24 (2001) & Lie to Me (2009)


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The two human faces of capitalism
by Martín López

The legitimacy of the debate over justifying torture is a common place in the post 9/11 political thought. Specifically, it is said, torture may be justified in the (oh, so trite) ticking time bomb scenario. In these situations, we are told, good guys work in a time trial against the clock finding and interrogating prisoners accused of having information that may prevent terrorist attacks. The kind of information that should be obtained somehow to, of course, save millions of lives. (Say it again: Save millions of lives. Now repeat it in front of the mirror: Save millions of lives...)

We know this is nothing new. In the CIA, for example, torture and clandestine imprisonment have been de facto methods of interrogation in the last decades. The news is that today torture is pretended to be a legitimate matter of public debate. Anything can be said, as long as the ticking bomb scenario is not questioned. Moreover, there's a second untouchable hypothesis: only unlawful combatants are the guarantors of the truth. Only they know what is really going on; so they have to talk, whether you like it or not. Those who are identified as unlawful combatants are the law beyond the law itself (in the same way "undead" means monstrously alive).

As Slavoj Žižek warned us in 2002:

[…] Every authentic liberal should see these debates, these calls to ‘keep an open mind’, as a sign that the terrorists are winning. And, in a way, essays like Alter’s, which do not openly advocate torture, but just introduce it as a legitimate topic of debate, are even more dangerous than explicit endorsements. At this moment at least, explicitly endorsing it would be rejected as too shocking, but the mere introduction of torture as a legitimate topic allows us to court the idea while retaining a clear conscience. (‘Of course I am against torture, but who is hurt if we just discuss it?’) Admitting torture as a topic of debate changes the entire field, while outright advocacy remains merely idiosyncratic. The idea that, once we let the genie out of the bottle, torture can be kept within ‘reasonable’ bounds, is the worst liberal illusion, if only because the ‘ticking clock’ example is deceptive: in the vast majority of cases torture is not done in order to resolve a ‘ticking clock’ situation, but for quite different reasons (to punish an enemy or to break him down psychologically, to terrorise a population etc). Any consistent ethical stance has to reject such pragmatic-utilitarian reasoning. Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine an Arab newspaper arguing the case for torturing American prisoners; think of the explosion of comments about fundamentalist barbarism and disrespect for human rights that would cause.

Killing me softly

The public opinion is divided in two apparently opposite blocks. The conservative side explicitly justifies torture based on a simplistic costs-benefit analysis by which a couple of ethical principles can be discarded when millions of lives need (don't forget) to be saved. Since the danger is imminent, it's just a matter of necessity. The beneficial effects are higher (i.e. saving lives) so it's OK to put aside a couple of elementary rights. The problem comes when the exception is the rule.

On the other hand, we have the weak and symbiotic liberal resistance, that condemns torture in name of human rights... but at the same time concedes some extreme measures need to be taken, such as invasive methods of interrogation. Always, of course, with majority consensus and parliamentary support. They condemn torture according to democratic principles, but recognize that in some extreme situations, it would be valid to tighten the screws on the usual suspects. In short: the liberal response is simply the implementation of torture with a human face.

The million dollar (or million lives) question is: Under what conditions can we know for certain that torturing a prisoner can save millions of innocent people? This situation always belongs to the realm of the imaginary, because it presupposes a series of future developments that, even before happening, retroactively justify the present violence. However it has serious consequences when taken seriously: thousands of innocent people are tortured in order to save the few who really deserved to be blamed.

Stop whining, it's time to act

24 is the emblematic case of the first answer to our tricky question. Is it legitimate to torture to save the lives of millions? 24 doesn't just say Yes; the very literary techniques are put together in such a way that make us think there's no other way. It's the perfect fantasy. The bomb is always ticking, we have 24 hours, there's no time, we're under attack, everything is a threat, we've already lost our innocence, it's time to act. Now. We have to cross the thin red line between Good and Evil (the Good is always defined in terms of avoiding the Evil, only the Evil has an authentic ontological substance). The universalization of corruption serves as a neutralization of the emergence of the good. Since everything is corrupted, the appearance of an “ethical” character is justified simply by being different from evil. No one asks the brechtian question: “Good, yes. But for whom?”

