By now, most Americans know how product placement works. So when America Online sponsors a checkpoint during "The Amazing Race," or selling M&Ms becomes a challenge on "The Apprentice," it's no accident we hear those brands mentioned eight or 10 times. And when you cut to commercial, guess what's being advertised?
Television doesn't just traffic in products, though, it traffics in ideas, too. And given that the United States is now debating the boundaries of law enforcement in its War on Terror, it was only a matter of time before someone took the bait.
That finally happened last week on "24," the hit Fox drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer, a hard-driving, rule-breaking black sheep of the CTU (short for Counterterrorism Unit). Unfolding in "real time," each season chronicles one really bad 24-hour day for Bauer.
This year's season opener unfolded with typical dramatic panache during a two-hour special about a sleeper cell of Muslim extremists who kidnap the secretary of defense. All this throws Bauer—who has been taking some much needed time off—back into action.
So what is one of the first things Bauer does? Halfway into Sunday's episode, he shoots a stubborn informant in the leg when normal interrogation techniques prove futile. Sure enough, bullet fired, blood spattered, Bauer has the goods and is off to foil a plot.
If only law enforcement were this simple and all prisoners were guilty before proven innocent. Take Guantanamo, for example, where the U.S. is currently holding roughly 500 prisoners without charge. They're guilty, right?
In March, the U.S. government released five British men home to the United Kingdom, where they were released when found not guilty of any terrorist activity. It's a good thing no one had shot any of them in the leg.
But we had done other things (besides, of course, taking two years of their lives). They were punched, slapped, denied sleep, had seen other prisoners sexually humiliated, hooded and forced to watch copies of the Koran being flushed down toilets. Eventually the pressure proved too much—they gave false confessions that the British intelligence service, MI5, later showed to be untrue.
If any of this behavior sounds familiar, it should, because it's what Gen. Geoffrey Miller exported from Cuba to Abu Gharib in August 2003, points out David Rose in his new book, Guantanamo. And now the man responsible for fashioning the legal argument that allowed these methods to run amok, Alberto Gonzalez, stands before the U.S. Senate to be confirmed as attorney general.
One of the tension points of watching "24" on Sunday was waiting to see which way the show would go in response to the issue of torture. Does Jack Bauer's end justify his means, or should he be punished?
Minus a short blip in which Bauer is actually detained for his misbehavior, it seems pretty clear that the show's creators are going with the first stance. Bauer is sent back out into the field to track down a "hostile" who is planning another kidnapping.
Only this time he is foiled by a colleague sent along to "keep him on a leash." At a key moment, the guy handcuffs Bauer to a pipe because he won't "stand down" and follow protocol. As a result, the man is shot, and Bauer must watch, hamstrung, as he dies and the suspect gets away. (See what happens when law enforcement is bound by rules?)
What follows from here is a point-by-point argument, in dramatic form, for why the U.S. needs to relax civil liberties and take the gloves off with terrorists. After getting free of his cuffs, Bauer trails the hostile (who happens to look like a swank Mohammed Atta) to a mini-mart, where he must keep him until he has some sort of backup. Bauer's ploy? He dons a ski mask and pretends to rob the mini-mart. (See what levels they make us stoop to?)
Meanwhile, the show's fictional secretary of defense is forced by his captors into an orange jumpsuit (they are humiliating us) which he will wear as he stands trial for "crimes against humanity."
In conflating the terrorists in Iraq, who kidnap and kill, with the international court—which America refuses to join (probably because it would go after a real cabinet secretary, Henry Kissinger)—“24" foments the exact same sense of beleaguered patriotism the Bush administration has used to keep people afraid and angry. As Secretary of Defense Heller shouts at the "lawless, godless thugs" who are his captors: "You will listen to me, I am the secretary of defense."
This is not the first time a worst-case scenario has been played out on the screen. Tom Clancy's hero Jack Ryan whitewashed a decade of America's war on drugs, and dozens of films took up the Cold War. But there is something dangerous about how much Fox is on-message with "24."
This is, after all, the broadcast organization that called Florida for Bush in 2000. Bush's first cousin, no less, was the man to make that controversial call; the same network that made law-enforcement reality shows like "Cops" and "Amazing Police Videos" wildly popular. Is it any accident that the local Fox news, which picked up in New York City after "24" ended, began with a story about "terror thugs?"
Teasing out the intricacies of Fox's obvious ideological bias has been portrayed as a quaint hobby for liberals, but there is empirical evidence that the network creates falsehoods. And now, with this new season of "24," it appears the network has entered the realm of idea placement (otherwise known as propaganda).
The message? This nation is under siege, and we must do whatever it takes to root out these terrorist thugs, even if it includes rolling back civil liberties. After all, as one interrogator says to a man in "24," "You don't have anything to hide do you?"
At least when you see a Ford on the show, you know who is paying for it to be there.
John Freeman is a frequent contributor to the Arts section.