David vs. Goliath
Meet David Danzig-the anti-torture activist who took on Jack Bauer.Three blocks from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City sits the Istituto Dante Alighieri, an 87-year-old language school where foreigners go to learn Italian. There, on weekday mornings, you'll find a dark-haired, bespectacled American transplant named David Danzig attempting to beef up his Italglese before he cruises the Piazza San Cosimato market to buy some pasta for lunch. From there, he'll climb Janiculum Hill to a little bar called Il Baretto where he'll plug in his laptop, log on to Skype, and dial up former United States military interrogators to wage yet another battle in his ongoing war on torture."Being here affirms a basic point: The world is watching what we do," says Danzig, who moved to Rome from New York a few weeks ago. "The way the United States responds to terrorism will be copied by other countries and will be used by more totalitarian governments to justify their own oppressive tactics."While the garden café at Il Baretto has broadened his horizons, Danzig's always had a unique vantage on the issue. As a Senior Advisor for Human Rights First, an influential New York- and D.C.-based nonprofit, he's spent half a decade wearing the skin off his fingers cold-calling military brass in Washington and the executive brass in Hollywood with one elusive objective in mind: to rid primetime television shows of scenes that depict so-called "enhanced interrogation methods" as an effective tool in the national security playbook.If Danzig had his way, scenes where 24's Agent Bauer's shoot-you-in-the-kneecap and mock-execute-your-children tactics, which give torture the veneer of an effective and patriotic way of getting things done, would be written out of plot lines altogether. And with last week's announcement that the hit Fox show had been canceled, he's jumped a big hurdle. But defeating torture across the dial-not to mention the big screen-is a lot harder than it sounds, and not just because, much like sex, torture sells. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last April revealed that the American public is evenly split on the issue, with 49 percent saying that using torture "Often/Sometimes" is justified to gain "important information from suspected terrorists."But is it a stretch to say the public's comfort with torture is the result of shows like 24? When Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, former chief of Britain's counter-intelligence agency MI5, revealed that the Bush administration concealed their mistreatment of terror suspects earlier this month, she made it clear that the administration was inspired by Bauer's rogue ways. "Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld certainly watched 24," she said.They're not alone. Over its eight seasons on air, some 15 million Americans tuned in each week and the show's creators have bagged some five dozens Emmys. Everyone from Rush Limbaugh and Michael Chertoff to Bill Clinton and President Obama have admitted to watching. This is where Danzig enters the picture.Danzig, now 39, grew up the son of a military man. His father, Richard Danzig, served under the Secretary of Defense during the Carter Administration and became the Secretary of the Navy under Clinton. As a diabetic he couldn't follow his father into the military, so he chose to become a city reporter in New Jersey, eventually landing a job in 2002 as a writer with Human Rights First, where his responsibilities took him took him to places like Egypt to monitor trials. "When Abu Ghraib hit, that became my area of expertise," he told me when I first met him last spring, the week the torture memos came out. "That's what I spent all of my time on."While his Quaker roots pushed him into activism, his family ties to the military helped him bridge an important gap in the torture game. "My dad ran these weekly basketball games with three- and four-star generals so I was frequently with these guys and could call them and talk to them about what I was doing. What I got from [my father] was a certain comfort level in dealing with people who are from the armed services," he says. "Members of the military and people from the human rights community don't tend to interact that much. I felt like it was just obvious after Abu Ghraib that we should reach out to these guys because we could be much stronger together than we would be alone."Danzig cold-called more than 300 generals and admirals-"anyone who wore a star on their shoulder," he says-to ask them for their professional views on torture. Many were incredibly supportive, he says, and by the end of 2005, he'd recruited 50 of them to his cause. The work paid off. Some of them even spoke out publicly against military-sanctioned torture on behalf of Human Rights First, and shortly after President Obama took office last January, the White House invited Danzig to organize his generals behind the President when he signed the executive orders setting the wheels in motion to close Guantanamo and the CIA's overseas black sites. (Unfortunately, neither of those orders have come to pass of yet.)"I started watching 24 because I heard it was critically acclaimed," says Danzig. "During the day I was leading these admirals and generals and then at night I'd go home and root for Jack Bauer to torture the hell out of the bad guys. I kind of realized this is crazy. This show is having an incredible impact on me and I'm a guy who spends his days trying to stop torture."If it could turn him, he thought, what impact was it having on the troops-specifically those trained as military interrogators and those out in the field in places like Guantanamo Bay? To find out, he called up Colonel Gary D. Solis, who taught the Laws of War (aka "torture class") at West Point. The colonel had a torture case going through the Supreme Court at the time and at first, he wasn't particularly keen on speaking with a human rights activist. "The whole conversation changed when he found out I was calling about 24. He was like, 'I can't believe it; 24 is one of the biggest problems I have in my classrooms,'" says Danzig. Everyone one of Solis's students watched the show, and he had to regularly address questions about the apparent effectiveness of Bauer's harsh methods.After hearing repeated anecdotal accounts about Gitmo interrogators being influenced by the show, the Primetime Torture Project was born. In November of 2006 Danzig gathered a group of interrogators-including retired Colonel Stuart Herrington, one of the Army's most respected intelligence officers who wrote a secret (and now infamous) memo forewarning the Army about the potential fallout from Abu Ghraib-and took them to Hollywood to meet with the producers, directors, and actors of shows like Lost and 24. When a former army interrogator explained to the executives that his troops were using the exact same methods they saw on their TV shows, "they didn't know what to do with him," recalls Danzig of their dumdfoundedness.
Think this is good?1 person thinks this is good0 people think this is good