Things are never easy. When torture begins a life will be ruined. But don't misunderstand it: It's not the life of the tortured, but that of the torturer. Torturing leads to a road with no return... basically if you are the torturer. In 24, the hero is the torturer, the silent savior who voluntarily sacrifices himself (in the sense of abandoning his humanitarian principles) in order to obtain the most valuable treasure, the most precious thing ever: the information that will (guess what) save millions of lives. And of course, only the most obscure suspects have that information. The utopia here is that of the suppression of justice, the conception of a world in which justice is not needed to sustain the existing order.

Don't miss the seventh season! At a first glance, the main themes might scandalize the average republican: agent Jack Bauer is agonizing because he was contaminated with a biological weapon. The doctors decide to try a controversial stem cell treatment to save his life! While Bauer is dying at the hospital, he refuses to meet his daughter. Instead, he prefers to meet and Arab who he had mistreated... and pray with him! He is on his deathbed, cleansing from his sins on a multicultural prayer, but not yet prepared to say goodbye to his own daughter. Do not get it wrong: There's nothing more important than redemption. That's the tragic aspect of our hero. He sacrifices himself... by sacrificing other threatening lives. He sacrificed his soul to save us... while sacrificing other lives. Now, when his life comes to an end, is time to save his soul. Let me put it in other words: What is at stake here is not the biological life of our hero, but his ethical integrity. It's too late for Mary Magdalenes. He has to put emotions aside in the name of a bigger purpose. That's Jack Bauer's ultimate ethical act. He has to dehumanize himself in order to save humanity.

In these obamian times, conservatives should not be afraid of it: In 24, the president is a woman. A woman that sends her own daughter to jail because she succumbed to the temptation of taking justice into her own hands. The mother, and president, can not allow it. She, as a heroin, had to put aside her emotions and betray her daughter. And right after that, without even taking a breath, the president resumed the bigger task: save the world. Another hero who sacrifices for us. Another true patriot that momentarily abandons his humanity (also known as inconvenient weakness) to save us. Once again, it is necessary to dehumanize ourselves in order to save humanity.

After 11-S, Bush's dreams of military intervention in the middle east had the chance to become real. The fantasy came true. Today it's time to give them a new (less ugly) human face. Only systematic torture can be accepted. We have to trust the authorities. They will tell us who the bad guys are. They will tell us when we are in danger. They can guarantee that the “right thing” is done even when the system which sets the right and wrongs cannot go through with it because of (theoretically) empirical or bureaucratic obstacles. So we don't need philosophy; we need more plastic surgeons.

Lie to me: hide your tics

On the other side of this very same coin, we have the liberal counterpart. The commercial motto says it all: “Truth is written all over your faces”. It's not race, sex, or class what determines us (nor history, nor culture, nor thought): It's universal Gestures: involuntary tics, facial expressions, voice waveforms, etc. Tics are studied as an adaptive strategy of human species favored by natural selection. Tics do not depend on culture: they are inscribed in the laws of nature. We -as materialists- should not be afraid of that thesis. It can be ultimately valid. The danger is a much more subtle one: biological determinations (hypothetical or empirically proven) are sometimes used as an excuse to naturalize social antagonism. So when the bomb is ticking, we should not torture the usual suspects: we should read their criminal faces instead.

We can obtain the most valuable information to save (millions of) lives by means of lie detection methods based on applied psychology. Truth is there, hiding in the involuntary expressions of the interviewees. The enlightened Mr. Lightman is a kind of alter ego of evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of human facial expressions and body language. Ekman is a modern version of Lombroso, that nineteenth-century Italian criminologist who held that crime was an innate tendency in some people. Lombroso believed it was enough to observe certain physical features such as skull shape in order to detect criminal behaviour. Ekman's theory, as we now, is only based in gestures. There are universal gestures, inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. And through the systematic study of these gestures it is possible to catch the criminals.

Mr. Lightman, the CEO of The Lightman Group, works closely with the FBI to resolve extremely complex cases in which the expert eye's will follow the clues that the players will unwittingly reveal through "microexpressions" (small gestures, fleeting as a blink of an eye, barely perceptible windows through which we can see the most obscure motivations).

