Jack Bauer: The glamorization of torture does not change its inhumanity

November 27, 2008

The glamourisation of torture through the TV character Jack Bauer is discussed in a Viewpoint in this week's edition of The Lancet, written by Dr Homer Drae Venters, New York University, USA. Dr Venters also proposes the steps doctors can take to oppose torture.

He recalls a consultation with Kofi, a survivor of torture seeking asylum in the USA, in which the man described how he been beaten, stabbed and humiliated repeatedly by representatives of his home government. During this intensive consultation, Kofi asked a simple question: "Who is Jack Bauer?". This reference to the fictional government agent in the TV series 24, played by Kiefer Sutherland, made Dr Venters reflect that: "Jack Bauer makes torture popular...We are tempted by the glamour and raw charisma that we project onto Jack Bauer, the illusion of protection, and the lure of vigilante justice . But the raw truth of torture is that whatever the original motive, the torturer and the tortured are transformed into a perpetrator and a victim of violence. The torturer visits inhumanity on his victim, but also on himself and the surrounding community."

Dr Venters discusses the history of torture in American politics, and expresses his deep concerns of the increasing acceptability of torture in the public psyche, saying: "Somewhere in the fog of war, terror, and politics, we have become accustomed to the idea of torture. Recent polling shows that American acceptance of torture is increasing, from 36% in 2006 to 44% in 2008.2 Additionally, more than half of Americans support torture in some situations, and an equal number support the practice of so-called rendition to other countries for the purpose of torture. During prime-time television, this approval of torture is generated and reflected by Jack Bauer, roughing up prisoners in a weekly struggle to protect the country. As I chatted with Kofi about how we arrived at this acceptance of torture in the USA, he said, 'You have no idea what you would do to your neighbour if you thought he would harm your family.' Kofi went on to explain that acceptance of torture can arise from a heightened level of fear, that overcomes good judgment and gives way to inhumanity."

He concludes by saying: "As physicians, we have a responsibility to oppose torture. We treat many patients who describe torture, and many more who have experienced it, but cannot bring themselves to disclose it. If Kofi is correct that irrational, overwhelming fear can lead to inhumanity, we should stoke the fires of reason. Three areas for intervention exist for us as physicians. First, we can educate ourselves (as students, residents, and attending physicians) about torture as a public-health issue, its prevalence in our patient populations, and how it affects our ability to deliver care... Second, we should strengthen ties with human-rights organisations, lending the credibility and resources of our profession to this endeavour. Just as physicians eventually became integral to campaigns against child abuse and intimate-partner violence, we should now join the international effort against torture... Finally, we should proceed in the least partisan manner possible. The political nature of torture is inescapable. But we will need to cast this discussion in terms of violence, public health, and our ability to deliver medical care to our patients. By bearing witness to the brutality visited on Kofi and others, we may be able to care for our patients better, while helping to eliminate public acceptance of torture."
Dr Homer Drae Venters, New York University, USA T) +1 646 734 5994 E) homer.venters@med.nyu.edu

For full Viewpoint: http://press.thelancet.com/jackbauer.pdf


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