Negotiating a price

A. has been bingeing on DVDs of 24 recently; bingeing might be the only way to capture its headlong rush. The programme has a very distinctive form. Such a long continuous narrative inevitably ends up being all middle, the same characters bouncing to and fro in a pinball plot, or perhaps circling in a holding pattern, until the call comes to tear down to the denoument. Since efficiency of plot and production procludes continually introducing new characters (and therefore actors), all roads end up leading back to Rome. Everyone has their moment as sub-plot bad guy and good guy; every conflict permutation is checked off; every evil nemesis rises again. Structurally, what this creates is essentially a soap opera about terrorists. Glossy, to be sure, but it’s the soapiest of scaffolding keeping the gloss front and centre.

The 24-hour gimmick is realised with any plausibility in the same way that Jeopardy! realises its answer-the-answer-with-the-question with any plausibility: not at all. I caught a slightly farcical moment in which Kiefer Sutherland, driving along Figueroa in downtown LA, promised to be at some distant airstrip in ten minutes, then made it in ten minutes. Ah, I don’t think so. The compression of plot is terribly important, though. 24 is principally an exercise in running the ticking bomb scenario over and over again — often with multiple (metaphorical) ticking bombs running at the same time. The terrorism edge is new, but the ethos is a very very old one, which might be called: Due Process Doesn’t Work. It’s a hoary old standby, because it pits the maverick against the system, and because we’re hardwired to associate with the individual. Harry Callahan is only the best recent example.

Maybe partly because it is such an old trope, but I find myself slightly bothered by how politically unpleasant 24 seems to me. I’m not about to claim that it’s made by Fox to promote a political viewpoint — though (Murdoch knows) that would hardly be implausible — but nevertheless it does fit right in on Fox. 24 takes Due Process Doesn’t Work and augments it for a modern era, in a way that’s entirely consistent with the Gonzales memo. That’s what the ticking bomb scenario is for: it’s an argument for rendering ‘obsolete’ and ‘quaint’ the due process with which a civilised nation deals with the threat of terrorism, and for sanctioning torture.

Perhaps what bothers me about 24 isn’t that it accepts that there is an argument to be made against the restrictions of due process when time is short and the potential consequences are dire. No, it’s that, rather than treating the argument as a serious one, with potentially nation-changing consequences on either side, and constructing thoughtful, imaginative drama from that, it’s already decided what the answer is, and hammers away at that answer until there’s barely any trace of there ever having been an alternative. In retrospect, due process would never have been a successful approach. Each rendering of due process as obsolete and quaint turns out to be key to the saving of the day. Each small torture is worth it.

Moreover, 24 stacks the deck so heavily in its favour that the argument that it feels has been won, could hardly have been otherwise. The harmed are guilty of something, anyhow, so abuses are little more than — as the programme would appear to see it — a shortcut to justice. That’s mostly the case, at least. The third series includes a prolonged episode in which a terrorist demands that the head of the counter-terrorism unit be executed, or else dire consequences will result. Shockingly — albeit after all alternatives have been exhausted — the execution takes place. I couldn’t help but think of the line Nicholas Meyer wrote for Spock as he selflessly gave his life to save the Enterprise: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Maybe they do, but there’s a crucial inversion between the two examples: Spock willingly, and unbidden, gives his life; the terrorist chief is executed. In the world of Star Trek, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few because an individual is able to act with bravery and dignity to lay down his life. In the world of 24, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few because, well, there are, like, more of them, right? How far we’ve come in a few years.

It feels like my knee is jerking away crazily at all this, in a way that I’m not used to feeling. I don’t find myself railing against portrayals of violence in drama because I claim they make people more violent, though I’m always happy to see the consequences of violence represented with some verisimilitude — mostly because it makes better drama, dammit. And, sure, I know that torture happens, and that it’s happening right now, both at the hands of, and at the behest of, many countries around the world which fly a tarnished flag of civilisation. So what’s wrong with portraying torture as a tool of the United States, if in fact it is used as such?

Well, perhaps, to borrow from 24‘s own accounting, what’s wrong isn’t that it’s portrayed — very much not — but that so much is currently at stake from exactly how it’s portrayed. Whether this was its intention or not, 24 serves as propaganda for the effective use of torture by Our Side. Only bad guys get tortured anyhow, so what’s the problem? Torture helps our side win, so what’s the problem? Here’s something:

Al-Libbi had been beaten and injected with the so-called “truth drug”, sodium pentothal, said the official. “They have tried all possible methods, from the ‘third degree’ to injecting him with a truth serum but it is hard to break him,” he said.
In time, the officials hope that al-Libbi, 28, will tell them about forthcoming attacks, al-Qaeda’s funding and its sophisticated coded communications network.

And then, Captured Al-Qaeda kingpin is case of ‘mistaken identity’:

According to European intelligence experts, however, Abu Faraj al-Libbi was not the terrorists’ third in command, as claimed, but a middle-ranker derided by one source as “among the flotsam and jetsam” of the organisation.

Whoops. But not a single eyelash was batted, either about the matter-of-fact torture while it was thought that he was the right bad guy, or after he turned out not to be.

Post Bagram, post Camp Delta, post Abu Ghraib, it’s becoming accepted that torture is okay — it’s a good translation into real English of the White House mantra that 9/11 changed everything. I can’t honestly claim that 24 is creating that acceptance — at least once my knee stops jerking I’ll be happy saying that. The mirror it’s holding up to America probably, sadly, isn’t a distorted one; it’s in all likelihood presenting an accurate picture of a country that’s distorting itself by the week to assimilate the evils done in its name. I don’t believe art has a responsibility to reflect all voices at once, though the more it’s able to encompass, the better it’ll probably be as art. There’s fine drama to be constructed from imaginatively discussing the nature of torture in a civilised world. 24 has already decided what it thinks, and has reduced torture to a soap-opera plot device.

Maybe I just regret a missed opportunity, in popular culture, at a time when America is faced with choosing what sort of country it wants to become once the dust settles. To accept the necessity of torture would seem to be to be, if not selling one’s soul, then at least negotiating a price.

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