Wednesday, May 23, 2007


As some of you know, we are great fans of the hit show 24. It seems like the rest of our (discretionary) life is on hold as we race through the first 3 seasons of the show on DVD! Each season of 24 recounts a single 24-hour day within which our hero Jack Bauer, a federal agent with the Counter-Terrorism Unit, battles terrorists who are out to unleash unspeakable acts of violence on the US (assassination, nuclear detonations, viruses, ...!). The show is very well done: the action is non-stop and there are lots of surprising twists.

But one aspect of the show is a little unfortunate: torture is used routinely to try and extract critical information from the (obviously) bad guys. This aspect of of 24 was brought up in the recent Republican presidential primary debate; see op-eds by Rosa Brooks in the LA Times and Paul Krugman in the NY Times (TimesSelect subscription required for the latter) for some perspectives on this.

All this raises the question: is torture justified in these situations? With a strong negative answer we have General David Petraeus, the commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq. Recently he wrote an open letter to the troops arguing for the adherence to our values. Here is his central argument against torture:

Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information from the enemy. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary. Certainly, extreme physical action can make someone "talk;" however, what the individual says may be of questionable value. In fact, our experience in applying the interrogation standards laid out in the Army Field Manual ... shows that the techniques in the manual work effectively and humanely in eliciting information from detainees.

We should remember this whenever we begin to think, like the characters in 24, that we have a situation where torture is justified.

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