By Brigitte L. Nacos
In a town hall meeting in New York on March 8, 2002 that was moderated by Ted Koppel and broadcast “live” by ABC’s Nightline, the question whether or not to torture captured terrorists was debated. One woman in the audience stood up and said,
“Hi, my name is Mary Fontana. I lost my husband Dave, who was a firefighter in Brooklyn and he also—his father was a vet and his uncle was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. I think it’s—we have to—it’s a slippery slope to start to think about our rights in this country, the rights that he died for and the rights that his father and uncle did…So, I think that, you know, you really have to be careful about who we begin to target because I think it will be—create prejudice, and it will start to become a witch hunt really—that’s my concern that, you know, we all live in this country. My husband died for our rights to live together, and that we really have to be careful when we start talking about torturing people for information. It’s frightening to me.”
What a remarkable statement by the widow of a 9/11 victim.
Speaking in favor of torture that evening a man introduced as Mr. Casey qualified his support. “And I—I don’t—I—I—feel there should be limits, but I—I think the limits should—I don’t think it should be that extreme. I think there should be controls on it, but if you can get the information out of them, I think you should have to get it.”
I doubt that Mrs. Fontana and Mr. Casey could have imagined any of the enhanced interrogation techniques described in the torture report released by the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.
One statement in an online comment posted yesterday in response to the New York Times’ lead story about the report struck me. If the American people had a chance to decide for or against torture right after 9/11, the pro-torture poster wrote, they would have opted for enhanced interrogation. That was an erroneous statement. In early October 2001, less than a month after 9/11, a CNN/USATODAY survey by Gallup found that a majority of Americans (53%) opposed the torturing of terrorists or suspected terrorists versus 47% who supported such measures.
Correct is that in the following months and years public opinion changed gradually and eventually was in favor of torturing. Indeed, eventually, only about a third of Americans were categorically against torturing terrorists.
The just released report mentions that the CIA tried to influence the American public’s views on torture by providing selected journalists with stories about the success of enhanced interrogation to capture prominent terrorists and prevent further attacks.
I think that Fox’s “24” and other TV-series, far more than CIA efforts to spin “enhanced interrogation,” came to affect public and elite perceptions about torture.
Whether dealing with terrorists or criminals, television drama series became far more violent and torture scenes far more numerous after the events of 9/11. In the four years before 2001 (1997 through 2000) there were 47 torture scenes in prime-time network television, in the four years after 9/11 (2002-2005) there were 624 such scenes. It was just as important that the characters who tortured changed after the 9/11 attacks. Whereas the bad guys were torturers before the terrorist catastrophe, thereafter the good guys did the torturing.
The “ticking time bomb” threat became part of America’s public debate about the “war on terrorism” and the treatment of captured terrorists or suspected terrorists. Never mind that what Jack Bauer faced every week never happened in real life.
Research reveals that both entertainment and news media affect people’s views of the world and understanding of public affairs, so, it mattered a great deal that in post-9/11 America movie-goers and TV-audiences got used to watching evil terrorists being tortured by Americans who were heroic figures in that they risked their own lives to protect fellow-Americans.
Jack Bauer became the gold standard in the prevention of terrorist catastrophe by using torture to defuse the ticking time bomb. The political right and the left were in love with Jack Bauer. And whenever torture was discussed, the l “ticking time bomb” scenario was evoked.
In his quest for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination U.S. Representative Tom Tancredo participated in a primary debate with other presidential hopefuls. When moderator Britt Hume of Fox News asked how aggressively candidates would question an Al Qaeda operative with information about a bomb about to go off in a U.S. shopping center, Tancredo answered, “I'm looking for "Jack Bauer" at that time, let me tell you.”
The same year, during one of the Democratic Party’s presidential primary debates, moderator Tim Russert of NBC News described the same unreal time bomb case that Britt Hume had posed to Republicans and then asked Senator Hillary Clinton, “Don't we have the right and responsibility to beat it out of him [the terrorist]? You could set up a law where the president could make a finding or could guarantee a pardon.” Senator Clinton rejected the idea. But Russert revealed that the hypothetical ticking time bomb scenario and the idea of allowing and pardoning the extraordinary treatment of terrorists had been suggested by her husband, ex-president Bill Clinton, during an interview the previous year.
And then there were those who recognized an impact of Hollywood fiction on the ideas and actions of those in contact with and even in charge of detainees. Tony Lagouranis, a U.S. military interrogator in Iraq, including the Abu Ghraib prison, said during a panel discussion at the Law School of the University of California at Berkeley that he “definitely saw instances where people took specific ideas from TV shows…what we took from television was the idea that torture would work. Concerned about rank and file soldiers’ enthusiasm for counterterrorism’s action- hero Jack Bauer, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan of the West Point Military Academy met producers of the show in Hollywood. He told them that promoting illegal behavior in the series was having a damaging effect on young troops. The general did not succeed in getting torture scenes tuned down, never mind omitted, in new “24” productions.
Just as entertainment media influenced attitudes towards torture, the news media did as well as I will explain in a future post.