Redemption, the 24 prequel, hits British screens this evening, on Sky 1 — “the first new material from 24 producers in nearly two years”, according to the Sky preview.
But what Sky doesn’t tell you is this: during that period information has emerged to confirm the real, negative effects of the series, which spins the pernicious message that “torture works” and is a legitimate tool in the fight to protect national security. Nor does the preview tell us if the next series of 24 (Day 7) will stay on message or shift direction. The impacts of 24 on real events – for example on the abuse of detainees at Guantánamo and at Abu Ghraib – had long been a matter of speculation. It was explored in detail in an important article by Jane Mayer published in the New Yorker magazine in February 2007. Mayer described a conversation with Joel Surnow, the co-creator and executive producer of 24. “There are not a lot of measures short of extreme measures that will get it done,” he told her, adding: “America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer. He’s a patriot.”
I accidentally stumbled across the connection between fiction and reality, and wrote about it in my book Torture Team and a related article for Vanity Fair magazine. In early 2007 I interviewed Diane Beaver, the lawyer who had been the staff judge advocate down at Guantánamo when, in the autumn of 2002, decisions were being taken on the authorisation of 18 new techniques of interrogation for a detainee who was thought to be the 20th hijacker. The second series of 24 went to air on October 29 2002, at the very time these decisions were being taken. Beaver described to me how the series was shown at Guantánamo. I noted what she described to me, writing on a pad “24 – Becker”. It didn’t ring any bells, I’d never seen the programme.
Later, I went back to my hotel and typed up my notes. Not recognising the words I’d written down, I put them into the Google search engine, which responded “Did you mean: 24 – Bauer”, and directed me to the Fox TV website. Bauer had many friends at Guantánamo Bay, Beaver told me the next time we met, and “gave people lots of ideas”. “We saw it on cable,” she explained. “People had already seen the first series, it was hugely popular.” Others who were at Guantánamo at the time confirmed her account. Some described to me how the series contributed directly to an environment encouraging those in the interrogation facility to see themselves as being on the front line, and to go further than they otherwise might have. 24 also made it more difficult for those who objected to the abuse to stop it.
My writings on this subject have generated a decent mailbag over the past few months. But the most interesting correspondence came just last week. “I’m a US actor, living in Los Angeles,” wrote the author. “In September of 2007, I was offered a role on 24.” The actor told his agent to reject the offer, because he objected to the programme’s message. His agent told him that Howard Gordon, the principal executive producer, wanted to speak. The actor sent Gordon an email, expressing his concerns about the positive depictions of torture on the programme. Apparently, a lengthy exchange followed, in which the two debated the morality of torture and the potential impact of 24 on the moral sentiments of its millions of viewers. The actor offered to make the dialogue public, and Gordon apparently responded with “some enthusiasm”, until Fox’s publicity department stepped in and warned him against any exposure of the exchanges.
The actor shared with me some extracts of Gordon’s views. He told the actor that “I lack the conviction that torture is, under any circumstances, an unacceptable option”. He lacked that conviction because “I lack the knowledge, I just don’t know enough about the efficacy of torture”. I’ve no reason to doubt that Gordon is a thoroughly decent man. He’s smart; he went to Princeton. Through his work he would have access to a great number of lawyers, any one of whom would have told him, if he had cared to enquire, that torture is illegal in all circumstances. His own convictions, or lack of knowledge, are a total irrelevance.
Gordon also told the actor about his belief that it was “essentially true that … 24 posits that torture is a necessary evil that works and is therefore acceptable”. There was also an indication of concern. “I would hate to think,” wrote Gordon, “that I’ve somehow been the midwife to some public acceptance of torture.”
Well, the reality for Gordon, on the account given to me by Diane Beaver as well as others, is that he seems to have become the very midwife he feared. And not just to the public acceptance of torture, but to its actual use on real, living human beings.
Perhaps this might give Gordon and his colleagues some pause for thought. Perhaps this might encourage a rethinking of the entire thrust of the programme. Perhaps Day 7 might do the right thing and embrace reality: that torture is not justified, that it can never be lawful, that it produces unreliable information, and that it serves as one of the best recruiting tools for those who seek to do us serious harm. In short, torture doesn’t work, and it’s not a legitimate tool in the fight to protect national security.