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The Jack Bauer syndrome

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In the category of guilty pleasures, I have to admit to being a loyal follower of the television show 24.

I know it abuses stereotypes. I know it is silly and over the top. I know the plot line is more appropriate for comic books than prime time television.

Most importantly, I know the values espoused by the show’s protagonist, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) are pretty extreme — especially a willingness that borders on eagerness to use anything within arm’s reach to torture bad guys.

So, if I know all that, why is it so satisfying when Jack tortures someone?

I find myself hoping that Jack will be allowed into the interrogation room alone, and that he disables the close-circuit video cameras so he can use all means necessary to get the information he needs to defuse the next imminent terrorism threat.

I groan when bureaucrats and politicians who have never experienced first-hand the horrors of the war on terror preach to him. I shake my head in scornful resignation when the bad guys Jack didn’t torture escape and commit further acts of terrorism.

This season, the show is almost entirely focused on the issue of torture — when, if ever, it is appropriate and the debate over how self-identified civilized nations should conduct war against forces of evil who don’t respect the rules of engagement. In its own melodramatic way, I believe 24 has become one of the most topical shows on television.

It was hard not to think about Jack’s frequent experience with torture — he has been tortured almost as many times as he has tortured — when President Barack Obama recently decided to release memos and correspondence that detailed interrogation methods used in the US government’s war on terror.

The furor that has erupted from release of these documents is unbelievable.

Republicans, especially former top Bush administration figures, decried the release of the documents as a security breach. Former top political advisor Karl Rove went so far as to suggest that revealing the details of exactly how suspects were interrogated had "ruined" the techniques. You must check out Jon Stewart’s observations to get a full sense of the absurdity of this claim.

As Jack Bauer has shown us, the debate about whether to torture or not torture is likely going to be to the current generation of political watchers and animals what abortion was about 20 years ago.

It’s a debate without any hope of satisfactory resolution. Reject torture and you’ve got blood on your hands when the terrorists strike next; support torture with the knowledge that you’ve descended to the same immoral level as those who seek to hurt us.

Oddly, I think those who support torture as a legitimate tool of war are firm in their beliefs, even when confronted with stories of wrongly accused innocents who suffered unconscionable atrocities in the name of the war on terror.

As such, it appears torture is destined to be a political football of unprecedented magnitude. I can see a day when elections will be fought or lost in the U.S. on the candidate’s willingness to waterboard.

It's a watershed moment in the history of western democracy.

Obama appears to be more interested, for now, in the root causes of terrorism: the oppressive and arrogant foreign policy that has made Americans the most-favored target of terrorists; unaddressed poverty and hunger in developing countries that creates fertile ground for despots and madmen; a political agenda that puts access to oil ahead of real diplomacy.

Some may justify torture as a legitimate response to an enemy who no longer follows any accepted rules about how to fight wars. But there are limits to what torture can do.

And while torture may provide some advance warning of terrorist attacks, it certainly won’t do anything to convince the terrorists to abandon their bloody ways. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that an adversary that is willing to encase himself in plastic explosives and blow himself up is not dissuaded by the thought of being locked in a box with a caterpillar.

If Obama fails to show results from his efforts to build relationships with those people who are the most motivated to blow up plans and office towers, I expect Obama will look to the Jack Bauer’s of the world for comfort.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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