So long, Jack Bauer
The hero of TV's '24' helped clarify the national conversation about post-9/11 security.
It was winter 2002, and I was supposed to be studying for an important graduate school exam. Instead, a friend convinced me to watch "just one" episode. That was at 9pm. By 1am, I ran over to Blockbuster and bought the rest of Season 1. I couldn't. Stop. Watching.
By Season 3, my addiction had spread to my social circle: Every week, I invited friends over to watch the "Bauer Power Hour." After the show ended, we stayed up late into the night talking about geopolitics, cybersleuthing, and most important, the limits of a law-and-order democracy to fight back against terrorists.
Those discussions – not Jack's extraordinary and sometimes gruesome methods – are what I'll remember most about the show, which ended last night. Long after his one-liners are forgotten, Jack Bauer will remain a Rorschach test for democratic defense against terrorism in the post-9/11 age.
Superficially, "24" drove a wedge into American politics, between those who support torture against terrorist suspects, and those who don't. But, at a deeper level, the show brought us together by forcing us to confront determined enemies we'd rather forget.
To its credit, the show didn't just cast Islamic radicals as the enemy. Mexican drug lords, British agents, oil tycoons, Balkan warmongers, German arms dealers, Chinese spies, and others went head-to-head against Bauer. In Season 2, radical Islam was shown as so scary that it brainwashed a young American woman into setting off a nuclear bomb in her home city. In Season 7, an imam is shown providing spiritual comfort to Bauer. [Editor's note: The original article wrongly implied that almost every season of 24 featured Islamic radicals.]
In real life, the war on terror (to use the now-disfavored phrase) was often framed in abstract terms such as "hearts and minds," "drain the swamp," "state-sponsored terrorism" and "universal freedoms."
On "24," the war on terror was often framed in personal terms. Did the hero value life more than the villain valued death? Such personal conflict makes for gripping television, of course, but it also reminds us that wars may be fought over ideas but are ultimately won and lost by people.
Too often, early episodes of "24" presented a false choice between defending the nation with hard-core, Jack Bauer tactics and being blown to bits by terrorists. In that sense, the producers missed an opportunity to put forward a model of successful counterterrorism that doesn't depend on agents willing to decapitate a sex offender to infiltrate a criminal gang (as Bauer did in Season 2).
Indeed, some critics have blamed "24" for fostering the cavalier attitude toward rough treatment of prisoners that marked the 2004 Abu Ghraib scandal. In 2007, the US military told "24" producers that its depictions of torture as patriotic was having a damaging effect on young soldiers.
The producers must have heard the message because by Season 7, "24" had matured. It offered a balanced look at the costs of going by the book vs. doing whatever it takes.
Are some of our cherished laws too much of a burden in the face of existential threats? It's a tough question that my discussion group never resolved, but "24" reminded us that we better have a clear answer fast, because we're running out of time.