The president of the United States faces tough decisions about where the line between respecting the law and protecting the country lies. Torture and its justification become all-consuming amid terrorist plots.
But for one African-American 'president' this line is clear, no matter how many TV shows and films might say otherwise.
Dennis Haysbert, 54, played President David Palmer in the first three seasons of the hit show 24, which drew criticism from human rights and television watchdog groups for its glorification of torture and its failure to seriously engage with moral objections.
Even the military got involved, sending representatives to the set to discuss how the show had negatively affected training and performance of actual soldiers who emulated to some extent the heroism and machismo of counterterrorism agents Jack Bauer. Similarly, medical dramas have been found to have an adverse affect on provision of care by medical students.
“That's an excuse and they should know better,” said Haysbert, rejecting the idea that interrogators could excuse torture or illegal means in real life because of what they saw on television. “It's a TV show. And if they're getting the information of what to do or what not to do from a television show, shame on them.”
Such programs became more popular after Sept. 11, 2001 because they are “topical,” and a bandwagon effect ensues, Haysbert told AlArabiya.net.
Most recently Haysbert played Sergeant Major Jonas Blane in The Unit, another TV program about a top-secret military unit also involved with counterterrorism. And as he pointed out, most generals and military officers reject torture and the portrayal of interrogations and such on television. Such abuses in real life, he said, “happened basically in the Bush administration.”
Haysbert indicated that because the news, the media and certain films play a powerful role in shaping views and perceptions, they also have a responsibility.
“It's time to shed some light on the Arab world and to teach Americans, in particular, and others in the world that not every one that wears a dishdash is a terrorist, that not everyone who wears a burqa is maligned or put upon. These are religious choices,” explained Haysbert. “It's time to stop victimizing people in the world and embrace them.”
He called upon the news media to do a better job of distinguishing between news and entertainment since the news creates the truth. But with cameos by real politicians, like Senator John McCain who guest-stared on 24, journalists and other public figures in fictional programs, the line between reality and fiction becomes even more blurred.
“I think it’s incumbent upon news organizations to be more truthful in how they report the news. I mean entertainment is going to be entertainment,” said Haysbert. “You can't expect movies to tell the truth. The truth they get is from the news media. And their own fear and their own ignorance and in some cases their own arrogance.”
This ignorance extends to the Middle East and Islamic world, in particular, in part because of the bandwagon effect and in part because there is a lack of education in America about the people and the region.
“Someone has to report the news in this area, and because you report the news in the Middle East, all of a sudden you are attached to something evil. That's just not true. That's ignorance compounded by arrogance,” said Haysbert.
“That's why I’d love to see change in the world. In America, especially certain parts, the central part of America, they just have this view that is unsubstantiated.”
Rest and relaxation
Haysbert, who live in the Los Angeles Area, was in Dubai for the Gulf Film Festival and a bite of “rest and relaxation,” he said, as well as to scout out potential locations and partnerships for his new company, which has at least five films in the works.
In an exclusive interview with AlArabiya.net, Haysbert revealed that he had recently started a company for film, documentary and television production.
And he thinks one of his company’s new projectscould potentially be shot in Dubai. He held close the details of the film and would only reveal the general genre, describing it as a sci-fi action adventure.
“It's a movie that would be shot in Jerusalem, Israel in the Middle East. And it's difficult and it's grand in its scope,” he said.
“There are very few people who are pushing the envelope and being creative and thinking of different roles and doing different projects,” said Haysbert. “That's what I want to do as a filmmaker, touch those lives a little bit.”
Although it was Haysbert’s first trip to Dubai, it was not his first to the Middle East. He has been to Kuwait and Iraq as part of the USO tour, a non-profit organization that provides recreation services to military service members overseas. He described his trips via Blackhawk helicopter to the forward operating bases as a “very elaborate, very expensive taxi service.”