The Ever-Ticking Bomb: Examining 24's Promotion of Torture against the Background of 9/11

Abstract: Drawing on the theory of collective trauma and the increased display of torture on TV since 2001, this paper investigates how the repercussions of 9/11 serve as a basis for the popularity of the TV series 24 and how its success impacts the cultural and political landscape of the US. This article argues that 24 justifies and promotes the use of torture as a method of interrogation and cites evidence of references to the series in political and juridical discourse. It shows how national trauma may increase the appeal of extreme violence against suspected terrorists and how 24’s conflation of fact and fiction falls on fertile ground in a post-9/11 culture of fear. Examples from 24 are used to give insight into the way the audience is confronted with so-called ticking bomb scenarios in order to increase acceptance for the criminal and unethical behavior of 24’s protagonist Jack Bauer. Furthermore, I will cite government reports and observations from military instructors as examples of the influence Jack Bauer’s use of torture has had on soldiers and interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan. In order to complement the existing evidence of a political bias towards the legitimization of torture in 24, my article inspects statements from the creators and writers of 24 and scrutinizes their choice to respond to criticism within a subplot of the seventh season.

We will be all right. Jack Bauer will be here soon” (“Day 7: 2:00 PM - 3:00 PM” 0:11:13). In the television action series 24, the ruthless counterterrorist Jack Bauer is the nation’s only hope when civilization is faced with attacks from in- and outside the USA. Accordingly, this paper examines the role of 24 as a vehicle for pro-torture politics in a country that has been changed by the traumatic qualities of the 9/11 attacks, whose media coverage has, in turn, been likened to catastrophe movies by Slavoj Žižek and others. The following argues that national trauma and a rekindled fear of loss of control have been the perfect environment for a show that blurs the borders between reality and fiction. 24 mimics the aesthetics of real-time news broadcasting and combines them with a politically charged narrative to advocate unethical and illegal measures as the only solution to time-critical scenarios of extraordinary proportions. I will provide examples of the use of torture in 24 to illustrate the series’ striking deviation from reality in the portrayal of torture by contrasting them with facts from real-life interrogation experts. Further, this article will include references to 24 by pro-torture activists to underline the intentionality of the show’s bias. Finally, in a brief analysis of the seventh season, I will highlight how its producers attempted to discredit their critics within the framework of the show itself.

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