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Tortured Finger-Pointing

We know that some viewers mimic things they see on television, and not always things we wish they would repeat, either. Television has the ability to instruct, for good or bad.

Television is also blamed for everything.

Now we are being asked to take seriously the idea that American soldiers who watch 24 and have seen character Jack Bauer torture terrorists and conspirators may believe that is routinely acceptable behavior.

According to the Feb. 19 edition of the New Yorker, the dean of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and retired military interrogators met with producers and writers of 24 (and Lost) last year to tell them that their scenes of torture could create heinous copycats.

Apparently, the visit to the producers wasn’t just to warn about the torture but to complain that producers should make it more authentic. This entourage reported that torture usually doesn’t work. But on TV, it often does, unless it’s being inflicted on the good guys.

The West Point dean, U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, told the magazine that it is now hard to teach his students about the rule of law and human rights and that torture is wrong, because so many of them love to watch Jack Bauer on his totally fictional television show. He said, “The kids see it and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about 24?’”

This controversy is perhaps the most off-the-wall example of the “power of television” we’ve ever heard, and one of the most artful examples of passing blame. We would let it pass without mention except that TV has been criticized for having an effect on violence, for promoting promiscuity and for making kids fat and stupid. And that’s just the CliffsNotes version of the list.

But whatever interrogation problems the military have shouldn’t be laid at the doorstep of TV. They are the result of the training the troops received—or did not—and the moral compass provided by their leaders.

In fact, the Bush Administration starting in 2002 tried to broaden the definition of the word “torture” so we could do more of it. Bush didn’t get his advice from Jack Bauer; he got it from his White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales (now his attorney general).

It was Gonzales who advised President Bush that he could change the rules so that torture “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death.”

That went far, far beyond the U.S. Army’s own regulations and drew gasps from other civilized nations around the world and even senior military officials here.

Viewers around the world have also made 24 a hit. But the show is fiction. Blame TV for undercovering the run-up to the war or overcovering Anna Nicole Smith. But to blame TV for whatever excesses have been inflicted on Iraqi detainees or suspected terrorists simply deflects criticism from where it rightly belongs. For mixed signals about torture, we should look first and foremost at out own commander in chief.