PCA Presentation (Dexter, 24, and the Torture Debate)


Dramatic television has been a central site wherein the torture debate, specifically through the “ticking time bomb” scenario, has been enacted, perhaps most notably in the Fox network television series 24. Bush administration officials often cited the series and its hero’s use of torture to gain pivotal information as sufficient evidence that torture works, at times going so far as to suggest that torture was not only useful but a necessary tool in its “global war on terror.”  In waging this war (rhetorically and physically) the Bush administration relied on a logic that understood “America” and its mission as exceptional to justify the use of torture in its perceived “struggle for civilization.” This conception of the U.S as exception is related to both the myth of American exceptionalism and to the legal construction of the state of exception. The former argues that the American experience is unique. The mythology of Am. exceptionalism conditioned the construction of 9/11 as an exceptional moment in history, not because nothing like it had happened before in history, but because nothing like it had happened to the U.S. The event itself was also constructed as inaugurating a state of exception in which normative legal and moral structures could no longer hold. The question of torture (along with the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war and other Bush administration policies) has become a limit case in which the implication of exceptionalist thinking has played out.

The issue of torture has become a contemporary touchstone. This paper begins the work of exploring how dramatic television has negotiated with the contemporary torture debate, specifically the notion exceptionality. In this discussion I’m not necessarily going to focus on direct representations of actual acts of torture, but rather I’m interested in the implications that the argument for torture (which rests on the idea that it is exceptional rather than normative) – that it’s a necessary evil through which the rest of society is kept clean, pure, or safe – has in regards to something like law, justice, morality, and humanity and how this conversation circulates of within contemporary prime time serial television. This paper is part of a larger examination of exceptionality and torture as an manifestation of what Amanda Lotz calls phenomenal television.
The argument for the use of torture generally hinges on a perceived immediate necessity (saving millions of lives). Torture as a practice requires exceptionalist thinking that places this act of saving lives (of the nation, a people, a city) into the special category of necessity in which the law is no longer useful but instead becomes a hinderance and therefore the law must be left behind so that justice/safety can be pursued.  The torture debate grew is often reduced to the “ticking time-bomb” question. The ticking time-bomb thought experiment runs as follows: if one has a person in custody who one believes to be in possession of information about a bomb or deadly virus set to be released in the very near future, instantly killing millions of people, is it in this situation morally and legally permissible (or even obligatory) to torture the person in an attempt to gain information which will save the lives of millions? The argument in favor of using torture to in this scenario can be reductively stated as the “Jack Bauer, dammit there isn’t enough time” argument.
Jack Bauer in order to complete his tasks often has to work at the boundaries of the law or even beyond it. Cameras are unplugged, knowledge disavowed, or consequences (such as the possibility of not only losing his job and going to jail, but of being killed) are deferred until the emergency is over. For the moment, necessity must be the only guiding principle against which he can measure his actions, and necessity almost always dictates that there’s never enough time and that the most extreme measures must be taken. Additionally, Bauer’s actions must be known, but they cannot be recognized.
For example, one can look at the relationship Bauer has with Presidential candidate and later President Palmer. Palmer is consistently represented as a man with unfailing integrity, who never puts personal gain ahead of the truth and the ethics of proper behavior. If Palmer were to legitimize or sanction Bauer’s actions, Palmer would become tainted and his authority and the authority of Presidency could be called into question. Palmer also respects Bauer and sees his ability to do what’s necessary as admirable, even if he would be incapable of doing it himself. Palmer’s moral fortitude and his respect for Bauer’s ability to “do what is necessary” is contrasted with that of his wife Sherry’s machiavellian approach to politics. Sherry, is like Bauer; she does what is necessary for David Palmer to succeed politically. However, the difference between Sherry and Bauer is one of motivation and not means. Bauer, does what “he has to” for the greater good of society, in contrast Sherry does what “she has to do” for the greater good of David Palmer. In both cases, each of them takes on the responsibility and burden of giving up the moral high ground so that Palmer retains his position as morally and legally clean. He is beyond reproach because Bauer or Sherry “get their hands dirty.” And while Palmer comes to distrust his wife, he has an unfailing trust in Bauer even as he consistently undermines authority, ethics, and the truth to succeed.

