Torture's Wider Use Brings New Concerns

The Fox Network series 24 features a hero who is not shy about using torture to achieve his objectives. The portrayal of torture as a positive tool worries human-rights watchers as well as the general who heads up West Point. They say the portrayals may be influencing military interrogators.

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Torture is often depicted in the popular television show "24." The human rights activists are now saying that those depictions are a bad influence on American soldiers. And as NPR's Kim Masters reports, some in the military agree.

KIM MASTERS: In last week's episode of "24," the hero extracted information and removed a finger from a recalcitrant source.

(Soundbite of "24")

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND (Actor): (as Jack Bauer) This is your last chance.

(Soundbite of finger being removed)

Unidentified Man: Ah.

MASTERS: Jill Savitt of the activist group, Human Rights First, says her organization's research has found that such portrayals have an effect in the real world.

Ms. JILL SAVITT (Human Rights First): We learned that in Iraq, in Afghanistan, interrogators were using techniques that they had seen on television. And they were using these, we heard, because there was no official doctrine according to these interrogators about what techniques they should use.

MASTERS: Former interrogator Tony Lagouranis who was at Abu Ghraib, says in a video that he taped for Savitt's group, that interrogators were encouraged to be creative in their techniques.

Mr. TONY LAGOURANIS (Former Interrogator in Abu Ghraib): So people were watching movies and watching TV and they were getting their ideas from that.

MASTERS: The problem is particularly worrisome, Savitt says, because torture is now portrayed in positive terms. Before the September 11th attacks, they were virtually no depictions of American heroes using torture.

Ms. SAVITT: But after 9/11, we see a dramatic, dramatic rise in American characters using torture to elicit information and having that torture be seen as patriotic and effective.

MASTERS: The military dismisses the idea that shows like "24" might influence its personnel as unworthy of discussion. In a statement, a Pentagon spokesman told us, our men and women responsible for guarding, transporting and interrogating detainees are professionals. They understand the difference between a TV show and reality. Stephen Xenakis is a retired Army brigadier general and a psychiatrist.

Mr. STEPHEN XENAKIS (Retired Army Brigadier General; Psychiatrist): That's unbelievable to me. It's not credible.

MASTERS: Xenakis says military commanders must recognize that in today's media-saturated world, soldiers may be susceptible to images on the screen.

Mr. XENAKIS: We want them to know what's fantasy and not fantasy, but the fact is, they may not. They're young people, and they've come from all sorts of walks of life and all sorts of backgrounds, and becoming a professional soldier takes time.

MASTERS: Xenakis concurs that in recent years, soldiers have operated without clear guidance from the Pentagon and that may exacerbate the problem. Retired Stanford University professor Philips Zimbardo says it's not surprising that interrogators might then turn to tactics borrowed from television. He led the Stanford prison experiment, a famous study on the effects of captivity. He was also an expert witness at a Abu Ghraib court martial proceeding. Zimbardo says interrogators with murky guidance were under pressure to get information.

Professor PHILIP ZIMBARDO (Stanford University): So it's frustrating, they're spending all this time and they're not getting anything. It's a job. They're not doing their job. So what do you have to do is you have to try different techniques, different tactics. And that's why you see something on television, wow it works there, let's try it.

MASTERS: With this in mind, Human Rights First arranged a meeting last October between writers for "24" and seasoned interrogators from the FBI and the military - including Tony Lagouranis. Also participating was Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

According to a recent New Yorker article, Finnegan said the show's use of torture was having a toxic effect, and asked the writers to stop depicting it, or at least stop showing it as an effective technique.

Human Rights First Jill Savitt says the producers argued that the scene in their shows were simply fabrications.

Ms. JILL SAVITT (Human Rights First): And we explained to them that we don't put abuse in the field at their doorstep. We consider it fundamentally a policy problem that the policy changed midstream and soldiers were confused. But we did portray this to them as an unintended consequence about policy shift and the political moment that we're in.

MASTERS: The producers of "24" declined our request for an interview. A spokesman from Fox also refused to discuss the show, saying - there's nothing about "24" that people should take to represent reality.

Kiefer Sutherland, who played agent Jack Bauer, did not respond to our request for an interview, but when he appeared on The Charlie Rose Show last year, he expressed similar sentiments.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: The torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is, and how urgent and desperate these characters are to solve this one specific thing and time is running out. It is not to be confused with what we think is right or wrong, and it's a television show.

MASTERS: The interrogators who spoke with the producers of "24" expressed little hope that the show would change. That's discouraging to Savitt, who feels that such programs may damage not just soldiers and prisoners, but also harm America's image abroad.

Retired Stanford professor Zimbardo fears the show has an impact at home as well in desensitizing the public to the idea of abuse.

Kim Masters, NPR News.

NORRIS: Coming up on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, an American woman in the running doing Ski World Cup and the African Guitar Summit, those stories are coming up next.

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