As the New Season of '24' Gets Underway, Is Jack Bauer Now Torturing Himself?

In Season 7 of
In Season 7 of "24," Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland, with Annie Wersching) faces fallout from his hardball tactics. (By Kelsey Mcneal -- Fox)
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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 10, 2009

There's a new administration in town, and a trailing legion of civil libertarians, do-gooders and smug senators with subpoena powers. They want to crawl all over the recent past, second-guessing years of successful counterterrorism operations -- which, of necessity, worked the dark side.

Jack Bauer is still saving America on "24," but in the show's seventh season, which begins tomorrow night on Fox, the post-9/11 action hero appears to be grappling with the vociferous, real-world criticism of his hardball tactics. For years, "24" has been in the cross hairs of not just human rights activists appalled by its casual depiction of torture, but also military and law enforcement professionals, who say it has corrupted impressionable recruits.

"There was always one or two Jack Bauers in the classroom," says Gary Solis, a retired professor who taught a Law of War course at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. The show "came up with surprising frequency. They thought that the whatever-it-takes mentality as exemplified by Jack Bauer was appropriate: 'If it saves the lives of my men and women, I'll do it.' "

In one of the new season's opening scenes, Bauer is asked if whether he tortured a suspect.

"According to the definition set forth by the Geneva Convention, yes I did," says a defiant Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. But later, in one of the few flashes of self-reflection in the show's first hours, Bauer says the American public has a right to know what's done in its name.

"We've written more deeply and in a more nuanced way on the subject," says Howard Gordon, the executive producer and chief writer of "24," adding that the debate over torture intensifies as the season progresses. "We felt we couldn't denounce Jack and wash away the last years of the show, but we do have him travel some distance on the subject and give voice to different points of view, particularly in the president's character, who isn't falling for the whatever-it-takes formulation. She holds fast." President Allison Taylor (a Hillary Clinton manquée) is played by Cherry Jones.

In past years, Bauer and his colleagues at the Counter-Terrorism Unit in Los Angeles have variously shot, electroshocked, drugged, mutilated and beaten suspects for information, as well as staged the mock execution of the children of one terrorist.

The bad guys always break.

"As a rule, people like to see Jack Bauer torture the [expletive] out of someone," says Adam Fierro, a former writer on "24" and the executive producer of "The Shield," a police drama. ". . . Torture is done to such an extent they've cornered the market."

The show first aired less than two months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the show's ticktock conceit seemed tailor-made for the new zeitgeist of fear and security alerts. The pulsating sense of panic wowed viewers and drew praise from some unlikely commentators. Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, pronounced himself a fan, as did Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who told a legal conference that no jury would convict Bauer. When the show's crew toured the National Counterterrorism Center while filming in Washington, the staff stood and applauded, according to Gordon.

But in its sixth season, "24" sagged, a victim of its longevity but also, perhaps, of the public's weariness of the war on terror and the scandals surrounding the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and in CIA secret prisons. It came under sustained attack as the preeminent purveyor on television of torture as a legitimate intelligence and law enforcement tool.

"The clear implication is that it's easy to be against torture in the abstract, but the reality is that on the ground you need these techniques to save Americans," says David Danzig, director of the Primetime Torture Project at Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group. " '24' is essentially an advertisement for torture on prime-time television and it subtly -- because it's entertainment -- takes on an argument in the public space and knocks it down over and over again."

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