Late-night comedian John Oliver’s rant this week lambasts the US entertainment industry for its portrayals of torture, blaming Hollywood—and in particular the Fox show 24—for misinforming Americans about the effectiveness of torturing prisoners.
He focused on the US Senate’s report on the CIA’s use of torture after the 9/11 attacks, a 500-page summary of which was released online in December, and then published as a print book.
Tactics that agents used on detainees included Russian roulette, threats with a gun and a power drill, and forced rectal rehydration, which involved feeding people through the rectum.
Oliver is extremely good at making dense topics more digestible. To make the 500-page Senate report on torture practices compelling to viewers, Oliver had the regal British actress Helen Mirren read portions of it aloud.
A 2005 Gallup poll found that 82% of Americans thought the interrogation tactic known as water-boarding was wrong. But a 2014 CBS poll that Oliver cites found that more than half of Americans—57%—also “think these tactics provide reliable information that help prevent terrorist attacks at least some of the time.” And 49% said using “water boarding and other aggressive interrogation tactics” to get information from suspected terrorists is sometimes justified.
The Senate report, meanwhile, found such tactics to be ineffective. So why do so many Americans believe in them?
“Maybe the reason that so many of us innately believe that torture works is because it does—on TV, all the time,” Oliver said. “Look at 24. Jack Bauer repeatedly saved American lives while behaving like this:”
(Oliver used a different clip mashup, but you get the point.) He isn’t the first to criticize 24, which stars Kiefer Sutherland, and other TV shows and films for their depictions of torture.
President Barack Obama signed an executive order prohibiting torture as an interrogation method soon after entering office. Now senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain are trying to include an anti-torture law as part of the national defense funding bill. “And we should pass that because if we don’t, there is no guarantee that the next president will actually uphold the ban,” Oliver said.
The show even asked 2016 presidential candidates if they would uphold a ban on torture. Of the 14 declared candidates, only the four democrats—Lincoln Chaffee, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—confirmed they would continue the ban.
The rest, Oliver said, either “ignored us or avoided answering directly, which is very frustrating because we need that information badly from them and the problem is, we can’t torture them to get it—because as this report more than proves, that doesn’t fucking work.”