The moral (if not the legal) implications concerning the use of torture within 24 are perhaps not as clear cut as the ‘torture is necessary’ argument would suggest. To be sure, that argument is advanced and legitimized often, however I want to suggest that 24 may be less comfortable with the reality and efficacy of torture than may appear on first glance. In contrast to the conventional image of Bauer as rugged hero is another image of Bauer; one in which he a sad and pitiful character. Bauer may be a hero, but he is ultimately alone. He a tool of the state, no more than a crude weapon of sovereign power. He must remain outside of the social order, for if he were to return to it, he would infect it. Everyone he loves is either killed (first wife in season one) or pushed away (his daughter/other love interests). In season four, the woman who Bauer is in a relationship in season four (the big torture season) with sees Bauer torture her ex-husband who Bauer believes to have important information (there are other things he does as well); she cannot come to terms with what Bauer does decides that she cannot be with him. Perhaps, it is too much for her to acknowledge that what Bauer does, he does for her. The women in his life, who are so often in need of protection, fall neatly in line with nationalist tropes that associate women with the nation. To protect the body of the nation from invasion, desecration, and violation, the citizen soldier sacrifices himself. In Bauer’s case he willingly places the “needs of the many” before his personal need to be a “normal” member of society. And he must suffer in silence. He can never tell, or share, or reveal, the lengths he had to go to preserve the people.
Why read Dexter in relationship to the torture debate? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that it might be interesting to understand the ramifications of exceptionalist thinking as another, perhaps less obvious, example of exceptionalism and torture as phenomenal television to read Dexter (both the series and character) as a kind of national allegory in that he is an expression of the exception. Exceptionalist thinking is central to Dexter’s self conception and his code. Dexter in many ways is similar to Jack Bauer. He works at the margins of legality, morality, and humanity. He provides a valuable social service by keeping society safe from murderous ticking time bombs. Of course he does this because he’s a serial killer. He kills not out of a sense of justice, though part of his ritual is the lie that he tells himself that he is serving justice, but because he has a need.

Dexter sees himself as a kind of exceptional monstrosity. He is not human. He’s damaged, broken, he is a Monster “Neither man nor beast with [his] own set of rules –  [he is] I’m Dexter.” He sees himself and what he does as residing in a space beyond humanity. This is important for him because if he were to conceive of himself as human, and if the audience were placed in the position to see him as human, they would then be implicated in his actions. If we conceived of him as some kind of exception he is then not emblematic of something nasty or evil within human nature.
Dexter, the serial killer, was born out a trauma – the defining event that conditions his entire reality, in much the same way that 9/11 was a national trauma that went on to define the conditions for the supposedly new “post-9/11” world. The language of birth is used in “Born Free” (1.10). The cargo canister is the site “where dearly disturbed Dexter was born”; in witnessing the brutal murder of his mother Dexter was “born free of all that’s human.” And this conception that he has of himself, that Harry, his adopted father also had of him, as an exceptional case, who works with a different set of rules, is central to his identity and his ability to function in the world.  The problem, however, with arguing that Dexter is inhuman is that he isn’t inhuman. He is flawed humanity, broken, born through an event that no person should have to endure, but he’s still human, and this is ultimately what makes the him so interesting. It’s not simply that the series provides a interesting look into the mind and life of a serial killer, but that is so successfully places the audience into a position in which one finds oneself not only identifying with but rooting for the killer. We empathize with his experiences and we lament that his innocence was taken from him so violently. We rationalize his special desires that need to be fulfilled because they are properly channeled into, like Bauer on 24, making the world a safer place by “taking out the trash.” And like Bauer he does it by working around the law and around morality. He has his own code which he claims is superior to the law. He has managed to convince himself and the audience that he can be and in fact is both a killer and a hero, and that being a killer is indeed an act of heroism.

In some way, we appreciate that Dexter has managed to make his sacrifice meaningful. The sacrifice Dexter’s mother made is put into the service of something like justice through his actions as a vigilante serial killer. He in unable to save her nor himself really, but he can “save” others. But in order to root for Dexter we have to bracket the collateral damage he causes. His narrow definition of causality makes him incapable of recognizing his complicity in the deaths of many other innocent people. He and Prado argue about this when Prado suggests killing Ellen Wolf because “Her job is to uphold the law, but Ellen Wolf she twists and bends the law until it’s unrecognizable.” Wolf is part of that bureaucratic red tape that gets in the way of Prado and a bad guy taking his last breath. He envies the power Dexter has in claiming and executing his own set of laws. But by Dexter’s own code, Dexter should be executed. It’s the one irony that Dexter isn’t keyed into (since the series is a formal exercise in the use and abuse of dramatic irony), which is the lesson he attempts to teach Prado after Prado killed Ellen Wolf.

VO: They look at him a see a defender of truth, justice, and the American way. I see   a man about to learn a hard lesson.
Dexter: Too many people are affected when the innocent die.

Dexter’s identity as warped superhero, “the dark defender,” keeps him from realizing that he’s the one who needs to learn the lesson that too many people are affected when the innocent die. In seeing himself in the position of master and “idea transitioned into life” Dexter places himself in the realm of the exception and beyond the law. However, by doing  this he refuses to take responsibility for his own actions. The moment he decided to let Doakes take the fall for being the “Bay Harbor Butcher” was the moment he began to believe his own lie, that he is beyond the law, and not subject to it.


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