It's torture, stupid, and life is not a TV show

Right-wing pundits point to '24' as a reason why America should torture. Here in the real world, most of us remain appalled the U.S. engaged in clearly illegal techniques.
Monday, January 19, 2009 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 11:17 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

When the official in charge of the Bush administration’s military commissions said interrogators tortured a detainee at Guantanamo Bay, ending any chance of his prosecution, it marked a turning point in the sometimes esoteric and theoretical debate over torture.

Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and a right-wing chorus of deniers notwithstanding, the clear, unequivocal statement by Susan J. Crawford offered a birds-eye refutation from within the administration itself, stands in stark contrast to the president and vice president’s denials.


Related Media

Someone is not telling the truth, plainly. President Obama has said he’d like to move on, but it’s unclear that the nation can dispense with the torture debate when we can’t seem to get an honest answer from those who embraced waterboarding and other clearly unlawful actions on behalf of us all.

Scott L. Sillman, director the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University asked the question of the week in the New York Times:

“What do you do when you have an allegation from a senior official of the Bush administration that we committed a war crime?”

Last week, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, provided an answer, introducing a bill that would establish a commission to investigate Bush's abuse of executive war powers and civil liberties.

Such a commission, organized by a Democratic president and reporting to a Democratic congress, might just be able to get past the obstructionist tactics of the Bush White House, which hopes the issue will fade in the public memory even as it continues to trot out Bush and Cheney, who re-energize the debate by denying that they did anything wrong. Bush at least finally owned up to ordering the waterboarding of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, rationalizing that torture was the only option: Bush told Fox News that torturing Mohammed produced "good information" that "helped save lives on American soil." But a Pentagon intelligence analyst said Mohammed produced not one iota of actionable intelligence.

In a fascinating piece in Vanity Fair this month, David Rose presents the views of numerous counterterrorism officials from the United States and Europe, all of whom agree that torture has created false leads and unnecessary alerts.

As for Mohammed:

“Here, they say, far from exposing a deadly plot, all torture did was lead to more torture of his supposed accomplices while also providing some misleading ‘information’ that boosted the administration’s argument for invading Iraq.”

And, later:

“Officials who analyzed Abu Zubaydah’s interrogation reports say that the reports were afforded the highest value within the Bush administration not because of the many American lives they were going to save but because they could be cited repeatedly against those who doubted the wisdom of ousting Saddam by force.”

Swell. Just swell.

But why take the intelligence community’s word for it, when the lunatic fringe can turn to that font of real intelligence expertise, the TV show “24”?

That’s right: In what must be the surest sign yet of the coming of the apocalypse, the right wing talk machine watched a fictional television show and then relied upon its plot to expound on the rightness of torture.

Glenn Beck, never one to confuse reality with TV drama, urged all Americans to listen closely to what, again — and I repeat this at the risk of being sarcastic — was make-believe.

“They're trying to put Jack Bauer in jail! I'm not going to stand for it!” shouted Bill O'Reilly.

“Here's the guy who has done everything possible to keep his country safe ... and these people want to throw him in jail forever for torture and so forth,” moaned Rush Limbaugh.

This all reminds me of when my children, then toddlers, would be upset by an episode of “The Land Before Time,” and I would talk them down by repeating “Kids, don’t be afraid. They’re not really in there. It’s make-believe.”

I never thought I’d have to take that tactic with adults, but hey, whatever it takes.

If we can get the television turned off and turn our attention back to the reality-based community, we’ll no doubt see that the rejection of torture must be one of the Obama administration’s first, most public acts. If the nation is to reverse the damage done by this reckless and lawless regime, the president must signal to the world that we stand ready to regain the moral standing we once had, Jack Bauer be damned.

Oh yeah. Forgot. He is just a TV character.

Charles Davis is the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center and an associate professor for the Missouri School of Journalism.

Like what you see here? Become a member.

Show Me the Errors (What's this?)

Report corrections or additions here. Leave comments below here.

You must be logged in to participate in the Show Me the Errors contest.


Andrew Hansen January 21, 2009 | 9:16 a.m.

You have set up a wonderful straw man argument, and destroyed it quite well. Of course, a really insightful discussion on torture and interrogation would never include the opinions of O'Rielly, Limbaugh or Beck.

(Report Comment)
Christopher Foote January 27, 2009 | 5:37 p.m.

Perhaps you could give us the insightful defense of torture that is lacking from the aforementioned stooges.

(Report Comment)
Andrew Hansen January 28, 2009 | 12:32 p.m.

I might be compelled to write a defense of torture if I held that opinion. My complaint is that Prof. Davis' article can basically be boiled down to "Look, stupid people are saying stupid things in support of torture, so my opinion is right."

(Report Comment)

Leave a comment

Speak up and join the conversation! Make sure to follow the guidelines outlined below and register with our site. You must be logged in to comment. (Our full comment policy is here.)

  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Don't use language that makes personal attacks on fellow commenters or discriminates based on race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
  • Use your real first and last name when registering on the website. It will be published with every comment. (Read why we ask for that here.)
  • Don’t solicit or promote businesses.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report comment" link.

You must be logged in to comment.

Forget your password?

Don't have an account? Register here.