"24's" season premiere ratings may have fallen 9 percent from last year, but the antiterrorism tactics of agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) still seem to have societal and political resonance.
At least that's the conclusion that can be taken from the recent Rasmussen poll, in which 58 percent of U.S. voters say waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques should be used to gain information from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to bomb an airliner on Christmas Day. Only 30 percent opposed, and 12 percent were not sure.
Politically, this perspective paid off in Tuesday's special Senate election in Massachusetts, in which Sen.-elect Scott Brown not only got some of his best voter response by pledging to be tougher on terror, but told the Associated Press that he did not believe waterboarding was torture.
Brown's endorsement of enhanced interrogation techniques comes on Friday's one-year anniversary of President Obama signing an executive order banning torture and cruelty, which was supported by most of the military establishment as well as hundreds of religious leaders. This came after a campaign in which Obama and his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, agreed that waterboarding and other methods of torture were not only morally wrong, but militarily counterproductive.
McCain, a Navy veteran who was tortured during his five and a half years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, could speak with unique moral authority on the issue, and challenged George W. Bush's policies by saying "we are a nation that upholds values and standards of behavior and treatment of all people, no matter how bad or evil they are."
A much more effective way to defeat those who are "bad or evil" is for their own communities, or even families, to turn them in. That was the case with the accused bomber's father, as well as the families of five Americans who alerted authorities about their sons' disappearance. They were soon arrested in Pakistan, where they had gone to join the jihad against U.S. interests.
"The ban on torture worked convincing people around the world to share priceless intelligence with us," said Peter Dross, director of Policy and Development at the Center for Victims of Torture in Minneapolis.
Dross' colleague, Dr. Andrea Northwood, is a psychologist who is the director of Client Services for the center. In her work she has counseled patients who have been waterboarded by cruel regimes worldwide, including Saddam Hussein's. She's also seen firsthand how unreliable the method is in extracting information.
"We know from talking with our clients that the information obtained under torture is completely unreliable because people will start babbling all kinds of things to get it to stop."
The image to American ideas and ideals by enhanced interrogation techniques is just starting to be repaired, replaced by images of courageous and compassionate military members helping Haitians. It would be tragic if the populist politics that is the defining dynamic today moves beyond legitimate policy issues like health care and begins to reward those who approve of, and advocate for, a return to the use of torture.