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Beinhart's Body Politic: A Media Guide to Terror, Torture, Morality, and War Crimes 

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• Terrorists are going to nuke Los Angeles in three hours.

• Agent Jack Bauer has a suspect who knows where the bomb is.

• If Jack Bauer tortures the suspect, he can force him to say where it is, get there in two hours and 59 minutes, stop the bomb, and save 10 million people.

• What should, what must, Jack Bauer do?

That’s a no-brainer. Clip the electrodes to his balls and turn on the juice.

I don’t know how many people have actually watched “24,” but there’s not a person in America who is not familiar with the “ticking-bomb” scenario.

It sounds so darn logical that it’s hard not to buy into it. A remarkable number of people have. Dick Cheney and Michael Chertoff (head of Homeland Security) are big fans and think they’re directing the real-life Jack Bauers. Justice Antonin Scalia said Jack Bauer should not be prosecuted: “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives.” Should he be, Alan Dershowitz will be there for the defense!

As a drama, the ticking bomb is thrilling. “24” is The Perils of Pauline on crack. As applied to reality, it is a pernicious and deceitful fantasy.

The reference point is, of course, 9/11.

Before that day, we were soft and naïve. If only we had tortured someone we could have stopped it. And saved American lives!

That, of course, is utterly false. We had quite enough information to have prevented 9/11. It had been gathered through normal and legal police and intelligence methods. It was not used due to bureaucratic infighting, ineptitude, incompetence, excess secrecy, and, most of all, the willful and pointed disregard of that information by Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and George W. Bush.

Now, we’re smart and tough. We do torture-lite and outsource the really evil stuff. Has it worked?

In October 2001, the FBI put out a Most Wanted Terrorists list. It had 22 names on it. As of 2006, 17 of them were still “at large.” Including Osama bin Laden.

Yeah, well, I bet going “to the dark side” stopped a bunch of terrorist attacks.

No. None that we know of.

Yeah, of course not. When our secret intelligence services secretly foil a secret terrorist plot, it’s gotta be secret! National effin’ Security! Period. Dot. Exclamation point! End quote!

No. The Bush administration trumpeted every arrest, capture, or kill it’s ever made: the Lackawanna Seven, the Sears Tower Plot, the Shoe Bomber, Jose Padilla, who was going to use a “dirty bomb.” Each and every one of them sounded like a job for Jack Bauer when they were first announced. Then, somehow, all the “terrorists” caught turned out to be inept losers and the terror plots were on a scale between bull sessions and half-baked. Bush was even willing to disrupt a two-year, 600-man British terrorist investigation in order to get a good headline before the 2006 election, with the result that “the mastermind” escaped after he was arrested and most of the plotters could not be convicted.

Here’s a real-life ticking-bomb scenario. It’s 1943. A German soldier has been captured. We don’t know if many of the people we have in captivity today are actually enemies. But we can be absolutely sure this man is part of an organization planning to kill Americans in the immediate future—just hours, or, at most, days away. They have lots and lots of weapons of mass destruction. He represents a country that is committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and has mistreated both POWs and civilians in violation of the Geneva Conventions. So let’s torture the muthafuggin’ Nazi pig plugger! That’s a no-brainer, right?

Apparently not. He refuses to give more than his name, rank, and serial number. We say okay and accept the obligation to feed and clothe him, get medical attention, follow his religion, read books, and even have access to a musical instrument if that is his inclination. Why don’t we torture him?

It has been against American policy since George Washington fought the British. It is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, to which we were signatory even then. According to US Army Field Manual FM 34-52, “Intelligence Interrogation,” torture does not produce reliable information. How do they know? We have to presume that they’ve tried it and it failed.

Most of all, that’s what we were fighting for and fighting as, a country that is committed to the dignity of the individual, even an enemy, and to the rule of law, even in difficult circumstances.

Okay, time for a different movie. Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), with an all-star cast including Burt Lancaster, Spencer Tracy, Maximilian Schell, Montgomery Clift, Judy Garland, Marlene Deitrich, and Richard Widmark. The men on trial are interesting. They didn’t run the death camps, plan the Final Solution, run wars of aggression, or even fill the top ranks of the Nazi Party. They were judges. Men who simply put the legal veneer on the laws of genocide and oppression, which were national policy.

It is hard to say that today’s terrorists are either more evil or more fearsome than the Nazis and the German Wehrmacht. Yet these men were kept in decent condition and had real trials. They could meet with their attorneys, confront their accusers, and all the rest. Burt Lancaster plays a judge who, before the Nazis, had been a highly esteemed jurist, an internationally recognized scholar of the law. He explains how he came to be a functionary of the Nazi regime:

“Above all, there was fear. Fear of today, fear of tomorrow, fear of our neighbors, fear of ourselves. There are devils among us. Once the devils will be destroyed, your miseries will be destroyed. What about those of us who knew better? We who knew the words were lies and worse than lies? Why did we sit silent? Why did we take part? Because we loved our country! What difference does it make if a few political extremists lose their rights? What difference does it make if a few racial minorities lose their rights?”

It is a perfect description of the American mentality after 9/11. It is a perfect description of the fantasy represented by “24.” It is a perfect description of the lawyers who came up with the legal theories that created a class of people who were beneath the law, like Jews and Gypsies once were, that evaded the Geneva Conventions, legitimized torture, and said that “I was only following orders” would be a legitimate defense against war-crimes charges. Those lawyers are Jay Bybee, now a federal appeals court judge; John Yoo, teaching law at UC Berkeley; and Alberto Gonzales, recently the Attorney General of the United States.

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  • Life imitating the media. A commentary on the war on terrorism.


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