John McCain’s favorite TV show, 24 — the one that glorifies torture – is returning to Fox TV this Sunday night with a two-hour special.
McCain named 24 as his favorite show on his Facebook page. The show has done more to advance the Bush White House defense of torture than anything else in the American media. According to its "ticking time bomb" scenario, the only way to stop terrorists from exploding a nuclear weapon in the heart of an American city is to torture them into revealing their fiendish plot.
During the campaign McCain was asked by a reporter which celebrity he most identified with. "It’s Jack Bauer," he replied — the Kiefer Sutherland character who does most of the torturing. "We have a lot in common." And in 2007 he talked about 24 on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart: "I watch it all the time," he said. "I’m sort of a Jack Bauer kind of guy."
You might think McCain’s own experience as the victim of torture would make it hard for him to name the head of torture on TV as the celebrity he most identifies with. Perhaps we have here a delayed case of the famous "Stockholm Syndrome," where victims come to identify with their captors.
Jack Bauer deals with terrorists every week on the show: they are chained to walls or chairs, and he suffocates them, electrocutes them, shoots them, and sometimes tortures their children in front of them. Of course it always works; America is always saved by torture.
McCain appeared in a cameo on the show in 2006. "I shoot one guy’s kneecap off, only one," McCain told reporters afterward. "A red-hot poker is planted in someone’s chest, but other than that, there is no torture." (In fact McCain appeared only for a few seconds, handing a folder to someone else.)
McCain’s enthusiasm for torture on TV is all the more puzzling because of his leadership in the Senate’s legislation outlawing torture. In 2005 he introduced a bill prohibiting torture of prisoners including those held at Guantanamo, and the Senate passed it, 90-9. In the first TV debate in September McCain proudly declared, "I have opposed the president . . . on torture of prisoners, on Guantanamo Bay."
But according to 24, it is suicidal folly to follow the rules McCain sponsored about the treatment of prisoners. The same argument has been made by Bush spokesmen including Dick Cheney, who immediately after 9-11 said it would be necessary for the US to go to what he called "the dark side" to defeat Islamic extremism.
Cheney didn’t explain much about what he meant, but "On ’24,’ the dark side is on full view," says New Yorker writer Jane Mayer, author of the award-winning book The Dark Side.
Historians say the "ticking time bomb" scenario advanced by the show, and the Bush administration, is purely fictional — it’s never happened that terrorists with knowledge of an imminent attack were in custody.
During the year-long political campaign, only one reporter confronted McCain with the seeming contradiction between his opposition to torture in real life and his love of torture on TV: Tara McKelvey of Marie Claire, a women’s monthly published by Hearst. When McCain told McKelvey that he identified with Jack Bauer, she had exactly the right follow-up: "Um, he’s also a torturer."
According to the published transcript, McCain responded, "Yeah, that’s right. That’s where Jack and I disagree. He believes in torture, but I don’t. He says, ‘Tell me where the weapons are.’ The person says, ‘I won’t.’ Bam! ‘OK, I’ll tell.’"
Then they moved on to Borat.
Sunday’s two-hour 24 show is set on the day a woman president takes office — a slight miscalculation by the show’s writers. Previews show Jack Bauer with a group of children in Africab — but he’s not torturing them, he’s rescuing them. The regular one-hour episodes begin next January.
One final note: Obama also listed a favorite TV show on his own Facebook page: his was ESPN Sportscenter.