Monday, May 18, 2009

If only conservatives were more like Jack Bauer. (Seriously.)

I know that's an odd claim, given how much they already idolize the fictional hero of "24," but I'm convinced they need to take their devotion one step further.

First, some background:

Tonight wraps up Season 7 (or, in the vernacular of the series, "Day 7") of "24." At the end of the previous season, almost two years ago, I predicted that I wouldn't bother watching it again. Even if they brought back femme fatale Nina Myers--who, I remind you, could kill you with half a credit card if she felt like it!--it just seemed the series had run its course and was getting by on recycled hooks from earlier seasons.

But I got drawn into watching this season anyway--not because it was the novel knuckle-biter that Season/Day 1 was, so many years/days ago, but because it looked like they were trying something interesting: This season, Jack's penchant for torturing suspects and sources at the drop of a hat became foregrounded as the theme, not simply backgrounded as a plot device.

The season begins with Jack hauled back from self-imposed exile in Africa to testify before a Senate committee investigating the rogue tactics of the now-disbanded Counter Terrorism Unit where he once worked. Jack has only begun to testify (in his trademark snarl), parading his undisguised contempt for the chair of the committee and the lily-livered hypocrisy he represents to Jack, when he's whisked from the hearing room by FBI agents. They need him because--say it with me--he's the only person who can help them avert a ticking bomb-style threat to the nation. In the process he's paired up with an FBI agent who regards him and his tactics with disdain. She tells him in no uncertain terms that she won't tolerate his ultraviolent methods while they're working together. And, with that, the story is off and running.

The moment soon comes--more than one, in fact; this is "24" after all--when they need information from a terrorist collaborator, they have no time to spare, and the FBI agent's fastidiousness about Jack's methods begins to totter. Bauer doesn't pass up any opportunity to rub her nose in her new-found ambivalence.

That tension continues explicitly throughout the season. In particular, though, I want to focus on that bit of Senate testimony by Bauer, in which the theme is first spelled out.

That episode aired on January 11, 2009. In what most of us still call "the real world," to distinguish it from things like "24," president-elect Obama was scheduled to take the oath of office nine days later. In 2008, candidate Obama had promised that he would close GITMO and end state-sponsored torture. Right-wing commentators across America went ballistic. Their most feverish fears about Obama as the dupe--if not the agent--of powers determined to destroy our nation seemed confirmed.

(And of course, four months later there's now a growing amount of evidence that torture, carried out at Dick Cheney's behest, was used for political purposes, to elicit evidence linking Iraq and al Qaeda, whether that link was real or not. That makes the subject that much more raw for members of the Bush administration and their supporters.)

During the Senate hearing scenes on "24," Bauer is questioned by committee chair Senator Blaine Mayer (played by the wonderful Kirkwood Smith, who has made a nice career out of portraying genuinely unlikeable characters, and incidentally leaving only Miguel Ferrer and Nancy Allen as the major cast members of "Robocop" who haven't yet had a significant role on "24") . Sen. Mayer names a terrorist suspect, and asks Bauer: Did you torture him?

Under the language of the Geneva Convention, concedes Bauer, he did. He adds that, by doing so, he stopped an attack and saved the lives of 45 innocent bus passengers, including ten children.

"Even if it means breaking the law?" asks Mayer, shaking his head in disgust.

Bauer's reply to the senator quickly became so beloved by fans on the right, I'm surprised they aren't merchandising it as a framed piece of needlepoint:

For a combat soldier the difference between success and failure is your ability to adapt to your enemy. The people that I deal with, they don't care about your rules. All they care about is a result. My job is to stop them from accomplishing their objectives. I simply adapt it. In answer to your question, am I above the law? No, sir. I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent. I will let them decide what price I should pay. Now please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions that I have made because, sir, the truth is I don't.

The right-wingers, for whom Jack Bauer's earnest sadism is the mark of a true patriot, a clear-eyed enemy of terrorists, and a man's man, absolutely loved this bit of authoritarian porn. Google the search phrase "jack bauer senate" and you'll get back page after page of bloggers, columnists, and commenters whose only objection was that Bauer didn't show sufficient contempt for the likes of pusillanimous Senator Mayer, who places our country at risk by even questioning Bauer's methods.

Watch FOX's Brian Kilmeade, Steve Doocy, Gretchen Carlson, and Glenn Beck discussing the scene and you'll feel like you're seeing four bouncers from a third-rate beer-and-shot dive drooling over "Road House."

Yes, Jack's the darling of right-wing torture enthusiasts--and not just in the media; as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick noted, he had a devoted following at the top levels of Bush administration:

This fictional counterterrorism agent—a man never at a loss for something to do with an electrode—has his fingerprints all over U.S. interrogation policy. As [authors Phillipe] Sands and [Jane] Mayer tell it, the lawyers designing interrogation techniques cited Bauer more frequently than the Constitution.

