Arts & Life

Torture's Depiction on TV

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Recently Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan asked producers of the Fox program 24 to stop showing torture as an effective tool in combating terrorism. His request may not have changed that show's writing, but some other shows seem to have heard it.


From torture on stage to torture on TV. On the Fox show "24," terrorists are routinely tortured during interrogations.

(Soundbite of TV show "24")

Mr. Keifer Sutherland (Actor): (As Jack Bauer) Tell me where the bombs are.

Unidentified Man: You'll get nothing from me.

(Soundbite of punch)


Scenes like that disturb Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan who is the dean of West Point.

COHEN: Finnegan led a group that asked the show's creative team to stop showing torture as an effective tool in combating terrorism.

CHADWICK: He didn't change any plot lines at "24" but some other shows were listening.

NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: Maybe it's a sign of our age but

MIKE PESCA: Maybe it's a sign of our age, but the anti-heroes are the most captivating characters on television today - pill-popping Dr. House, compelling mob boss Tony Soprano and detective Vic Mackey whose commitment to law and order doesn't extend to his own conduct.

Mackey is the protagonist of the FX police drama, "The Shield," perhaps the most brutal show on television. It's disturbing, co-executive producer Adam Fierro says, because that's the only honest way to depict the world that Vic Mackey patrols.

Mr. ADAM FIERRO (Co-Executive Producer, "The Shield"): All of our stories, we try to ground in the real reality so that they feel more violent and they feel more brutal because they feel more real.

PESCA: That extends to a recent storyline where Vic, played by Emmy Award-winning actor Michael Chiklis, is chasing down a cop-killer.

(Soundbite of clip, "The Shield")

Mr. MICHAEL CHIKLIS (Actor): (As Vic Mackey) I'm going to get you the truth.

Unidentified Man #1: I didn't do it. I didn't (unintelligible).

PESCA: In this scene, Vic's convinced that Guardo(ph), the suspect he has in custody, is the killer. Guardo is not lying but Vic thinks he is and he beats him mercilessly. The scene feels totally different from the torture scenes in "24." For one thing, in "24," torture is usually effective. Coincidentally, Fierro, who wrote this episode of "The Shield," also worked on "24" during the time when the anti-torture delegation showed up.

Mr. FIERRO: And the whole argument of that organization is that's not the way torture actually works and that method usually does not yield positive results.

PESCA: Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, an FBI interrogator, and a representative from the group Human Rights First, told the "24" producers that a self-styled martyr who really did plant the bomb would expect the torture and not give anything up. On the other hand, if you torture an innocent person, he'll usually invent a story.

(Soundbite of clip, "The Shield")

Mr. CHIKLIS: How did you find my guy.

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible)


PESCA: That's exactly what happens in this scene in "The Shield." That idea, Fierro says, came right from what the real-life interrogators told him at that meeting.

Mr. FIERRO: You can't trust the information that you get in torture situations. And we thought of that for this scene too. I mean, he would absolutely try to send Vic off on another direction while he's just trying to keep himself alive and figure a way out.

PESCA: Fierro points out the differences between "The Shield" and "24." For one thing, the dirty cop at the center of "The Shield" is very different from the government agent who's trying to save the world in "24," Jack Bauer.

Mr. FIERRO: Jack Bauer is a complete hero. I mean, he's a cold-blooded killer but it's always for absolutely the best reason. He's above reproached. Where our guys are absolutely criminals.

PESCA: That might be the difference in how each show depicts torture. When a hero tortures, it must be for the greater good. But the darker characters in "The Shield" don't always get the right man. The scene that Fierro wrote for "The Shield" ends harshly, with Vic insisting that the crime, killing his friend Lem, justifies the beating he's doling out, not realizing that Lem's real killer is standing beside him, a fellow cop.

(Soundbite of clip, "The Shield")

Unidentified Man #2: You know, maybe he enjoyed it, man.

Mr. CHIKLIS: It was a point of who (unintelligible) manslaughter.

Unidentified Man #2: You don't get it, man. I mean, if he had a name don't you think he would have told us by now?

Unidentified Man #3: It just means he was acting alone.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, come on, this is crazy, man.

Mr. CHIKLIS: He killed Lem.

PESCA: And with that, Vic puts a bullet through the suspect's skull. He walks out of the room convinced that Guardo's refusal to implicate others is evidence that he acted alone. Vic draws meaning where there is none and is convinced of his righteousness, even though he's just killed the wrong man.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY.

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