There's no justification for torturing the truth

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 October, 2009, 12:00am

Perhaps because Kiefer Sutherland and I went to the same high school in Toronto, I have spent a lifetime watching from afar the ups and downs of his acting career. And being the star of 24, the US media company Fox's hugely successful anti-terrorist drama series, has been his longest winning streak. The series has captivated me since its first season, which premiered two months after the fateful terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It is now into its seventh season.

Part of the series' success is that it captures the ethos of post-September 11 America, and the Bush administration's avowed need to join 'the dark side'. I am especially intrigued by how torture works as a central theme that runs through every season and practically every episode.

The latest shown on Pearl TV on Tuesday takes it into the realm of caricature. This time, Sutherland's alter-ego, super agent Jack Bauer, took a torture session into the heart of the White House. A senator's chief of staff turns out to be a rat and has information about a terrorist attack, with the White House being a possible target. Against the US president's orders, Bauer barricades himself in and repeatedly electrocutes the guy with a Taser for information.

In series after series, whenever Bauer is captured, he is invariably tortured - but always manages to escape and kill his tormentors. But whenever he desperately needs a piece of vital information to prevent an imminent mass killing, he would, without a flinch, inflict whatever pain necessary to get that information - always in the nick of time.

Indeed, his gung-ho attitude to torture led the US Defence Department to request Fox in 2006 to tone it down because some of its operatives - and the CIA's - involved in real-life interrogations were a bit too taken with Bauer's methods. It was a case of life imitating art (or television).

Despite the different plots, conspiracies and storylines, a single conceit serves as the foundation for every seasonal series: the necessity for torture. Torture, in the universe of 24, is an epistemology, a how-to method to obtain vital and certain knowledge or accurate information.

The subject has, of course, polarised American political discourse. And since no democratic government can retain its legitimacy by sanctioning torture, no superiors of Bauer have ever been portrayed as having ordered him to use torture. He does it on his own initiative, and takes full responsibility. His nobility is that he sacrifices himself by going outside the law to defend institutions that uphold law and order. 24 is arguably the most persuasive portrayal of the need for good people to torture.

In effect, the series' scriptwriters are dramatising a popular question usually asked in first-year university ethics classes. It is this: can torture ever be justified to save lives? Of course, the question itself is artificial and ridiculous. It presupposes you know for certain, first, that an attack is imminent and, second, that the suspect you are about to torture has the right information.

In real life, an unknown fact - for example, an imminent terrorist attack - rarely if ever exists in isolation, waiting to be discovered. A fact exists within a network of other facts. So if you know - or don't know - something, you probably already know - or don't know - about many other facts besides. This is why the only extreme scenario that may conceivably justify torture can rarely occur in real life. And if such a scenario does arise, you will most likely fail to identify it as such out of ignorance of other relevant facts. In real life, the use of torture is almost always more a fishing expedition than surgical interrogation for precise information.

No one disputes torture is a highly effective way to break a victim's spirit, intimidate a population and extract false confessions. But, for accurate and timely information, it is counterproductive. By basing itself on a false ethical and epistemological premise, and because of its huge worldwide popularity, 24 may be the most pernicious and socially corrosive TV series ever made.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at The Post