Mastering the art of reading the truth written all over the faces of the usual suspects is not easy. It's not actually an art, but an applied science. Methods can be very invasive: you might need to listen to private conversations, analyze videos (which are not always recorded with the consent of the interviewee), learn manipulation techniques, become an expert in social engineering, etc. You will usually have to lie in order to discover the liar. And it's not only a question of interviewing the suspect. Also their families may have to be interrogated. You will have to infiltrate the whole social environment of the suspect. It is not only a question of scientific research. It is also necessary to stage the perfect scenario to discover the liar.

Torture is a primitive method for multicultural liberals and human rights watchers. You can obtain the same results through more refined and democratic ways. Brute force has a human face too. It doesn't mean that you have to hurt the enemies of freedom. The problem is not the content but the form. Do not inflict pain: Invade, deceive, betray, lie, manipulate, but do not touch your enemies, don't hurt them. They have bodies, so they happen to be humans too. If violence cannot be avoided, it has to be “neutrally” organized and dosed. Here's the moralistic aftermath: all physical violence is dehumanizing.

Lie to Me also flirts with some kind of postmodern revisionism; a parallel version of history in which civil rights are reduced to body rights. Like if bombing, slaughtering and torturing would not have been necessary to achieve the very same goals: find Bin Laden, Defeat Al Qaeda, win the war on terror, save (millions of) lives who are there just to be saved. Lives that are just waiting there for us to save them. The principles that refer to "a million people's lives" as a concrete notion are not questioned: It's the bodycount notion of humanity.

In the last chapter of his first season, Lie to Me also activates the ticking time bomb, though in its liberal democratic turn. A bomb explodes in a bus, then another bomb explodes in a shopping mall. We have to stop the third bomb. The FBI immediately contacts our heroes (actually their hire them, remember they are a private company). There's a wonderfully symptomatic scene in which Dr Lightman interrupts a torture session conducted by national security institutions (a prisoner is being forced to confess). Lightman's point is very clear: Torture is inelegant, we can use a more persuasive method. What a declaration of principles!

Later on, it is revealed that a former FBI agent has illegally installed microphones in a mosque to listen to conversations between Muslim suspects. We are told that the retired agent belonged to the “previous administration”, that is to say, Bush's bygone era. Dr. Lightman blackmails the FBI agent and forces him to provide the hidden tapes. It is OK to blackmail the bad guy: he is a fanatical conservative, a mercenary who acted against the law, secretly hoping the government will someday summon him to save the world. Dr. Lightman, on the contrary, is a man of science, a liberal with great humanitarian commitment. But it was Lightman who finally made use of those illegal tapes. It was through those tapes that eventually the third attack could be prevented. Conservatives, those pragmatic barbarians, are always called to do the dirty work. Liberals always question their methods... but at the same time rely on the results obtained by those methods. Thank god the tapes existed! Guess what: they were used to save the biological life of thousands of people.

The ideological fantasy of the solitary hero strikes again. We must put aside our human condition, we have to act like animals. And act like animals implies -a priori- that the rest of the human beings should be treated like animals. Only the biological life is sacred: We need to protect those weak lives, those potential victims that need to be saved. And who will be the ones? It cannot be just anybody. Ir requires a special talent, and we know talent comes with sacrifice. That's what Mr Lightman says to his disciple in a moment of weakness. What makes you think you talent belongs only to you? Rethorical answer: Your talent belongs to humanity, sacrifice yourself in the name of humanity.

There's something else in this fantasy: The passive, almost non-confrontational way by which the suspects accept to be interrogated. Guantanamos are no longer needed, right? We are allowed to fear the solitary savior, but not to question him. The only thing we can do to escape this “justice” is fooling the hero at his own game. Being even less human than he is.

So what is the political message conveyed in Lie to Me? What are their ideological symptoms? What involuntary movements can we detect in its narrative structure, in the interstices of the story, in its tics? What is the truth written over the face of its heroe? Does the obamian human face of capitalism have tics as well?

1 Response to "24 (2001) & Lie to Me (2009)"

  1. Archer333 says:

    Illuminating. I would like to see you tackle "House, M.D." and its deeper underpinnings.

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