The real lawbreakers

Last week, the Associated Press carried a story— it appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal on Feb. 12—about the clear and present danger posed by a dramatic television series, 24.

The program revolves around counter-terrorism agent “Jack Bauer,” who uses terrorism—notably, torture—to fight terrorism. The AP viewed this and other pop culture items that feature torture with alarm. It reported that the advocacy group Human Rights First recently met with the producers of 24 to try to get them to tone it down.

We’re reminded of David Letterman: “Vice President Quayle, sir, Murphy Brown is a fictional character.”

Blaming pop culture for our problems is an old tradition. It’s also a little like blaming the thermometer for the heat. Pop culture reflects us.

Here’s a thought: Maybe actual things have more impact on us than imaginary things.

We have a president who overrode executive orders issued by presidents Ford and Reagan in order to begin assassinating people, a story to which AP has given little attention. George Bush has had at least six men murdered that we know of—alleged al Qaeda leader Qaed Salim Sinan al Harethi and five men accompanying him in Yemen on Nov. 3, 2002—and the New York Times has reported another dozen were on a presidential hit list. We don’t know how many of them were killed, much less how many deserved it, since they were denied due process.

We have a president who has ordered people kidnapped and imprisoned at mysterious out of the way places, without due process and without their families being told where they are.

We have a president and Congress who—Democrats and Republicans alike—have trampled over liberty and human rights in the name of fighting terrorism.

Is it any wonder that U.S. soldiers behaved as they did at Abu Ghraib prison? Have not the president and Congress told us by their example that the lid is off, that anything goes in the name of fighting terrorism? When our soldiers tortured prisoners, did they do it because they saw people being tortured on 24? When CIA agents kill and kidnap, is it because Jack Bauer did it?

After Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, journalist Jack Newfield wrote, “I tried to read the Los Angeles papers, filled with sidebar stories about violence in America. Sociologists, politicians, and religious leaders blaming movies, comic strips, and television. No one seemed to think that Vietnam, or poverty, or lynchings, or our genocide against the Indians had anything to do with it. Just popular culture like [the movie] Bonnie and Clyde, never political institutions, or our own tortured history.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Decency, security, and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the same rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. … Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law.”

What our government is doing in our name is not imaginary, it is real, and its effects are more far-reaching in its power of example than anything we see in pop culture. Doing something about violent fiction is fine, but it’s not a priority. Doing something to stop our government is urgent and essential.