'Enemy Combatant' Treatment

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On this week's episode of The 4400 (which I watched last night on TiVo), two guys are arrested while trying to drive a truck bomb into a community of returnees (people who have come back to Earth after disappearing for years). As he tackles and handcuffs one of the bombers, a Department of Homeland Security agent (Tom Baldwin) informs him that he's an "enemy combatant" because he's guilty of terrorism. "You do not have the right to remain silent," the cop says with satisfaction. "You have no rights." (Or words to that effect.)

In the U.S. depicted by The 4400, apparently, the Supreme Court never stepped in to curtail the practice of unilaterally stripping Americans of their rights. Indeed, the authority to classify people as "enemy combatants" apparently has devolved from the president to cops on the street, and the category can include homegrown terrorists as well as Islamic fanatics. Most troubling of all, the scene suggests that viewers should be gratified by this streamlining of legal procedures.

An earlier episode seems to send a similar message. When a TV journalist starts stirring up public sentiment against the returnees, the chief of the local Homeland Security office (Peter Coyote) threatens her producer by noting that he no longer needs a court order to conduct searches or seize assets. The journalist is a despicable, hypocritical demagogue, while the bureaucrat is highly sympathetic.

Is it too much to hope that these references to the erosion of civil liberties are building toward a denouement that shows how power can corrupt even the most likable law enforcement officer? Maybe that's one of the lessons the extraterrestrials are trying to teach us.

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  1. This is why I stopped watching “Law and Order”– too many episodes with the unwritten message of “Gee, it would be so much easier to get this evil killer off the streets if only that stupid Constitution didn’t prevent us from protecting the citizenry!”

    (Yes, I know not all of the episodes were like that. But there were enough.)

  2. “24” trades heavily in extra-constitutional counter-terrorism as well. And to rile the usual suspects even more, it’s on Fox!

  3. 24 has already gone WAY beyond enemy combatant status. At last count Agent Bauer, President Palmer, and their allies have….

    -bombed 1 federal building
    -detained 1 journalist
    -tortured 1 NSA Director (in all fairness, the guy was pure evil)
    -decapitated 1 suspect who’d turned state’s evidence
    -orchestrated 2 jail breaks
    -threatened to kill the offspring of 2 terrorist masterminds
    -hijacked 1 Navy transport plane
    -forcibly sedated at least 3 counter-terrorism agents who were “getting in the way”
    -smuggled weapons into a secure location so a sniper could attempt to kill a Senator
    -taken a civilian hostage
    -escaped from custody more times than I can count

    Believe it or not, every one of these actions was necessary to save a lot of innocent lives.

  4. Jennifer,

    I can’t recall a TV cop show in the last 30 years that did not contain the message: “Gee, it would be so much easier to get this evil killer off the streets if only that stupid Constitution didn’t prevent us from protecting the citizenry!”

    And this crap comes from all those “pinko” Hollywood writers who believe so strongly in our “civil liberties”.

    I suspect if the 1st, 4th and 5th Amendments were ever put to a plebiscite they go the same way as the 2nd.

    Not only do cop shows routinely distort the legal process but we now have to live with the fact that it is considered correct to use the word “civilian” to refer to people who are not cops. This used to be restricted to cop shows but now the New York and LA have “Civilian Review Boards”. I was wondering why they felt a need to review the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines (and The Coast Guard during wartime). Then I realized city officials had been watching too much crappy TV.

  5. Is it now time for the ticking time-bomb scenario discussion?

  6. Instead of having the ticking time-bomb discussion why don’t we all just cut and paste our statements from the last time the subject came up?

  7. Don’t they routinely do polls and a majority of americans will affirm statments like

    “The First Amendment goes too far!”

    or

    “Criminals should be guilty until proven innocent!”

    A substantial plurality of the people out there would welcome a police state. I’m not sure that’s anything peculiar to our time either. It’s just we now have the technology to make some sort of Orwellian world finally possible.

