Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, accompanied by veteran military and FBI interrogators, met with "24's" creative team in Southern California last November to tell them "I'd like them to stop. They should do a show where torture backfires," according to an article in the Feb. 19-26 issue of The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. "24" is said to have a weekly audience of 15-million viewers and reaches millions more through DVD sales.
The general, who said "24" is popular with his students, told Mayer, "The kids see it, and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about '24'?"
Finnegan also told the producers their suggestion the U.S. perpetrates torture is hurting America's image internationally.
The Fox show producers retorted they are careful not to glamorize torture and said their fictional "Counter Terrorist Unit" agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, never enjoys inflicting pain. Finnegan and his experts disagreed, stating Bauer remains coolly rational after committing barbarous acts, including the decapitation of a state's witness with a hacksaw, Mayer reported.
Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in Iraq and one of the meeting's participants, told the show's staff "24's" DVDs are circulated widely in Iraq. Lagouranis told Mayer, "People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they've just seen."
Lagouranis added, "I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee's hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened."
Joe Navarro, an FBI official who has conducted some 12,000 prisoner interviews and attended the meeting, said torture was not an effective response, explaining, "These are very determined people, and they won't turn just because you pull a fingernail out."
Joel Surnow, co-creator and executive producer of "24", told The New Yorker's Mayer, "We've had all of these torture experts come by recently, and they say, 'You don't realize how many people are affected by this. Be careful.' They say torture doesn't work. But I don't believe that."
"Young interrogators don't need our show. What the human mind can imagine is so much greater than what we show on TV. No one needs us to tell them what to do. It's not like somebody goes, 'Oh, look what they're doing, I'll do that.' Is it?"
The delegation of interrogators left the meeting, Mayer wrote, "with the feeling that the story lines on "24" would be changed little, if at all." Lagouranis said of the Fox producers, "They were a bit prickly. They have this money-making machine and we were telling them it's immoral."
The Army-"24" meeting was arranged by Human Rights First official David Danzig, long active in the nonprofit's campaign to end torture and its portrayal in the media. Before the 9/11 atttacks, fewer than four acts of torture appeared on prime-time TV each year, Danzig told Mayer. Now there are more than 100, and "It used to be almost exclusively the villains who tortured. Today, torture is often perpetrated by the heroes."
Melissa Caldwell, senior director of programs for The Parents' Television Council, said there were 67 torture scenes during the first five seasons of "24", calling the Fox show "the worst offender on television: the most frequent, most graphic, and the leader in the trend of showing the protagonists using torture."
Mayer commented, "The show's villains usually inflict the more gruesome tortures: their victims are hung on hooks, like carcasses in a butcher shop; poked with smoking-hot scalpels; or abraded with sanding machines. In many episodes, however, heroic American officials act as tormentors, even though torture is illegal under U.S. law."
She noted the Bush Administration has "firmly rejected" the idea that physical coercion in interrogations is unreliable. Last September, Mayer noted, Bush defended the Central Intelligence Agency's use of "enhanced" measures to extract "vital information" from "dangerous" detainees aware of "terrorist plans we could not get anywhere else."
Surnow said, "People in the Administration love the series, too."
(Sherwood Ross is an American journalist. Reach him at email@example.com for comments or speaking engagements.)