Four years ago an Egyptian satellite network aired a 41-part miniseries during Ramadan -- to guarantee maximum viewership -- called "Horse Without a Horseman," a history of the Middle East seen through the eyes of an Egyptian, set between 1855 and 1917, and based in good part on the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." That's the fake history produced in Czarist Russia to whip up violence against Jews by portraying them as conspirators out to dominate the world. The show's producers called "Horse Without a Horseman" entertainment, although Muhammad Sobhi, a sort of Egyptian Clint Eastwood who co-wrote the series and was its lead star, told al-Jazeera television that it would be "stupid" not to give some credence to the "Protocols" even if there was a "one in a million" chance of its veracity.
The remark recalls Vice President Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine," which author Ron Suskind described this way: "Even if there's just a 1 percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. It's not about 'our analysis,' as Cheney said. It's about 'our response' . . . Justified or not, fact-based or not, 'our response' is what matters," the kind of response that led to the fraud-based war in Iraq, for example, and the equally fraud-based conduct of the Bush administration's "war on terror" at home. "As to 'evidence,' " Suskind wrote, "the bar was set so low that the word itself almost didn't apply."
There's a time and place where the bigotry of the "Protocols," the canard of "entertainment" masking a political agenda and the folly of Cheney's "one percent doctrine" all meet weekly, to the delight of 15 million American viewers and millions more throughout the world, including thousands of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm referring to "24," the hit series on Fox whose entire premise is the ticking bomb scenario: Los Angeles is about to be nuked or otherwise mass-destroyed by Arabs. Jack Bauer, the all-purpose agent who's worked in every counter-terrorism capacity imaginable, has 24 hours (spread over 24 episodes) to save the city. Season after season he does so, busting every rule, law and moral in the book, usually by torturing Arabs, murdering them with a hacksaw, belittling the "niceties" of law and civil liberties and repeating the juvenile mantra, "Whatever it takes."
Most expert interrogators and military analysts say torture doesn't work and is more likely to backfire -- as it has: America's credibility in the Arab world is at an all-time low. The Iraq war, the torture and illegal detention scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, the death of more than 100 prisoners in American detention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and President Bush condoning torture as "an alternative set of procedures" have disillusioned Arabs of American intentions. The popularity of "24" isn't reassuring them. On "24," torturing Arabs is the ultimate charm. It not only works. There's nothing like it. It's the patriotic thing to do. And it has no side-effects -- not on America's image, not on the torturers' psychology.
The show may be fantasy. But it's infecting the way some American soldiers see their mission. As Jane Mayer writes in The New Yorker's current issue, the show has had such an impact in its five seasons that it has legitimized torture for American soldiers and interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan while numbing the public to torture's immorality. West Point brass met with "24" producers and writers to urge them to show the real consequences of torture on torturers -- to show, as Gary Solis, who taught the Law of War for Commanders curriculum at West Point, said, that under U.S. and international law, "Jack Bauer is a criminal. In real life, he would be prosecuted." To show the backfire on American prestige.
"Once it goes on television it enters everyone's living room, and that's where the danger is. You are spoon-feeding them more hate propaganda. This is not conducive to tolerance of the other or knowing the other. There's a price going to be paid." That's not a quote by a critic of "24," but by Egyptian writer Samir Raafat, who was critical of the "Horse Without a Horseman" series based on the "Protocols." Same reason why. Bigotry and sadism aren't any less immoral for masquerading as entertainment. They feed on audiences' depravity and ignorance.
Yet the shows aren't the problem. The cultural and political climate that enables them -- Government-sponsored anti-Semitism in the Arab world, Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine" mentality, George Bush's "alternative set of procedures" sleaze -- are the problem. Despite "24"'s popularity, I like to think that most Americans are above the sleaze. The Bush doctrine, projected in the reality of Iraq and the fantasy of "24," ensures that much of the world sees mostly the stupidity, the baseness, and the immorality of it.