Terror, Torture and Jack Bauer

Last year saw the end of an era in TV with both Lost and 24 coming to a close. These were probably two of the best, controversial and, indeed, polarising shows of the last decade, but where as Lost was pure hokum, 24 had it's fair share of real world parallels. In fact some say it's popularity could be said to have been a result of coming so soon after the tragic events of 9/11 when the air was full of talk of conspiracy theories and terrorists. And while 24 was undoubtedly influenced by real world events it has also exerted some influence on reality itself. The US Army, reportedly, had to call the show's producers to request they toned down the use of torture on the show as it was having a negative effect on new recruits.

Some people would surely argue that TV shows and movies, and even video games, have little or no impact on real life, and are rather a reflection of it, but this view seems naive and, on some level, irresponsible. An article in the Economist talked about the "CSI Effect" that is causing trouble in American courtrooms, where jurors have unrealistic expectations about what forensic science can prove, after seeing the TV Show "C.S.I." 1 As already mentioned 24 has also had a tangible impact on people's views on the use of torture and what is acceptable in the War against Terror. The flow of ideas, therefore, must be seen as two-way, each affecting the other, art reflecting life and, as Oscar Wilde said, life reflecting art.

24 at least depicts the use of torture within a moral frame work and, on some level, adds to the debate about what is acceptable in extreme circumstances. It is akin to a dramatic representation of the "dirty hands" or "ticking bomb" problem that has been debated in ethics, philosophy and politics.

The "ticking bomb" problem, asks what lengths you would go to if you captured a terrorist who had information about an immanent bomb threat in a school. 2 It is pretty easy to come to the conclusion that torture, in this extreme circumstance, might be an acceptable way of getting information from the terrorist. However Philip Bobbitt, among others, in his book "Terror and Consent", makes the point that the ticking bomb situation is actually pretty unrealistic. There are simply too many variables and as an example it is too perfect to be a fair indicator of whether using torture is ever acceptable.

24 is unrealistic for the same reasons, the situation is always perfect and Jack Bauer is always right. Even when he's completely off the rails, as in the end of Season 8, he is still doing the right thing, when he's doing something despicably nasty we sort of feel his motives are in someway good. 24 is a fantasy and Jack Bauer is almost a superhero imbued with impeccable virtue and heroism. If only the real world were so cut and dried.

It seems that torture has made it's way into mainstream cinema as well, albeit in a very different, and for me, slightly disturbing context. The most obvious example is the 2005 movie Hostel and it's sequel Hostel: Part II, the plots of which revolve around people paying to torture, mutilate and kill others, in various debauched ways, with the viewer watching on.

This is of course a horror movie, and I have nothing against horror movies as such, whether it be classic slasher flicks, such as Friday 13th or Halloween, or Ridley Scott's brilliant Alien, perhaps because they have an element of fantasy about them, theatrics if you will. But there is something all the more disquieting about just watching people be mutilated, tortured and killed almost for its own sake. In fact an extremely graphic Japanese movie was banned recently by the British Board of Film Classification 3 on precisely these grounds and Hostel: Part II was cut and even banned in some countries.

Some argue that such censorship goes against freedom of speech, in America maybe First Amendment rights, as lawyer and writer Julia Hilden argues in her blog 4, but we employ censorship for the same reason we employ government, to protect the common good. It is no doubt true that there is something corrupting about dwelling on "evil" things, and the more we dwell on them the less "evil" and more acceptable they seem to become, surely employing censorship is sometimes a good thing. It could be argued, as Kant might, that absolute freedom is not really freedom at all.

Hilden also defends the Hostel movies on the grounds that they are anti-violence, but this must surely be a fallacy, and self-referential circular reasoning. How can a movie be anti-violence when it employs such extreme violence to put the message across? By exploiting the very thing you are trying to damn you render your argument worthless. It is foolhardy to think that these movies were made for any other reason than entertainment and I think it is hard to justify any more subtle commentary in the narrative.

It also makes me wonder about the kind of people who make and watch these movies. A recent episode of "Lie to Me", hardly the most reliable of sources admittedly, pointed out that those who enjoy seeing images of others suffering are not far off being psychopathic and that brought to mind a passage in Jung's "The Undiscovered Self" where he says, "Such individuals are by no means curiosities to be met with only in prisons and lunatic asylums. For every manifest case of insanity there are, in my estimation, at least ten latent cases who seldom get to the point of breaking out..." 5 Perhaps some kind of psychological study of people who enjoy making and watching such kinds of movies might be enlightening.

Do we have some need to explore the darker side of ourselves, of human nature? Another recent movie, which is it's self a remake, endeavours to use rape as a horror device. Horrifying it certainly is and it only seems to consist of a woman being brutalised for half the movie and her equally appalling revenge for the second half. Certainly we are supposed to sympathise with her, and indeed in reality may be we would react with violence and anger given the situation, but does that make it suitable material for entertainment. Entertainment focused on sadism and torture?!

Perhaps, there is also a need to challenge a feeling of safety among the average citizen in the westernised world. Though for most this safety is largely an illusion. You just have to look at any newspaper in any country to see that such brutality exists among us; men killing prostitutes with crossbows in the UK; girls found in baths of sand in Japan; fathers locking their children in basements in the US. It happens, and happens easily, as the Stanford Prison experiment showed, and that is without going into the horrors of life in other parts of the world. Is it that we have become so desensitised to the onslaught of real life horrors that we find it acceptable in our entertainment? By doing so we are doing ourselves an injustice. We are making light of the pain and suffering of the victims, and what we believe to be universal human rights.

We believe in human rights, and the International bill that is part of International law, because it upholds the basic principles of what it takes for everyone to live a good life. We are rightly morally outraged when our governments are found to be complicit in torture because torture undermines their legitimacy 6, damages our self-image and our belief that we are at least trying to live the good life. Perhaps this is why I find torture in horror movies so disconcerting too; it diminishes the value of human life and it is not contributing anything to the Socratic and Aristolean tradition of the good life. Something at least Jack Bauer, who thankfully is never wrong, is trying to defend.

January 2011


1. "Crime Scene Investigation". The CSI Effect http://www.economist.com/node/15949089?story_id=15949089
2. A school is a particularly emotive example but any, where innocents would be killed, would suffice.
3. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/8209829.stm
4. http://writ.news.findlaw.com/hilden/20070716.htm
5. Carl Gustav Jung "The Undiscovered Self" - Routledge Classic 2002
6. It is interesting to note that Al Jazeera television stopped, during one particular incident, showing footage of jihadists essentially torturing a kidnap victim in Iraq because it realised that it was undermining support for the political agenda of the insurgency amongst the Muslim community.

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