Torture and ‘24’: Popular Opinion is a Fickle Mistress

While fans continue to wait for the movie based on the hit television show ’24’ (now in syndication), they would do well to revisit a fascinating case study on the combustible mixture of leavening history and effervescent public attitudes.

Scholars and authors have long debated when events mature into “history” and thus become fair game for historical novelists and screenwriters. Some have suggested that at least fifty years must pass before an adequate perspective can be gained. Yet in a global society that has seen communication time accelerate, an argument can be made that history now congeals much more swiftly.

In a 2008 Wall Street Journal article, reporter Rebecca Dana described the serpentine story trajectories taken by the writers on ’24’. In the process, she provided a fascinating glimpse into how our collective view of the past is molded by national opinions that can turn without warning.

Because of this acceleration in the formation and alteration of what might be called “viral opinion”, studios and other media, now more than ever, step into the minefield of current events and emerging history at their own peril.

The television series ’24’ followed the often-brutal undertakings of special agent Jack Bauer, who was not above using torture when necessary to keep the country safe from terrorists.

Dana recounted how the producers and writers of ‘24’ had to reinvent the show on the fly when the country’s mood suddenly turned from an impulse for revenge after the 9/11 attacks to an abhorrence of torture and a shoot-first mentality. The reason: The unpopularity of the Iraq War and revelations of  cruel treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prisons.

The creators and writers became mystified and then angered when the show was suddenly turned into a scapegoat for these dark and shameful impulses.

Anyone who thinks Hollywood is insensitive and unresponsive to the mood of Middle America should read Dana’s still-timely account.

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