participants, at least in my opinion, far too often relent and opt for the aforementioned gruesome techniques.

Therefore, as I’ve stated, my problem is primarily with the “ticking time-bomb” framework, though 24 has indeed consistently championed this justification for torture. Furthermore, I am aware that 24 is “just a television show” and “pure entertainment” and should not be taken seriously yada yada yada. None of that, however, precludes me from hating the shit out of the show and finding it utterly devoid of nuance, subtlety, and intelligence. Having said that, using material from a previous piece of writing, I will attempt to outline why I find the ‘ticking time-bomb’ so despicable as a justification of torture. Though I won’t go into much more detail, I will say that I find torture impermissible in all cases.

First and foremost, the scenarios depicted in 24 and in any ticking time-bomb type example are so narrowly framed that they fail to account for the longterm consequences of torture and the detrimental impact of such techniques with regard to shared rules of war. War is not simply a zero-sum game, and paradoxical as it might sound, it is of the utmost importance to maintain credibility with one’s enemy in order to ensure a lasting and effective peace post-conflict. Violations of international law and the subsequent effects upon a nation’s image in the world as a belligerent or rogue state ultimately invite blowback. The story simply doesn’t end when Jack Bauer pulls out some poor sap’s fingernails and averts disaster. Here’s what I wrote previously:

In such a case (the ticking time-bomb case), the choice is narrowed to the value of one life (the potential terrorist) versus that of potentially thousands of innocent civilians. When human life is the value at stake, especially when the choice is framed so rigidly as one between saving one life over that of thousands, it makes perfect sense for an individual or a group seeking to maximize what they value to consent to torture. The straightforward cost-benefit analysis which emerges from the ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario therefore provides a justification for torture on the basis of utility maximization, as the benefit of saving thousands will clearly surpass the costs of potentially losing merely one life, particularly that of a terrorist.

The ‘ticking time-bomb’ case, however, is problematic for a variety of reasons, the first being that it is so narrowly framed it fails to account for several calculations and considerations that ought to be included in such decisions. Mark Danner eloquently outlines the likelihood of blowback that could very well result from the now infamous photos of detainee treatment in Abu Ghraib, stating, “[w]hat is clear is that the Abu Ghraib photographs and the terrible story they tell have done great damage to what was left of America’s moral power in the world, and thus its power to inspire hope rather than hatred among Muslims (Danner).” Implicit in Danner’s statement is the possibility that torture, especially of the variety that took place at Abu Ghraib, could very well produce more backlash from the Muslim world, possibly in the form of more terrorism.

The potential impact of employing torture on detainees on America’s image in the world and the potential consequences of a tarnished image is a calculation missing from the ‘ticking-time bomb’ scenario, which frames the choice of whether or not to torture only in the short term. The long-run costs of such techniques, especially those of a particularly gruesome nature, could very well be more terrorism and with it more lives of innocent civilians. In addition to potential blowback, according to Danner, several top commanders in Iraq that little was learned about the insurgency from interrogations (Danner). These facts drastically change the outcome of the initial cost-benefit analysis.

Add to this the fact that many of these “enhanced interrogation techniques” are mostly unproven as effective techniques for extracting information and the ticking time-bomb justification seems more foolish. In my previous piece, I asserted the ineffectiveness of torture with support from Alex Bellamy, stating:

The second major problem with the ‘ticking-time bomb’ case, previously alluded to, is the fact that it rests on an assumption that torture works and is an effective means for extracting information which will save lives (Bellamy, 138). Bellamy notes, however, that there is a significant lack of information which would make such a claim conclusive. One striking example of the ineffectiveness of torture in some cases, according to Bellamy, was a case in the Philippines in which a suspected terrorist revealed details of a plot to blow up eleven aircraft simultaneously over the pacific (Bellamy, 138). In this particular case, however, the necessary information was not extracted until sixty-seven days of torture had been carried out, making it unclear that such techniques would work were the threat imminent (Bellamy, 138). Furthermore, Bellamy notes that there is no consensus within US security services as to the effectiveness of torture (Bellamy, 138).

Lastly, if you will continue to indulge me, there is still the fact that the type of justification in question epitomizes the politics of fear. In fact, in the emerging field of behavioural economics, evidence seems to indicate that the “ticking time-bomb” plays directly into our cognitive shortcomings and tendency to frame such decisions narrowly. Knowing this to be the case, it ought to be the duty of decision-makers to counter these shortcomings and move away from these narrow and flimsy justifications of torture. One more excerpt from my piece, if you will:

Also problematic in the ‘ticking time-bomb’ case are the cognitive constraints which display themselves in human economic decision-making, where economic simply implies that the decision at hand consists of prospects of losses and gains. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, in a series of experiments examining the effects of the framing of outcomes upon decision-making come to the conclusion that “choices involving gains are often risk averse and choices involving losses are often risk taking (Tversky and Kahneman, 453).”