    PS. Another thing Law and Order gets wrong all the time: people aren’t convicted of crimes because the police are such sharp investigators. People are convicted because they do something stupid, like talk to the police. This is the lesson to take home from Martha Stewart’s problems.

  8. This is making me think of the pilot episode of “Sledge Hammer!”, which just came out on DVD. Sledge has a suspect in an interrogation room. The suspect says, “I have my rights!” Sledge grabs him by the throat and responds, “I don’t care about your rights; I only care about the rights of American citizens.” To which the suspect squeaks, “I’m an American citizen…” Sledge sneers back, “Don’t try to confuse me!”

    Of course, the show was a satire of the “cop on the edge” genre and Sledge was supposed to be viewed as a violent psychopath… How things have changed in 18 years.

  9. It’s amazing how many 1-hour TV dramas are about government employees.

  10. thoreau–

    You forgot one:

    –Executed a high-ranking federal agent at the behest of terrorist demands

    Some have argued that “24” is ultimately critical of US foreign policy, in that it paints the actions of the federal agents in such a disturbing (indeed, often horrifying) light. There seems to be an undercurrent of “See! This is what happens when you meddle in the affairs of other nations!”

    Of course, it’s probably one of those things that is likely to be interpreted by the viewer according to their own ideological prejudices (kind of like the movie Traffic).

  11. Don’t they routinely do polls and a majority of americans will affirm statments like

    “The First Amendment goes too far!”

    In my English class we were talking about the 1st, and one girl said she believed in free speech, but not when it offended people. Several other kids agreed.

    Also in that class, the teacher once went on about how even if Hitler himself came to the campus and decided to speak, he would have the right because of the first amendment. About a week later, she told the class that she was happy that that school in TX shut down the conservative bake sale because their views were ignorant.

  12. Why wait till 4400, an episode in NCIS had the same lines, you dont have the right to remain silent, you dont have the right to an attorney etc and this because there was a link from money drug runners had to a terrorist group.
    I allways thought drama was a far better way to show the effects of erosion of liberties than an array of talkingg heads either on TV or in print.
    maybe those pinko screen writers in Hollywood have another agenda

  13. Isaac:
    The only other cop show I’ve ever watched is “Reno 911,” so I’ll just take your word as to the other cop-dramas out there. When I taught English and attempted to teach “Fahrenheit 451” I had a lot of students just like Darrell’s classmates, believing that free speech should only be allowed if it doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings.

    The thing that makes me so depressed about the future isn’t that the government is capable of creating a police state–that’s been true for over a century now. What’s disturbing is what has already been pointed out here–that so many people would welcome it.

    I remember back in college, a decade ago, when some classmate asked me if I liked Howard Stern. I said no, I found him extremely offensive. So she smiled, and handed me a petition trying to get him taken off the local radio station, and when I refused to sign she gave me the same look I’d give someone who didn’t want to outlaw slavery. I said something about free speech and how easy it was for me to change the radio station whenever Stern came on, and she replied: “Free speech is one thing, but he DOESN’T RESPECT WOMEN!”

    And her kids probably grew up to be my students. Well, not quite old enough for that.

  14. Uh guys, as folks pointed out to a Vice President once, with some glee I might add, “IT’S ONLY A TV SHOW.”

  15. Joe L.-
    Yes, but it’s still disturbing to see civil rights vilified in popular culture.

  16. Glad to see that I’m not the only one who found those episodes highly disturbing. Both the scenes Jacob describes made my skin crawl (and, FWIW, I agree with his description and his assessment of how the audience was intended to react to these actions). Somehow, though, I doubt that there is any irony or surprise denouement intended–unless the writers are way more sophisticated than they have shown so far.

  17. is that really a tv show? lol — who directs? leni reifenstahl?

    one more reason never to watch anything but baseball. (until they start televising triple-x and gladiators, of course.)

