If there is any lesson to come from the current season of 24, the hit Fox show about government agents working to thwart a terrorist attack, it is this: They have ways to make you talk.
So far this season, a suspected terrorist was shot in the leg during an interrogation, an accused traitor was zapped in the neck with a stun gun, the son of the secretary of defense was subjected to sensory deprivation, an uncooperative executive was shocked with a live electric wire and a government agent pressed his thumb into the bullet wound of a woman connected to terrorists.
And that's just the good guys!
The bad guys, no slouches themselves, have carried out their fair share of torture as well, including some unpleasantness involving a filing cabinet and a poor fellow's fingers. More is certain to come in the season's 10 remaining episodes. (The program airs Monday nights at 9.)
The ramped-up torture on 24 plays out in a fictional yet parallel universe to our own. Even as Americans were troubled by the mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and other fronts of the war on terror, viewers have eagerly tuned in to 24, seemingly unfazed by its graphic depiction of similar abuse. The show's ratings are up 20 percent this season, to all-time highs for the 4-year-old series.
Some human-rights groups, including Amnesty International, applaud the show for educating the public on the horrors of torture. But others question whether viewers are being educated or desensitized as they watch the torture sequences.
At the heart of the debate is the character of Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), a tough and unflinching federal agent who has tortured - and been tortured. His turns as victim and perpetrator come at a great personal cost, says one of the show's executive producers.
"Jack's soul has to be scarred by this dirty work he's doing," Howard Gordon, the producer, says. "I hope that we as a society don't have to come to that, but I think that 24 perhaps is a way to dramatize some of the choices that may be coming our way."
Gordon says the show uses torture as a "real-time" device to quickly get critical information from suspects. Often the situation is what's called an ethically ultimate scenario: If a suspect does not give up information, then thousands could die, so torture is an awful necessity.
But torture experts say that's rarely the case in the real world. They say that if a member of a terrorist cell is captured, the terrorist leaders likely assume the original plans have been compromised and change them. Experts also say torture regimens take weeks and months, not mere minutes, to net results.
"These TV shows are using these types of scenarios to legitimate torture. They're not giving a holistic, fully accurate presentation of a torture regimen," said Allen Feldman, a professor of culture and communications at New York University who has studied the use of torture in Northern Ireland and South Africa.
"These torture regimens are looking for structural information, not when is the next bomb going to be planted," Feldman said.
Torture on 24 often gets the desired result. A suspect who was proving reluctant in an interrogation early this season was suddenly more talkative after Bauer shot him in the leg. He said there was a plot to kidnap the defense secretary, but the information came too late. Another person proved more cooperative after being zapped with a lamp-cord wire.
But the innocent have also been tortured on 24. After a data analyst at the Counter-Terrorist Unit was framed as a traitor, she was repeatedly zapped with a stun gun at the instruction of her bosses. She didn't give up any information because, as the audience knew, she had been set up. (And later, when she asked that the incident be expunged from her record and that she get a raise for going through it, she was fired. Talk about gratitude!)
Likewise, the defense secretary's son was subjected to hours of sensory deprivation when agents suspected he knew something about his father's kidnapping. They even threatened to plunge a syringe into his neck. But so far, the son has not coughed up any details.
The show, then, parallels the uneven record of torture when used by American forces in the real world. In December, the American Civil Liberties Union obtained and released a series of e-mails and memos written by FBI agents working in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that were critical of aggressive military-interrogation tactics.
The agents complained about harsh treatment that included beatings and lighted cigarettes dropped into prisoners' ears. One agent wrote to supervisors in December 2003: "These tactics have produced no intelligence of a threat neutralization nature to date."
While some Americans may have missed that news report, groups like Amnesty International suggest they may be getting the lesson that torture doesn't always work from watching 24.
"A part of our work is to educate people about what torture really involves and how far-reaching the consequences are," says Amnesty spokesman Alistair Hodgett, "and accurate depictions in fictional programs help contribute to that public education rather than do harm by desensitizing people."
Hodgett was also pleased the show has dramatized the effects on Bauer, who has carried out some of the torture. Bauer used the lamp-wire treatment in front of his girlfriend. She later told her father, the defense secretary, that she felt differently about Jack after seeing what he was capable of.
The secretary responded, "That's his job. ... We need people like that."
Despite that uncomplicated endorsement of torture, the show's producers say the subject will be explored with more nuance in a coming episode, when the president must decide if he will allow the torture of a suspect. Meanwhile, Bauer's girlfriend may still be souring on him because of what she witnessed.
Gordon, an executive producer, says, "This in some ways underscores the theme we've hit in various episodes of the impossibility of Jack enjoying the milk of human kindness."
The coming debate on 24 over whether to allow torture may echo recent discussions in Congress and the White House. In his confirmation hearings, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said the administration had had "some very preliminary discussion" about revisiting the Geneva Conventions.
But 24 is not bound by such international agreements on the humane treatment of prisoners.
"Fiction doesn't have to obey the Geneva Conventions. Fiction doesn't have to obey the Miranda laws," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University. "Fiction becomes the safety valve that relieves all of those moral, legal and international dilemmas presented by fact."
In that way, he says, 24 can be a relief and a joy to watch because it indulges the "nagging part of our reptile brain" that says torture is an effective way to get information out of certain kinds of people. Even though, on a higher level, most people will say torture is wrong.
"24 allows us to experiment and feel more comfortable with the idea that yes, there are instances in which these laws can be broken," Thompson says. But he warns there could be consequences: "My guess is that a population that's been comfortable with this in fiction might be more prone to being OK with it if it came out in fact."
He says Jack Bauer "is the mercenary we pay to do the things we would never in a million years want to do, but we're glad to have somebody on the payroll to do it for us."
Jack Bauer shoots a suspect in the leg to elicit information about a plot against the defense secretary.
After the defense secretary is kidnapped, his son is subjected to sensory deprivation to determine if he was involved.
Sarah Gavin, a data analyst wrongly accused of helping the terrorists, is repeatedly shocked by a stun gun placed against her neck.
After capturing Dina Araz, who is connected to the terrorists, an agent presses his thumb against her bullet wound.
Paul Raines, who is married to the defense secretary's daughter, is shocked with a ripped lamp cord because Jack thinks he's hiding something.
Paul is captured by the bad guys, who slam a filing cabinet shut on his fingers.