The authors illustrate this in an example involving a disease outbreak. In the first case, participants chose between a certainty of saving 200 lives and a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved. This scenario is risk averse, as the prospect of definitely saving 200 people (a certain gain) is proven to be more attractive that the risky prospect of the second option (Tversky and Kahneman, 453). In a second risk averse scenario, participants choose between the certain death of 400 people and another option which poses a 1/3 probability that no one will die and a 2/3 probability that 600 will die. In this case, participants are willing to take risks on a lesser probability that more lives will be saved rather than accept the death of 400 (Tversky and Kahneman, 453).

Tversky and Kahneman’s epidemic example illustrates that the framing of a decision is key when it comes to the eventual choice that agents will support. The second scenario is a near mirror reflection of the ‘ticking time-bomb’ dilemma, which posits a scenario in which a particular action – torture – will prevent the loss of a greater number of lives, whereas not torturing will result in a certain number of deaths. Given the findings of Tversky and Kahneman, it is to be expected that the public will be supportive of a technique like torture if it is presented as yielding a probability, however small, that a great number of lives will be spared.

In addition to the problem of framing, Tversky and Kahneman conclude from their findings that “people generally evaluate acts in terms of a minimal account, which includes only the direct consequences of the act (Tversky and Kahneman, 456).” Adopting these minimal accounts are often necessary, given the intense amount of labour required in assessing further consequences of the act, especially those not tied directly to it (Tversky and Kahneman, 457). This dynamic is clearly at play in the ‘ticking time-bomb’ scenario, in which agents are asked to make their decision based solely on the direct consequences without considering long term implications or whether the method is in fact effective.

Framing clearly matters in a significant manner when it comes to decision-making and often determines the choice of an agent, group, or even an entire society based on that framing. In the case of the ‘ticking time-bomb,’ the framing of the problem is not only decidedly narrow but based on wildly hypothetical and extraordinary circumstances. Pure cost-benefit models of analysis are therefore inherently problematic given that not all consequences can be accounted for and that many decisions framed in that manner play directly into the cognitive constraints of human decision-makers, in turn forcing decisions with potentially dire consequences.

So there you have my harangue on torture and why I cannot stand the show 24. The series has consistently endorsed the type of thinking I’ve taken such issue with here and what’s more is the fact that the creators seem to take it very seriously. In a 2007 piece in the New Yorker, show creator Joel Surnow states, referring to the need for extreme actions in fighting terrorism, “there are not a lot of measures short of extreme measures that will get it done.” Surnow adds, “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.” Lastly, Mr. Surnow seems fully in line with the ticking time-bomb mentality and also with the notion that torture is effective, despite no agreement from the military establishment or from intelligence experts. In the conclusion to Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile, Surnow asserts,

“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. I don’t think it’s honest to say that if someone you love was being held, and you had five minutes to save them, you wouldn’t do it. Tell me, what would you do? If someone had one of my children, or my wife, I would hope I’d do it. There is nothing—nothing—I wouldn’t do.” He went on, “Young interrogators don’t need our show. What the human mind can imagine is so much greater than what we show on TV. No one needs us to tell them what to do. It’s not like somebody goes, ‘Oh, look what they’re doing, I’ll do that.’ Is it?”

Such, it seems, are the underpinnings of a show like 24. Surnow may see it as his patriotic duty to provide audiences with a hero like Jack Bauer who saves the day, but I simply cannot help but be frustrated by such a two dimensional approach to an invariably complex issue. Yes, 24 is just a television show, but I can only see it as helping to perpetuate a narrow-mindedness that permeates our pubic discourse.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion, what the hell do I really know? If I have misquoted or misstated any facts, please alert me to that in the comments section so that I might make the necessary corrections.

Further Reading (including all pieces I’ve cited in this entry):

Jane Mayer’s profile of 24’s creator Joel Surnow can be read here.

Mark Danner’s The Logic of Torture.

I don’t have links to these last two pieces but here are their full citations:

Bellamy, Alex J. “No Pain, No Gain? Torture and Ethics in the War on Terror.” International Affairs 82, 1 (2006), 121-148
Tversky, Amos and Daniel Kahneman. “The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.” Science 211, 4481 (1981), 453-458
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3 Comments

  1. Zack

     /  May 12, 2010

    have you seen Taxi to The Dark Side lately?

    Reply
    • I actually haven’t seen that film, though I’ve read a bit about it. I will most definitely make an effort to check it out. Thanks.

      Reply
  1. The Message is the Message « We are Living in a Society

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