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Stephen King on torture and TV

EW’s columnist on the violence on shows like ”24” and ”Lost”

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I hail from a family of rock-ribbed Republicans (my grandfather disliked FDR so much he only referred to him as ”that fool in the White House”), but I got pushed left during the idiocy that was Vietnam and have been voting Democrat ever since. My euphoria over the election of Barack Obama was only surpassed by my pleasure in knowing Dubya was back in Texas, where he could do no further damage. I’m delighted by the new president’s decision to close the gulag known as Guanténamo, and I was horrified by the violations of human rights and human decency that took place in Abu Ghraib. I’m no fan of torture…but I am a fan of 24, and I’ve been irritated by the flak it’s taken as a poster child for officially sanctioned torture.

It’s not as though torture hasn’t been a major plot device on lots of popular TV series; it has. Who can forget Sayid prying information out of Benjamin Linus (a.k.a. Henry Gale) on Lost? That was a great dramatic sequence because of the very real possibility that old Benny Bug-Eyes was telling the truth about who he was and how he got to the Island.

Or how about Sayid and Jack working Sawyer over in order to make him give up Shannon’s asthma inhalers? Reeds under the fingernails, man. Not nice. Jack’s justification was simple and brutal. ”This was Sawyer’s choice,” he tells Kate when she protests. ”Not mine.” (Sawyer takes it on the chin from the Others as well — remember those electric shocks in the polar-bear cage?) There’s an episode of The Shield where the Strike Team gives one of the bad guys a little stove-burner facial. Not to mention the episode of Breaking Bad where Walter has the drug dealer bicycle-locked to a post in the basement. That ends with as vicious a choking as you’ll ever see.

There are other examples, but in all of them, the persons being tortured totally deserve what’s happening to them. The same is true in 24. Jack Bauer never drags a random shopper out of the supermarket to brush up on his waterboarding skills. Yet his tactics have come in for a critical pasting that Sayid, Vic Mackey, and Walter White of Breaking Bad have never had to endure. Is it because Jack is presented as ”good” while Sayid, Vic, and Walter are presented as ”bad”? Nope. Even Vic Mackey — easily the worst of them — can justify the pain he inflicts; he’s ”keeping the scum off the streets.” I think the Jack Question arises because critics see his methods as a way of justifying immoral behavior when it comes to waging the war on terror. In this crypto-political take on videoland, Sayid sticking reeds under Sawyer’s fingernails is entertainment; Jack Bauer holding a ballpoint pen to an evildoer’s eyeball is propaganda. So far no one has come right out and claimed that 24 caused the Abu Ghraib atrocities (if it did, how to explain even worse atrocities in Vietnam, long before Jack started his daylong antiterrorist rampages?). Still, the suggestion is there. And in a way, that’s great for the powers that be. They can say, ”This isn’t our fault; television made it happen.”

What the critics of 24 either can’t or won’t understand is that the majority of viewers know that such sequences are pure fiction, and satisfy an unrealistic but emotionally valid desire for simple answers. And, I’d argue, Jack has never used extreme measures except during situations of clear and present danger. If some crazy guy was on the verge of blowing up Denver or gassing the entire population of Los Angeles, even Dennis Kucinich might be tempted to hook him up to the nearest Delco car battery in order to get some answers. And there’s part of me — a primitive beast living on the borderland between my ego and my id — who always rejoices when Jack takes out his whuppin’ stick. ”Let the guy have it!” this part of me yells. ”He’s nothing but a lousy coward, so give him the business!”

This is not real life, and there’s nothing educational about it. But 24 is neither the nightly news nor Sesame Street. It is — let’s say it all together — escapist entertainment. It makes me feel, if only for 44 minutes each week, that there are easy answers and quick solutions. I know there aren’t, and that’s precisely why it’s such a relief to see Jack Bauer on the case. So if I promise not to try this at home, would you guys please give him back his ballpoint pen and let him save the world?

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