A TV Lesson on Torture

By Jim Hoagland

The Washington Post

Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page B07

Where is Jack Bauer when the president of the United States needs him?

In case the name doesn't chime, Bauer is the fictional agent-hero of the Fox TV series "24" who has been fighting his own entertainingly scary war on global terrorism for the past three years.

Bauer has on cue savagely beaten, tortured and even killed bad and good guys to save American cities from nuclear bombs, deadly viruses and other weapons of mass destruction wielded by terrorists. (And liberals say only Dick Cheney can make this stuff up.)

His creators gave Bauer morally excruciating choices about means and ends, national security and national honor, in prescient if distorted mirror images of Washington's biggest concerns in the era of terrorism.

Some of these scripts could have been drawn from questions posed in the recently disclosed Justice Department and White House memos that sought to redefine torture and expand the not very clearly established boundaries of coercive interrogation. But in Jack Bauer's world, such memos never would have existed.

They never would have existed because Bauer and his fellow TV counterterrorist agents do not insist on getting in advance the legal protection that these pieces of papers were ostensibly written to provide. These documents seem to have predictably produced only one clear result: They have inflicted great embarrassment on the administration that created them.

This happens only in what, in the electronic era, is called real life. The leaked torture memos are the product of a Washington bureaucratic exercise that not even Bauer's supremely zeitgeistic creators at Fox could have imagined and worked into the morally black-and-white, keep-things-moving world of television drama.

In reality non-television, CIA and military intelligence agents demanded formal authorization to test the broadly accepted limits of physical and mental coercion on prisoners suspected of having information about Sept. 11, 2001, or future attacks. These interrogators sought protection from being prosecuted for the acts they or their superiors felt would be necessary, or perhaps appropriate, for al Qaeda plotters.

This preemptive immunity bid echoes Hannah Arendt's famous description of "the banality of evil." Methods that are blessed somewhere in the Justice Department files are somehow transmuted into an interrogation technique without moral weight for those who order, perform or sanction it, because it is suddenly not "torture." Say it in triplicate, and your soul is immunized.

Jack Bauer has neither the time nor the temperament for posterior-covering. Working directly with "President David Palmer" (who is black, reminding us how deep in fictional territory we are), Bauer on many a Tuesday night has had to decide for himself if a greater good is served by committing a murder or other atrocity that may stop a monstrous terrorist crime. His answer is unblinkingly and unfailingly yes.

These plots rise above spy fiction as usual -- and above life in some sections of the Washington bureaucracy -- through the acknowledgment that Bauer then makes: He performs this week's murder/robbery/kidnapping on his own and with the full knowledge that he will have to answer legally for his crime when the commercials end. He has taken an oath to protect his country. He is accountable. Saving Los Angeles from the plague is worth a lifetime of hard time (Los Angeles? Are you sure, Jack?).

Television is always clearer than life. American spies have been conditioned to avoid accountability not only by a tradecraft of deceit and secrecy but also by years of pounding from congressional committees, the media and other professional critics when things go wrong. On many days, lawyers and political consultants now outrank spymasters and four-star generals in deciding tactics in any American war.

I don't mean to belittle the risks that real spies run, especially in a time when political correctness and its contemporary cousin, anti-Americanism, have crept into the ranks of warrant-issuing European judges and governments.

But the torture "debate" that the leaked memos have sparked has become so unreal that television fiction makes more sense.

Some experts argue that extreme coercion is almost always ineffective, so it should not be used. The unstated corollary that hovers in that view is that effective torture that saves lives is therefore okay. The Justice Department papers skate close to that position.

But torture is wrong, effective or ineffective. I can imagine situations in which it might be necessary, but never ones in which it is justified. Those who inflict it must be morally and legally accountable for their actions, whatever the result in intelligence-gathering. Even a TV spy seems to get that.

jimhoagland@washpost.com