Down With Torture! Gimme Torture!

By SARAH VOWELL

New York Times

February 5, 2006

Whenever I hear the president mention, oh, every 12 minutes, that his greatest responsibility is "to protect the American people," the insufferable civics robot inside my head mutters: "Actually, sir, your oath, the one with the Bible and the chief justice and the Jumbotron, is to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. For the American people are not mere flesh whose greatest hope is to keep our personal greasy molecules intact; we, sir, are a body politic with ideals."

If the civics robot is feeling particularly nostalgic for that time in America when the word "rendition" was usually followed by the words, "of 'Louie, Louie,' " it continues to nitpick about what some of those ideals entail: Congressional oversight, due process and treating prisoners of war according to ye olde golden rule. Not only because we would hope our captive soldiers would be treated with reciprocal human decency, or because the information gleaned from torture usually turns out to be a Saddam's-in-league-with-Al-Qaeda sham, but mostly, Americans reject torture because we are not satanic monster scum.

Except, of course, the moment we pick up our TV remote controls. That's when even my inner civics robot cracks open a ginger ale, stares at Kiefer Sutherland on the beloved "24" and cheers: "Yeah, Jack Bauer! Break into that interrogation room and shoot that suspect in the leg!" There is a jarring disconnect between what I want my real-life intelligence officers to be doing versus what I want my fake TV intelligence officers to be doing. On my two favorite shows, "Alias" and "24," the protagonists Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) and the aforementioned Jack Bauer bend and break the laws of the land in the name of national security with such speed and frequency, even Donald Rumsfeld himself might be outraged enough to utter a "my goodness gracious" tsk, tsk.

In "Alias," Sydney, a C.I.A. agent, will lie to senators, break into the Vatican without authorization or hitch rides on off-the-books cargo planes probably paid for by dipping into the several million dollars in questionable cash her scary, fellow-spy father keeps locked up in his storage unit somewhere in the You Can't Handle the Truth neighborhood of Los Angeles.

One thing that happens on "Alias" that I hope doesn't happen with the actual C.I.A. involves interior design. Specifically, the sleek look of Sydney's office. Her workplace is so white and chic and mod that the Web site televisionwithoutpity.com has nicknamed it "the Apple Store." That red leather ottoman alone looks as though it was imported from Milan for at least three grand. For the record, I don't think my tax dollars should be financing fancy footstools. As a New Yorker haunted by that August 2001 intelligence memo entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," it seems like real-life intelligence analysts have put up their feet enough.

In last week's "24," Jack Bauer is tracking down a shipment of nerve gas. Trying to pry information out of a presidential aide in league with terrorists, Bauer jabs a pointy knife at the aide's face, hissing: "The first thing I'm going to do is, I'm going to take out your right eye. I'll move over and take out your left." The others in the room, including the horrified and totally unrealistically incompetent president, all give the aide a look that says, "Dude, he's not kidding."

Sitting on my couch, under the watchful stare of no fewer than six busts of Lincoln, while wearing a sweatshirt given to volunteers at a children's tutoring center, as Bauer's knife was poised to break the man's skin, what I was thinking was: Do it. Because, if you ask me, there aren't enough detached eyeballs in prime time.

I did feel a little less guilty about the contradiction of using the same credit card to give money to Amnesty International and to buy the DVD's of "24" when I heard that Senator John McCain is such a fan of the show he will be making a cameo in tomorrow's episode. Even the man who once suffered in North Vietnamese captivity, who sponsored an antitorture amendment, is bully for potential eye stabbings on TV. On TV being the point. Unconstitutional fantasies are normal (I hope), and on TV dramas they can be entertaining and cathartic. Let's just keep them off the TV news.

Sarah Vowell, a contributor to public radio's "This American Life," is the author, most recently, of "Assassination Vacation." She will be a guest columnist during February.