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Jack Bauer Culture: Torture by “patriots” for national security

Jan 23, 20117 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

The television series 24 ran for eight seasons, but will America ever recover from a "Jack Bauer Culture" where acts of torture are "acceptable" methods in the War on Terror?

While I realize that this post is somewhat off-topic in a blog about technology security and privacy, I read an interesting paper that started me thinking about it. The television series 24 ran for eight seasons, but will America ever recover from a “Jack Bauer Culture” where acts of torture are “acceptable” methods in the War on Terror? Recent research shows that many people are OK with torture in the name of national security and a ticking time bomb scenario.

The fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit member Jack Bauer from 24 grew into a cult following. Bauer was a beloved hero who could save the country from an evil terrorist plot in an hour-long TV show. His specialty was torture justified by the fact that he was in a big hurry, the “ticking time bomb exception,” and needed to do whatever it took to extract the information that would save the day and the world. Nifty Stuff kept track of and charted Bauer’s torture count. WorldLingo reported that Bauer is expected to be a movie, is a toy action figure and a comic book hero. Bauer’s methods were picked up in Lost, House, and South Park as well as being cited “as an inspiration for CIA interrogators.” Kate Kovarovic of the American University, Washington College of Law, published “Our ‘Jack Bauer’ Culture: Eliminating the Ticking Time Bomb Exception to Torture.” It’s an interesting paper about how, if an imminent threat to the U.S. is suspected, that a suspected terrorist will be tortured to gain information that might save countless thousands of lives and, in our Jack Bauer Culture, many people are OK with it. In fact, many people believe torture under a “ticking time bomb” exception actually works and suspects spill all crucial information that would prevent a catastrophe. Kovarovic’s research shows that this is rarely the case. Many detainees are “conditioned to withstand torture” or choose instead to die before confessing what they know. Others lie when tortured or state facts that are already known.Les Centurions. According to Wikipedia, the book was studied by U.S. Special Forces and officers during the Vietnam War and became popular again at the start of the Global War on Terrorism.suspected of possessing knowledge about a suspected imminent threat,” Kovarovic wrote.The Independent reported that Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of Britain’s MI5 intelligence agency said, “Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld certainly watched 24.” (By the way, the article notes that she was happy to point fingers at the U.S. while insisting that U.S. officials kept their conduct of torturing suspects a secret from the British spy agency.) A Pentagon official commented that it was unknown if the trio watched or were inspired by 24.24 didn’t make a person more inclined to support torture. According to “Torture, Terror, and “24”: Does Jack Bauer Raise Your Personal “Threat Level”?” a research report by Timothy Hill, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Doane College, “Despite the speculation in the popular press, viewers of ’24’ are not more likely to endorse torture as a response to terrorism than are viewers of ‘NCIS.'”According to Human Rights First, U.S. Army Interrogator Tony Lagouranis said there was no official handbook telling people how to interrogate in Iraq. “So people were watching movies and watching TV and they were getting their ideas from that,” he said.Abdul Hakim Murad was tortured for 67 days. Officials claimed to have obtained the details that stopped a plot to blow up a dozen trans-Pacific planes and, therefore, saved the lives of 4,000 innocent passengers. Yet it was later revealed that Murad told only lies during torture; all crucial information regarding the bomb plot was discovered before torturing him. The information was pulled off Murad’s laptop a few minutes after it was seized.Jack Bauer torture techniques while excusing torture by claiming it is national security and a show of their patriotism. Kovarovic claims the officials are, more or less, wannabe Jack Bauers. Bush’s Speechwriter Makes Jack Bauer Look Reasonable. According to Kovarovic, “Many people have asked President Obama to keep his campaign promise to end the denial of due process to suspected terrorists and to reject the Bush administrations unconstitutional policies.”

The ticking time bomb concept came out of 1960 novel,

Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter much to governments in the post-Sept. 11 mindset. States that legally forbid using torture will resort to torturous methods and fall back on the ticking time bomb exception when faced with a “large-scale and imminent catastrophe.” An actual ticking time bomb scenario may not be happening, it rarely does, but some U.S. officials use it as an excuse to commit torture and determine if there even is a threat. “Instead, it may simply be enough that a detainee is

The Bush administration was a big supporter of torture. In fact,

Some people believe that watching the TV show

Yet experts in the field of interrogation believe Jack Bauer’s ticking time bomb excuse for torture is a real-life scenario.

Kovarovic told of a case that ticking time bomb advocates tell to justify torture as successful. It happened in Manila, Philippines, when

The War on Terror has shown that U.S. officials are willing to work outside the law with

Huffington Post’s David Danzig told how

Recently, Andy Worthington reported a peaceful prisoner protest in Guantanamo on “the first anniversary of President Obama’s failure to close Guantánamo within  a year, as he promised on his second day in office in January 2009.”

When I asked Kovarovic about her Jack Bauer Culture paper, originally published in August 2010, Florida Journal of International Law, Volume 22, Issue 2, she replied:

I think that breaking through the ‘Jack Bauer’ mindset will be difficult, but not impossible. President Obama lent tremendous support to the theory that torture should never be used as a counterterrorism tool when he came into office, but the bigger challenge is breaking the public mindset that this was appropriate during the War on Terror. People largely misunderstand the application of the ticking time bomb exception and who suffered as a result.  Few people realize the grossly excessive arrests made in the name of counterterrorism during the War on Terror – they hear that someone is a terrorist suspect, assume that person is a terrorist, and have no problem calling for that person’s torture. But in reality, of all the people sent to Guantanamo in connection with the War on Terror, only 5 have been convicted for terrorist activities to date ( So they’re calling for the torture of people who are more than likely innocent. And regardless of someone’s status as a terrorist suspect, torture is absolutely prohibited under domestic and international law, and people are far too quick to dismiss that. I think it will be incredibly difficult to break that public mindset, especially when fictional characters like Jack Bauer tend to make the use of torture look successful and glamorous.

So the question is, did the post 9/11 mentality create an atmosphere where a Jack Bauer character could thrive? Or has the popularity of Jack Bauer created the excuse that government agencies needed to become brutes? No one wants terrorists in the U.S., or anywhere else. But it is unacceptable to ignore human rights, and what is still being done by so-called “patriots” like Bauer in the name of national security.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.