The torturer's apprentices: I love 24's Jack Bauer, but I don't agree with his tactics

Advocates of torture on the left and the right cling to the myth of the ticking bomb.

"You are going to tell me what I want to know - it's just a matter of how much you want it to hurt." So says Jack Bauer, the fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit agent in the award-winning TV show 24. Over the past eight seasons, dead-eyed Bauer has beaten, stabbed, shot, suffocated, drugged, hooded and electrocuted an assortment of dark-skinned, bearded baddies in order to make them "talk" and stop one terrorist attack after another.

I have my own confession to make. I adore Jack Bauer. Like millions of fellow fans, I can't help but be in awe of him. Why? He's a man of action, a hero who will do anything it takes to save lives. In the words of one liberal commentator, "men want to be him, and women want to be there to hand him the electrical cord".

However, in my saner moments, I'm able to distinguish fact from fiction. For example, the "ticking bomb" scenario - of an evil terrorist in our custody who possesses critical knowledge of a time bomb about to explode and kill thousands - has no basis in reality, although it appears on 24 with unnerving frequency. "Within the context of our show, which is a fantastical show to begin with, the torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is," acknowledges Kiefer Sutherland, the actor and noted Hollywood liberal, who plays Bauer.

“Duty" to torture

As the British lawyer Philippe Sands and the American journalist Jane Mayer have both revealed, Jack Bauer's methods were the unlikely inspiration for Bush administration lawyers designing interrogation techniques; his name was invoked at early "brainstorming meetings" of officials at Guantanamo in 2002.

Michael Chertoff, George W Bush's homeland security tsar, said that 24 "reflects real life". It doesn't. But advocates of torture cling to the myth of the ticking bomb. Bruce Anderson's claim, in the "liberal" Independent on 15 February, that we have a "duty" to torture "the wife and children" of a terrorist withholding such hypothetical information, was as ridiculous as it was appalling.

But everyone knows that Anderson is a reactionary and a Tory. What of the pro-war liberal left? (Incidentally, they like to call themselves "muscular" liberals, but I've never quite understood why a policy of supporting the US air force from afar, as it drops cluster bombs from 5,000 feet, implies any physical strength on the part of the armchair warriors.) Have they disowned the torture that their wars against terror and tyranny have spawned?

Not quite. There are those who want to turn a blind eye. In 2006, the Observer's Nick Cohen wrote a piece entitled: "We have to deport terrorist suspects - whatever their fate". Perhaps he was taking his lead from the then prime minister. In 2004, court documents showed Tony Blair keen to deport terror suspects to Egypt, although he had been advised that they might be tortured. "This is crazy. Why can't we press on?" Having been told about the failure to get "assurances" on torture from the Egyptians, Blair said: "This is a bit much. Why do we need all these things?"

Then there are those "liberals", whose stock response to allegations of torture is: "Yes, but . . ." Yes, Guantanamo is horrible, but they're evil terrorists. Yes, Abu Ghraib was bad, but Saddam Hussein was worse. Yes, waterboarding is wrong, but it's not the same as the rack. Or, as the pro-war liberals' charter, the Euston Manifesto, put it: "The violation of basic human rights at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo . . . must be roundly condemned . . . But we reject the double standards by which too many on the left consider the violations . . . by democracies to be more serious than far worse infractions committed by other countries." The "Yes, buttery . . ." goes on and on.

Then there is the lazy defence from the liberal belligerati that it didn't have to be like this. "We can all imagine how it might have been done better," wrote David Aaronovitch in the Times last year. Ergo, blame Bush. Not us. Not Blair. Not the war. But this won't wash. Those of us who opposed the militaristic and lawless response to the al-Qaeda attacks in 2001 questioned the wisdom of following Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. "Let's just say, I knew who the surgeon was going to be, so I had a fair idea what the operation would look like," says Bill Nighy's anti-war doctor, Oliver, in David Hare's play The Vertical Hour.

Secret things

So this is how it is at the end of this era of liberal interventionism: we have a Labour government equivocating over its complicity in torture and a bellicose but compromised pro-war left.

It is time for an independent judicial inquiry into the various allegations of torture and mistreatment - as even the former attorney general Peter Goldsmith and the Tories agree. Binyam Mohamed, the British resident allegedly tortured in US custody, is just the latest in a long line of ex-detainees to have accused the government of complicity in their torture.

“Ludicrous lies," says the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson. But how can he be so sure? Can we trust the same security services that sold us a false bill of goods on Iraq? Should we blindly accept the "national security" arguments for more secrecy and less accountability and transparency?

In the last season of 24, Agent Bauer, riddled with guilt, was being investigated over torture by a congressional committee. Talking to a colleague, Jack argued that the truth had to come out. "We've done so many secret things over the years. In the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds," he said, "ours and the people we promised to protect. They deserve to know the truth, and they can decide how far they want to let us go."

This time, he's right.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN