The sixth season of Fox’s juggernaut television drama 24 debuted recently with a typically nightmarish scenario: random terrorist bombings taking place across the United States, killing more than 900 people in 11 weeks and leaving the rest of the population scared to death. America, we are to understand, has become the new Iraq. As we watch, a suicide bomber detonates himself on a city bus in Los Angeles, killing two dozen people besides himself. Three hours later, the same organization will take the concept of terrorism to a whole new level, detonating a suitcase-sized nuclear device in Valencia, Calif., and preparing to set off four more. Welcome (once more) to the end of days.
At the center of the maelstrom, as always, stands Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), humorless, long-suffering agent of the government’s Counter Terrorism Unit (C.T.U.). It has been a tough couple of years for Jack, who has spent the last 19 months being tortured in a Chinese prison. What’s more, the United States government has obtained his release in order to exchange his life for information about the bombings. (I hate when that happens.)
But for Jack, it’s no matter; on “24” sacrifice is the name of the game. From its first season the show has specialized in putting its characters in untenable situations that demand of them impossible choices. Over the last five years Jack has murdered any number of friends and co-workers to “save the country”—indeed, four hours into “Day Six,” as the sixth season is billed, he has already killed his partner. Jack has risked (and lost) family, tortured people and willingly sacrificed pretty much every ideal both he and we hold dear. Somehow, though, Jack emerges each week as an object of pity and admiration rather than scorn: yes, he tortures prisoners and shoots co-workers in the head, but he’s not a bad person. He’s just caught in a bad situation, and it’s all for the greater good. He is a modern-day Job, trying, as we are, to do what is good in a world that is out of control; or he is a Christ-figure, forced to give up everything in order to save the world.
But Jesus never whacked anybody for the greater glory of God. And I’m not sure where we would find a Gospel text that says, “Jesus so loved the world that he hunted down and executed all those who threatened it.” While murder or torture might well be a tough (albeit habitual) ethical decision for Jack to make, consider how much greater are the consequences for the guy on the receiving end.
A Preposterous Argument
This is the preposterous argument we are asked to accept each week on “24”: that murder, torture and treachery can be legitimated by the very goal such acts betray--the defense of the Constitution and the people of the United States--and by circumstance as well. Faced with countless enemies willing to do anything to accomplish their goals, what other choice does Jack have but to do the same to prevent them?
Rarely does the show offer options. As Chief of Staff Thomas Lennox (Peter MacNicol) puts it this season, “It isn’t right, it isn’t wrong. It’s what is necessary.” Karl Rove, party of two, your table is ready.
Last spring, Christopher Orr, writing in The New Republic, posited that despite its paranoid, enemies-everywhere take on the world scene, “24” actually skews toward a liberal perspective. Is that true?
Certainly the show presents itself as wrestling with ideals. At the start of “Day Six,” President Wayne Palmer (D. B. Woodside), Lennox and National Security Advisor Karen Hayes (Jayne Atkinson) debate the advisability of setting up detention centers (read: Guantánamo Bay, but in Des Moines) across the United States to house suspects (read: every dark skinned person who makes them nervous) until the terrorist attacks have ceased. But the president refuses to go to this extreme, “Three months ago I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” His chief of staff shoots back, “And what about to preserve, protect and defend the American people?” He continues, “Security has its price.” Replies the president, “So does freedom.” Noble sentiments.
A Cynical Infomercial
But at its heart, “24” remains an infomercial for today’s most virulent strain of neoconservativism, a show predicated on the worst possible conceptions of humanity and rooted in deep-seated cynicism toward our national ideals. The show’s “good” guys might concern themselves about right and wrong, but practically speaking that just means they struggle before making the “tough decision” to wipe out enemies or friends. When push comes to shove, those who insist on civil liberties or constitutional protections are presented as misguided or naïve. The world in “24” is a great sucking miasma of chaos filled with enemies who hate us and are trying to destroy our way of life; it’s us versus them in a match to the death, and there are no higher values, no moral positions—just violence and power.
Now, perhaps the “real world” is as stark and scary as this. Perhaps. Yet even so, if Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay and our nation’s ongoing practice of rendition are ever to teach us anything, it should be that the sins we commit in secret “for the greater good” ultimately prove only to damage us further. Having discarded the Constitution, either in part or in whole, in order to defend it and the American people, we emerge like the figure from the title character in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, without a shred of dignity or moral standing to call our own.
Gripping, almost impossible to stop watching (believe me, I’ve tried), with a strong lead in Kiefer Sutherland, “24” is nevertheless a Trojan horse, engrossing bubblegum entertainment that hides within itself both deep cynicism and the justification for pretty much every crime you can think of—and many that the current administration has tried to commit.