According to British lawyer and writer Philippe Sands, Jack Bauer--played by Kiefer Sutherland--was an inspiration at early "brainstorming meetings" of military officials at Guantanamo in September of 2002. Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial new interrogation techniques including water-boarding, sexual humiliation, and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told Sands that Bauer "gave people lots of ideas." Michael Chertoff, the homeland-security chief, once gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show "reflects real life."

John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the so-called torture memos—simultaneously redefining both the laws of torture and logic—cites Bauer in his book War by Other Means. "What if, as the popular Fox television program '24' recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?" Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives," Scalia said. "Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?"

And yet . . . and yet . . . and yet. For all their admiration of Jack and their high-minded desire to emulate his principles and methods, there's still one part of his speech that the conservatives keep missing, one niggling little detail they always seem to overlook when they celebrate their hero. Did you see it?

It's this:

In answer to your question, am I above the law? No, sir. I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent. I will let them decide what price I should pay.

Yes, Bauer refused to apologize for his actions. But assuming his reference to being "judged by the people" doesn't refer to some sort of "American Idol"-style popularity contest (a Fox network tie-in? Ryan Seacrest telling viewers "Text 55551 to vote for torture"?), it sounds to me like Bauer was also prepared to surrender himself and stand trial before a jury of his peers. (Perhaps he would even have waived his right to counsel at trial, as he did during his Senate testimony, and simply pleaded guilty. After all, he assured Sen. Mayer that he didn't regret his actions.)

Name one proud conservative defender of the Republic who's willing to do that over the issue of torture.

Name a single one of the real-life theorists and practitioners of the Bush administration's torture policies, or their cheerleaders in the right-wing media, who is so certain of the righteousness of their means and ends that they'd be willing to risk spending even an hour behind bars for it.

Seriously. Just one.

You can't.

Lovers of patriotic torture-porn all want to play the tough guy who tramples the Constitution, but only if they know they'll let off the hook for it. Nobody wants to be a stand-up guy like Bauer. Not one of them believes that the value of information gained through torture could ever be worth the risk of jail time for themselves--not even if it was the only way to find that ticking nuclear bomb they obsess over. Not even if it was the only way to save that busload of innocent children. Not even if it was the only way to save America from a threat to its very existence.

I find that odd.

Unlike torture, which has little practical use except in coercing false confessions, there's plenty of evidence that going to prison for a just cause can bring about great change:

Gandhi happily went to prison to demonstrate the unjustness of British rule in India. In the end, he transformed the political landscape of southern Asia.

Martin Luther King willingly did time in the Birmingham jail to demonstrate the unjustness of Jim Crow laws. In the end, he transformed the political landscape of America.

If--to pick a name at random--John Yoo believes that the legal framework that stops them from openly practicing torture unjustly stands in the way of America's ability to protect itself from the threat of global terror, why be coy? Why torture in secret? Why spirit prisoners away to undisclosed locations to be subjected to their extreme interrogation methods? Why mislead Congress about it?

Why not challenge the law in the time-tested manner, by going public and announcing, like Jack Bauer, Yes, I authorized torture--and if my going to prison as a result is what it takes to make my country's legal system recognize that torture is an unfortunate but necessary tool in our nation's defense, then I'll do my time proudly.

I mean, hell--last month opponents of torture were willing to face jail time for their convictions:

61 Americans, dressed in the orange jumpsuits and black hoods that have become the symbol of Guantanamo detainees, were arrested in front of the White House in a nonviolent demonstration this afternoon.

The demonstrators each had the name of a detainee stenciled on the back of the jumpsuit. 55 of the detainees represented were cleared for release by the Bush administration but not released; an additional 5 died at the prison.

This event capped the 100 Days Campaign to Close Guantanamo and End Torture, which pressured President Obama to close the prison and end America's policies of torture and indefinite detention within his first 100 days in office.

So--and again, I'm just pulling a name out of a hat here--why isn't a pro-torture guy like Dick Cheney willing to make the same sacrifice to demonstrate his moral seriousness? Is it because the former Vice President has "other plans" again, as he did when it came to military service in Vietnam?

I think the "24" worshipers who authorized and practiced real, live torture themselves shouldn't limit themselves to half measures, like torturing in secret while prevaricating in public. I urge them: Do the Full Jack:

Call a press conference in front of the local courthouse. Proudly admit your role in designing or carrying out the Bush administration's torture policies. Apologize for nothing. Explain that you are willing to face trial and imprisonment to call attention to the injustice of the laws and treaties making such actions illegal, even though those actions were necessary to defend the safety of our nation.

And then surrender yourselves to the DA.

It's what Jack Bauer would do.


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Chuck Butcher said...

This is the nut of the issue, the damn cowards want free rein rather than responsibility. The Party of Personal Responsibility???