Torture, TV, and
the Banality of Scalia

Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism had several flaws, but one of her observations has lodged itself permanently in the national psyche as a handy cliché whenever some human monster is found to have a taste for the art of Walter Keane or, like Kim Jong Il, for pornographic movies: The Banality of Evil.

It should hardly be surprising that the authors of our current misfortunes – Iraq, the horribly botched so-called War on Terrorism, torture, illegal surveillance, the FBI’s fake anthrax investigation, and all the rest – will likely turn out to be not suave criminal masterminds in the mold of Professor Moriarty or Auric Goldfinger but dull, plodding bureaucrats with philistine tastes and intellectual imaginations filled with the trash of popular culture.

Newsweek, an arbiter of middlebrow American taste, delicately raises the matter of the banality of our present rulers in its current issue. In “The Fiction Behind Torture Policy,” columnist Dahlia Lithwick gingerly attempts to chide U.S. government figures who rationalized torturing terrorist suspects because a fictional character named Jack Bauer did it in a TV melodrama called 24:

“Diane Beaver, the staff judge advocate general who gave legal approval to 18 controversial interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual humiliation and terrorizing prisoners with dogs, told [British legal expert Philippe] Sands that Bauer ‘gave people lots of ideas.’ Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security chief, gushed in a panel discussion on 24 organized by the Heritage Foundation that the show ‘reflects real life.’

“John Yoo, the former Justice Department lawyer who produced the so-called torture memos – simultaneously redefining both the laws of torture and of logic – cites Bauer in his book War by Other Means. ‘What if, as the Fox television program 24 recently portrayed, a high-level terrorist leader is caught who knows the location of a nuclear weapon?’ Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, speaking in Canada last summer, shows a gift for this casual toggling between television and the Constitution. ‘Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives,’ Scalia said. ‘Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?'”

Lithwick goes on to explain to us, in earnest and schoolmarmish fashion, that information obtained through torture is rarely reliable. She also gives us a synopsis of the television show in question, indicating that the Jack Bauer character operates outside the law and is willing to take the consequences. She goes on to note that a real-life terrorist suspect was tortured and maltreated for years before being released without charge, but “Jack Bauer would have known inside of 10 minutes he was not a ticking time bomb.”

All true and correct, as far as it goes, and Lithwick’s mild reprovals against torture – because it rarely “works,” and because it’s against the law – are unimpeachable. But there’s something unsatisfying about her damning the whole business with such faint damns. Could it be that she, or her editors, calculated that a significant percentage of Newsweek readers are “fans” of fictional TV dramas and take them seriously, and therefore might be offended if they were told unambiguously how obscene, absurd, and psychotic it is to base national security policy on a made-up TV show? Could it be that Lithwick herself takes television fantasy seriously, as she implies when she expatiates about how Jack Bauer makes a moral choice?

She even compares the show’s central ethic favorably with the behavior exhibited by the Bush administration: Bauer is willing to take the heat, whereas the gray, mole-like bureaucrats in the White House and the agencies are not. It never even occurs to her, though, to determine whether 24, a production of the scrofulous Rupert Murdoch media empire, had a political agenda in the first place when it attempted to condition the public to accept the “ticking time bomb” scenario, and when it made a lawless government functionary who tortured seem cooler and more principled than the Nervous Nellys who tried to restrain him.

Let us speak in a less tongue-tied fashion than Lithwick, a corporate drone no doubt worried about offending this or that corporate or governmental interest.

Just what kind of half-crazed nitwit would say, as does Michael Chertoff, a cabinet-level official in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, that 24 “reflects real life?” Every American citizen should think through the implications of that statement in the light of Chertoff’s influence over domestic surveillance.

And do we really want as a Supreme Court justice someone who could utter “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” It would be an understatement to say that a person who cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality should not be in charge of interpreting the Constitution. Such a man might in fact be a candidate for psychiatric observation.

Alas, it is not surprising that America’s criminal ruling class has such banal, trashy, twisted minds.