The conventional wisdom is that Kiefer Sutherland’s 24 is an apologia for torture, a cultural product of America’s post 9/11 crisis of confidence. It is produced by Fox, a media outlet not known for its liberal bias1.
Every week the show presents a new ‘ticking bomb’ dilemma for Sutherland’s character Jack Bauer. These scenarios properly belong in a university Ethics 101 seminar, not real life. Would you kill one person to save a hundred? Is torture justified if it yields information that saves lives? In Bauer’s world, the answer would always appear to be ‘yes’. He consistently chooses the path that saves more Americans in the aggregate, regardless of the law. And when he does so, he prevails. The people he tortures are always guilty and the confessions he extracts always yield useful information.
This is a 180° reversal of real life, of course. But by promoting the idea that the abolition of due process can be effective, 24 is propaganda for the abandonment of law and decency that characterised the Bush/Cheney administration. 24 skews public debate on such issues.
However, I have just watched Season 7. This block of episodes has a very different feel to the previous seasons. Terrorists still attack passenger aeroplanes, launch WMD, and attempt to assassinate the President. And Jack Bauer foils their plans on an hourly basis. However, this time the action has moved from decadent, decaying Los Angeles to Washington DC. This proximity to the institutions of State clearly inspire the supporting characters. As the action unfolds, Bauer is consistently harangued and brow-beaten over his actions by the people around him. FBI Special Agent Reneé Walker tries to play along with Bauer’s unconventional approach, and finds she does not have the stomach for it. Special Agent Larry Moss says “the rules are what make us better.” Back at the FBI HQ, the analysts complain about racially profiling suspects. In a key scene with a liberal Senator, Bauer is forced to entertain the notion that it is the rule of law that makes America, and that sometimes upholding The Constitution should take priority over saving lives. By the end of the series, Jack has accepted this argument.
Meanwhile, in the White House, POTUS Allison Taylor puts the responsibilities of her office over the unity of her family in a most dramatic fashion, following her head not her heart. The situations that she and Bauer encounter are no less preposterous than anything in the previous seasons… But at least in Series 7 the characters give proper weight to the importance of the law as they make their decisions.
24 Season 7 was made in 2008. You can tell it is the product of a different political wind. In an overt attempt to redeem itself after many years promoting a Manichean worldview, this series ensures that every Muslim character is wholly noble. As Bauer lies critically ill in a hospital bed, he even summons an Imam for spiritual guidance.
It is a shame that 24 took so long to put forward the view that it is the law that is at the heart of the American Way. It is a shame that it took the producers six seasons before they remembered that United States Presidents take an oath to defend the Constitution, not the people. Jack Bauer’s torturing ways are themselves an attack on American ideals, and it is a shame that this is only called out in Season 7.
But hey – at least the series does, finally, make that conceptual connection. Just as Jack Bauer repents his sins to the Imam, so 24 Season 7 feels like it too is asking for forgiveness.
Does the show deserve absolution? That all depends how Season 8 unfolds, and I haven’t watched that yet.