Law Professor: 24 Has Seeped Into National Debate On Antiterrorism Tactics

Sure, it's just a TV show, but a University of Iowa law professor says 24 can have real-world legal implications

"Ruminations on 24 would be just an entertaining diversion if it were not for the fact that the show has slowly seeped into the national debate on antiterrorism tactics," said Tung Yin, an expert on national security law who laments the fact that the writers' strike has likely killed off the current season before it even starts.

Yin points to such examples as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has said that 24 "frankly, . . . reflects real life" in presenting scenarios with "no clear magic bullet to solve the problem," and to former CIA Director James Woolsey, who has said that 24 is "quite realistic" about the threats that it depicts.

And then there's the pop culture shout-out from former presidential candidate and U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who said that if the government captured a would-be suicide bomber, "I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that point, let me tell you."

Yin said 24 is a useful tool to analyze the intersection of law and pop culture, to the point where he uses scenes from the show to illustrate points and generate discussion in a seminar he teaches on national security law. 24's conceit is well known by now-federal anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, has less than 24 hours to track down bad guys intent on destroying America with assassination, nuclear weapons, viral releases and various other forms of mayhem.

One of the most controversial parts of the show is that Bauer frequently resorts to torturing the terrorists to get the information he needs, justifying it by saying he doesn't have time to find the information any other way if he's going to save the country once again.

As a fan, Yin enjoys the show's lightning pace and edge-of-your-seat plots. As a law professor, though, he's more troubled by its casual use of torture and shallow presentation of national security law.

"The relentless use of torture may be cathartic to some in the post-9/11 era, but it presents an unduly optimistic justification of torture," Yin wrote in his paper, "Jack Bauer Syndrome: Hollywood's Depiction of National Security Law." "Bauer may never be wrong about whom he tortures, and he may still be a basically decent human being, but there is little reason to believe that both factors will play out similarly in real life."

From a legal perspective, he said 24 justifies its torture with the "ticking time bomb" theory that argues torturing one person is acceptable if it's necessary to spare the lives of many more. But Yin said the show's portrayal of frequent torture is legally troubling because evidence suggests that torture doesn't work, and because it's against the law.

On top of that, Bauer never tortures the wrong person and he knows the torture will produce results, guarantees that can't be made in the real world.

"Even if we assume that government actors proceeded in good faith, there remains the possibility of making a mistake," he said.

He also worries the show's overly optimistic Hollywood view of torture could have consequences in the real world legal system.

"If a government agent were ever to be prosecuted for torturing a terrorist suspect and raised a defense of necessity, a jury influenced by 24 might demand that the agent had possessed the perfect information that Bauer regularly has," Yin said. "On the other hand, there is evidence that some military personnel have been influenced by the show to engage in more abusive interrogations. This shows the impact may well be greater acceptance of the 'necessity' for torture or other, slightly less coercive interrogation methods."

24 has also come under fire from various groups for its portrayal of Arabs as stereotypical crazy terrorists and Arab-Americans as not altogether trustworthy and sufficiently patriotic. Arabs or Arab-Americans have been the show's primary villains in three of its six seasons.

Yin said these criticisms are fair, though overblown.

"24 may not be as negatively biased as some critics complain it is," said Yin. "The terrorists are not always Arabs, and even in the seasons when the terrorists are Arabs, there are usually other, non-Arab villains as well. In addition, the producers appear at least cognizant of the fact that one-sided portrayals amount to little more than polemic; how else can one explain the sometimes heavy-handed inclusion of Arab-American characters who make speeches proclaiming their patriotism?"

He suggested the producers could improve its presentation of the terrorists by providing a better sense of their motivations, not for the purpose of justifying the terrorism, but to humanize them.

Yin presented his paper at the recent Association of American Law Schools conference as part of a panel sponsored by the organization's Law and Humanities Section. The article will be published soon in the Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal.

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