‘24’ on the brain

KELLY M. GREENHILL is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and a research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

‘I THINK PEOPLE can differentiate between a television show and reality,” the lead writer of “24” recently told the New Yorker magazine. He was responding to criticism of “24’s” frequent depiction of torture and suggestions that it leads viewers to accept torture as a legitimate and effective interrogation tool.

I’m not so sure he’s right.

Consider what happened during the May 15 Republican presidential debate. Presented with a hypothetical terrorism scenario, “I am looking for Jack Bauer at this point,” said Tom Tancredo, referring to “24’s” aggressive agent. Rudolph W. Giuliani said interrogators should use “any method they can think of” on suspects to find out about an impending attack. And his statement was met with thunderous applause.

I heard the echoes of that applause recently while analyzing the results of a research survey of college students. Given a “ticking time bomb” situation like those on “24,” nearly 44% of them supported the use of torture, and 62% backed the employment of “soft” torture methods, including “water-boarding.” Making direct comparisons across unrelated surveys is a minefield, but those numbers jumped out at me. A Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey done shortly after the 9/11 attacks put the level of support for torture at 32%.


It’s nearly impossible to tease out whether “24,” or any specific TV show, might have nudged support for torture upward. But evidence that earlier works of fiction demonstrably distorted perceptions of reality or influenced public opinion have been found at least as far back as the Middle Ages.

In 1166, a letter allegedly written by “Prester John,” the fictitious Christian ruler of a mysterious Eastern kingdom, surfaced in Western Europe. Widely disseminated accounts of his existence led the pope to dispatch an emissary to search for him and allegedly also breathed new life into the flagging Crusades.

Two 19th century works of fiction were similarly influential. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1852, affected public attitudes toward blacks and slavery, intensifying the sources of conflict that sparked the Civil War. Two decades later, an enormously popular short story, “The Battle of Dorking,” catalyzed a new genre: “invasion literature.” It successfully tapped into British anxieties about Germany and motivated legislation that resulted in the first mass peacetime maneuvers of home troops in Britain.

Fiction’s political effects can be benign and, on occasion, even beneficial. It has long been acknowledged, for instance, that the British Secret Intelligence Service has compensated for its paltry size -- it has about one-tenth the manpower of the CIA -- by leveraging the reputation of its most famous fictional spy, James Bond. As the Economist reported several years ago, veteran CIA agents conceded that in situations in which they often required an envelope stuffed with cash to recruit an agent, officers from Britain’s intelligence service were able to rely on “brand image” alone.

President Reagan was one of the nearly 100 million Americans who tuned in on Nov. 20, 1983, to watch the TV movie “The Day After,” about the consequences of a nuclear holocaust. In his diary, Reagan reported that the film left him “greatly depressed.” According to the film’s director, after the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1987, he received a telegram from Reagan’s office saying: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part of this, because it did.”

On the other hand, a number of criminal prosecutors and forensic scientists have expressed serious concern about the “ ‘CSI’ effect” -- namely, the fact that such popular crime programs as “CSI,” “Law & Order” and “Crossing Jordan” raise unrealistic expectations about forensic science among crime victims and jurors. It’s said to be materially affecting trials. Prosecutors feel compelled to present forensic evidence, such as DNA samples, even when it might be irrelevant.


As far as depictions of torture go, “24” isn’t a lone culprit. Media watchdog groups report that representations of torture on American TV have increased more than 25-fold since 9/11.

People in a position to know, including Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan, dean of the U.S. Military Academy, have gone on record about the problem this presents. Some West Point cadets, under the influence of “24,” have come to believe that torture is justifiable and, largely erroneously, that it works. Finnegan, quoted in the New Yorker in late February, said seniors in his laws of war class have asked, “If torture is wrong, what about ‘24’?”

Likewise, the Intelligence Science Board, an advisory group to the U.S. intelligence community, expressed these concerns in a comprehensive report published in December, arguing that similar reality-distorting effects could be seen in the public at large.

I enjoy “24” and other suspense-filled shows at least as much as the 11-million-plus other viewers who tuned in this season. But with such extraordinary popularity comes some responsibility. Intentionally or not -- and for better and for worse -- fiction can play a real role in the construction of political reality. Amid the global war on terror, those in Hollywood and those in Washington would do well to take heed of this fact about fiction.