During the second season of Fox’s serial drama, 24, counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer forces a detainee to watch streaming video of his child’s execution. The killing is staged, but Bauer—who’s tortured by enemy operatives a few episodes later—gets his intel.
24, which debuted less than two months after 9/11, features 65 more scenes of torture during its first five seasons. The show might be Hollywood’s worst offender, but it’s far from the only one.
According to AU professor Joe Young, SPExS/WSP ’96, and University of Alabama professor Erin Kearns, SPA/PhD ’16, more than 60 percent of the 20 biggest box office hits from 2008 to 2017—including seven G-rated movies—feature scenes of torture. Their new book, Tortured Logic: Why Some Americans Support the Use of Torture in Counterterrorism, explores how these portrayals shape perceptions of torture among policymakers and the public.
“In movies and shows, when the good guys need the information, sometimes they do nasty things,” says Young, who holds a joint appointment in the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service. That narrative grew even more powerful after 9/11, when many Americans decided that “the appropriate way to respond [was] by taking the gloves off and doing whatever we need[ed] to do to get actionable information.”
Depictions of torture in Homeland and Zero Dark Thirty “generally show it to work,” says Kearns, but “in reality, [the practice] is actually ineffective and counterproductive,” rarely garnering actionable, accurate information.
Even though torture is forbidden domestically under the Eighth Amendment and internationally by the Geneva Conventions, a 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 48 percent of Americans felt it was “acceptable under some circumstances.” In their book, Young and Kearns explore whether those views are fixed or fluid.
Young says the answer depends on several factors, including whether or not the US is experiencing a time of relative peace and if Americans are open to challenging their beliefs in the first place. In fact, few people hold views on torture that are malleable enough to be changed.
“People who are really fixed in their beliefs—those folks aren’t moving regardless,” he says. “But, if we’re thinking about a larger campaign to try and reduce torture, what activists would need to do is focus on those fluid types.”
Timing is crucial, however, as even those with fluid views on torture would likely support its use when the country faces a security threat. “After 9/11, when people are beating the drum that we need to do something, that we need to be violent in response—it’s really hard to counter that,” Young says. “The support for the invasion of Afghanistan was [about] 90 percent. It was almost ubiquitous.”
Young recommends making scenes of torture less so on TV. He suggests producers might be open to conversations that liken portrayals of the practice to “sexual assault and other harms to society.”
In 2007, former Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan did just that, meeting with 24 producers to voice his concern that the actions of Bauer and other characters were having a deleterious impact on troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finnegan even encouraged them to show scenes where the practice “backfires.”
But Young and Kearns say that’s not enough. We must flip the script on fictionalized portrayals of torture.
“Jack Bauer does not face psychological or physical struggles based on his actions,” they write. Nor does Hollywood explore myriad consequences for victims. Doing so “would be a step toward making the damage of this practice more real for the public. Humanizing torture can make it less abstract.”