  18. Actually I don’t have a problem with this in the Sci-Fi realm where disbelief is suspended and as Jacob points out there may be a message. Nor do I have a problem with the cautionary tale about corrupt or jaded formerly idealistic cops. But NYPD Blue is supposed to be in “real” America and Dennis Franz is supposed to be one of the *good guys*. I’ve never watched it but if I had I would have been rooting for the colon cancer.

    Oh, and sorry thoreau but “24” just plain sucks. : )

  19. “24 has already gone WAY beyond enemy combatant status. At last count Agent Bauer, President Palmer, and their allies have….”

    Isn’t 24 supposed to take place over a span of one hour per episode, one day per season? How in the world did they manage to do all that stuff (listed in thoreau’s 8/3, 1:23 PM post) in just a few days?
    I was willing to believe that the Greatest American Hero found a cape that allowed him to fly and see through solid objects, but this is just too much.

  20. Isn’t 24 supposed to take place over a span of one hour per episode, one day per season? How in the world did they manage to do all that stuff (listed in thoreau’s 8/3, 1:23 PM post) in just a few days?

    For instance, in season 2 they found out there was a nuke in Los Angeles. And this militia group was in some way tied to the nuke. They couldn’t find the leader of the group, but they had a former member of the group in custody. (He didn’t know where to find the boss either. Oh, and in addition to being in a militia he had been indicted for child pornography, kidnapping a minor, and 1st degree murder.) So Jack cut his head off, then went undercover to some of the henchmen in this group and said “Hey, I killed this guy who ratted on you guys! Can I see your boss?” And they say “Well, you have to help us blow up this federal building first.” So they blow up the federal building where the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) was headquartered. (The guys behind the nuke paid the militia to blow it up so that CTU wouldn’t be able to stop the nuke.)

    Meanwhile President Palmer has a journalist arrested for knowing too much.

    Anyway, after blowing up the federal building with the militia men, he makes contact with their boss. He kills the militia men (they opened fire first, of course) and then interrogates the boss. The boss leads him to someone else, who leads him to someone else, who leads him to the head terrorist. The head terrorist thinks he’s getting 72 virgins in exchange for nuking LA, so the only way to change his mind is to have his children kidnapped and threaten to kill them. So the head terrorist cracks. Oh, and along the way another agent got in Jack’s way, so he slipped him a sleeping pill in his bottled water.

    Meanwhile, President Palmer finds out that the head of NSA is helping the terrorists. So Palmer has the guy tortured to find out where the nuke is.

    That’s 12 hours into it.

    So you can see how all these actions can fit together in a plausible, air-tight plot 😉

  21. Probably too late for anyone to see this comment, but I think the caveat to the statement above, that most people would be happy in a police state, is that it would have to be THEIR police state, where they make the rules, and their ‘hypocrisy’ is ignored. Actually, I find this phenomenon is the largest problem people have with accepting libertarian ideas. They understand the “Live” part, but not the “and let live” continuation.

  22. Yes, but it’s still disturbing to see civil rights vilified in popular culture.

    exactly — you ignore art (such as it is) at your peril. it is frequently the window to decoding a society.

    most people would be happy in a police state, is that it would have to be THEIR police state, where they make the rules, and their ‘hypocrisy’ is ignored. Actually, I find this phenomenon is the largest problem people have with accepting libertarian ideas. They understand the “Live” part, but not the “and let live” continuation.

    very true. again, when a society has gone over to plebiscitarianism, when the will of the people is an unquestionable virtue, what limitation can be put on its authority? and, as has been shown time and again, 80% or more of the people believe their views are in the mainstream majority — when they fight opposition, they are always fighting a willfully-obstructive, counterproductive minority.

    when Right, Progress and Freedom are undoubtably being held up by some weird splinter group, who wouldn’t agree that the opposition should be tossed aside? and so you get everyone clamoring for some personalized variation of “zero tolerance”.

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