Imagine this: Jack Bauer, America's favorite counterterrorism hero, has just returned from an average day at the office, bringing a terror suspect to near-death by strangulation, staging a mock execution of a child, and shooting someone to get a confession. As he settles down to dinner and a cup of coffee, he notices something amiss. It's his left eye, twitching violently. Ignoring the symptom, he heads to bed, only to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, dreaming of blood on his hands.
The show 24 has by turns been glorified and criticized for its gory portrayal of violence in the name of national security. Many columns of print space have been dedicated to debating the show's effects on Americans' perceptions of torture.
Yet in either heaping praise upon or chastising 24, critics have neglected why this debate is so important. What does torture really do to people - its victims and perpetrators - and why should we care so much about a fictional television series? We at the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims know the answers firsthand. Our 130-member rehabilitation centers around the globe treat about 100,000 torture survivors each year.
The survivors are quick to note that the consequences of their torture extend far beyond immediate pain. Chronic physical symptoms, anxiety, flashbacks and enormous shame and guilt are common reactions to torture and ill-treatment. Without psychosocial and medical support, the symptoms can last a lifetime.
And the survivors are not alone in being adversely affected - far from it. While some pundits say torture should be admissible with key terror suspects when carried out by "high-level interrogators," they fail to recognize the consequences for the suspects, their families and their communities - but also for the torturers.
In February, Eric Fair, a former interrogator in Iraq, wrote in The Washington Post about the nightmares that haunt him after he subjected a detainee to humiliating and inhumane treatment. More recently, Tony Lagouranis, a veteran who served at Abu Ghraib, spoke during a panel discussion on 24 about the devastating consequences of the abuse he doled out to prisoners.
"You take a healthy guy and you turn him into a cripple, at least for a period of time," Mr. Lagouranis told a reporter. "I don't care what Alberto Gonzales says. That's torture."
This neglect to show the emotional repercussions of torture (in addition to glorifying what intelligence experts have argued is, at best, a poor method of interrogation) is precisely where 24 gets it wrong. Regardless of how Jack Bauer may come across, interrogation - in whatever form it takes - is a social encounter; it is predicated on a false intimacy with the person being interrogated. As Mr. Lagouranis said, "People don't fully realize that for a person to do that to another human being - it definitely takes a toll."
Thus, by minimizing the outcomes of torture, shows like 24 send the message that it ain't all that bad. It's a dangerous enough message for popular entertainment, but if we are to believe Mr. Lagouranis and others, it becomes even more lethal when reality starts imitating fiction. The claim that there can be responsible use of torture ignores the fact that even in theoretical terms, foolproof safeguards against mistakes are not possible. It ignores the overwhelming fact that torture damages everyone and everything it touches: victims, torturers, societies as a whole. Few can simply shrug off the actions and walk away with their sanity (and conscience) intact. Maybe Jack Bauer won't learn these truths in the next 24 hours, but one day he just might.
Brita Sydhoff is secretary-general of the Copenhagen-based International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.