Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Torture Works in 24

I've been thinking about why the case for torture seems so compelling in 24 despite the fact that it's counterproductive in real life. At first I thought the key difference between 24 and real life was that Jack Bauer is infallible - whenever he thinks somebody knows something important, he's right - but that's only part of it. The bigger problem with 24 is a literary convention: we only get to see one investigatory thread at a time.

In real life there would be at any given time hundreds of agents following thousands of potential leads. So if any particular lead doesn't pan out, there's somewhere else the story could go. But 24 plots are carefully constructed in such a way that there's only one good lead at any given time and no other leads worth pursuing. When you only have one suspect you can question, a policy of torture seems plausible - you might get a new lead to follow faster than without it. Whereas if you have ten thousand suspects - many of whom are undoubtedly innocent or sympathetic to your cause -a policy of torture is insane. It is likely to generate false leads that consume valuable resources and to discourage the cooperation you need to find valid solutions in a timely fashion.

In real life, once you have questioned someone in a civil manner you usually have the time and ability to come back later and ask them more questions. In 24-land, as soon as somebody has given up to Jack their single and true puzzle piece, that person dies or disappears. (Sometimes he commits suicide; more often he is killed as a result of ultra-competent bad guys foiling ultra-incompetent good guys who fail to protect the witness.) So leads don't accumulate and keeping sources on your side for the future (when more evidence turns up that you might ask them about) has no value. Also, the system is so corrupt-by-design that Jack can't safely delegate in order to explore multiple leads in parallel; he can only follow his one best lead at any time.

In short, the reason torture works in 24 is that 24 is fiction.

Performancing