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Can Jack Bauer Convince You to Torture?

Fictional depictions of effective torture may be more persuasive than reasoned arguments.
(Photo: aubele/Flickr)

(Photo: aubele/Flickr)

Should there be a debate about whether torture works? Last month, following the release of the Senate Intelligence Report revealing that the CIA used brutal torture methods from sleep deprivation to rectal feeding, many commentators argued that a discussion about whether these methods were effective was beside the point.

Rebecca Gordon at TomDispatch, for example, wrote that it doesn't matter whether torture works because "We are not allowed to torture people, because we have passed laws against it and signed treaties saying we won't do it." Barrister’s Matthew Scott argues that "if torture worked, the need to criminalise it would be even more imperative than if it were ineffective because the temptation to use it would then be even greater." Torture is wrong because it is morally and legally wrong. The fact that there is a widerange of evidence that torture is ineffective is irrelevant to the main point, which is that the United States should not torture because torture is morally evil.

"Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?"

In an ideal world, we wouldn't be debating the effectiveness of torture. However, a study published last August suggests that demonstrations of torture’s effectiveness can, in fact, persuade people to support its use. In "If Torture Is Wrong, What About 24?: Torture and the Hollywood Effect,” doctoral student Erin M. Kearns and associate professor Joseph K. Young, both at the School of Public Affairs at American University, showed clips of torture from the show 24 to research subjects in a laboratory environment.

Some clips were edited so that the viewers could see that torture was effective in eliciting necessary information. Other clips were cut off, so that viewers could see the torture, but did not see whether it was effective. And a control group was shown an interrogation, but no torture. Levels of support for torture were assessed from each group both pre-test and post-test.

What they found, Kearns told me by email, was that:

People who saw the clip where torture was shown to be effective had a significantly higher average level of stated support for torture after treatment compared to pre-treatment. People who saw a clip where torture was shown to be ineffective did not have a significantly different average level of stated support for torture from pre-treatment to post-treatment (basically, it made no difference).

Showing people dramatic images of effective torture, then, seems to increase their support for torture. In isolation, this seems to suggest that arguments about the effectiveness of torture are important and necessary, because people will support torture if they think it is effective.

However, Kearns and Young's study also had some contradictory findings. Participants who saw clips with effective torture showed increased support for torture in comparison to those who saw ineffective torture. But everyone who saw any sort of torture became more likely to sign a petition in support of torture tactics. The report speculates that this may be because "being primed on torture leads people to believe that it works or that showing aggression of any kind leads people to be more supportive of aggressive acts." This suggests that images of torture, or depictions of torture, may be more important than arguments about torture in influencing public opinion.

Another complication is suggested by Jonathan M. Ladd, an associate professor in the school of public policy at Georgetown University. Ladd recently argued that public opinion on torture is malleable, and is unlikely to drive policy. Instead, Ladd says, "people tend to adopt the political views of politicians who share their ideological predispositions, a pattern that is not alleviated but actually worsened when members of the public have more education and political knowledge." Ladd points to studies suggesting that Americans reject climate change not because they are more stupid or less informed than Europeans, but because Republican elites have rejected climate change, and partisans follow their lead. Opinions on torture, then, are not shaped by arguments about effectiveness, but rather by what Dick Cheney and other opinion leaders tell their partisans.

As Ladd told me:

There are very few political issues where people have opinions and have thought about them in advance of the issue becoming a political controversy. And even [torture] isn't really one of them. So how [torture] is depicted and how it's covered in the news does affect [public opinion]. But the proportions of each side that appears in the media tends to be the proportion of each side that are expressed by major politicians.

Ladd was talking specifically about news shows here. But his insights seem like they could apply to a show like 24 as well. 24's particular take on torture was obviously shaped by the much-discussed ticking time-bomb scenario, and by conservative arguments for the effectiveness of torture. 24 could be seen not just a dramatic depiction of torture, but as itself a result of elite opinion on torture.

There is some evidence that 24 actually has influenced political elites in various ways. Discussions about torture are not infrequently framed around discussions of the show; in one semi-notorious exchange in 2007, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared: "Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles.... He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” Like the participants in Kearns and Young's study, Scalia seems swayed by Jack Bauer's effective use of torture—and Scalia, as an elite opinion leader, is likely to have an influence on media reports about, and on partisan attitudes toward, torture.

Kearns told me that she is undertaking research to try to address the question of media arguments about torture more directly. Ladd agreed that more studies are needed to determine the precise relationship between media, elites, and arguments about torture's effectiveness. Kearns and Young's work, though, does seem to indicate that representations of effective torture can sway people—whether those people are voters or Supreme Court justices.