On the Politics of 24

I’m just starting to get into 24. I’ve always been leery of jumping on board because I’ve never been able to consistently watch it, and I figured it had to be too intricately plotted for the casual viewer. But the advent of DVR in the household has made it possible to get on board for the new season even though I won’t always be home at 9:00 on Mondays. My old friend Netflix is helping me catch up on the previous five worst days in Jack Bauer’s life.

I’m enjoying it immensely. From the rapid-fire plot to the well-shot (if ludicrous) action scenes, 24 is good TV. I can’t get over the sheer Bad-Ass-itude of Keifer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. I don’t know everything the character has ever done, but within the first few hours of season six, he goes from being a horrifically scarred and fragile prisoner of war to actually killing a man with both hands tied behind his back. That’s right. Jack Bauer is so determined and hardcore that he will RIP OUT A DUDE’S THROAT!



Yowzah. But as impressive and awesome as I think the show is, I can’t help but feel a little queasy about its politics. As some would have it, 24 is a conservative version of The West Wing. Both shows operate as a kind of mythical fantasy world where everything is taken to extremes, and Straw Men abound. Except in 24, instead of a liberal dream of idealistic social justice we find a world where torture is often necessary, racial profiling is encouraged, and intensive government surveillance is the only thing standing between the civilized world and the viscous dogs that want to bring it all down.

I like both shows, even if I can’t fully get behind the politics of either one. But there is something about 24 that makes me a little uneasy. It does border on propaganda. Whether a recently (and apparently extensively) tortured Jack Bauer can get over his squeamish inability to Interrogate with Extreme Prejudice in time to save us all is a key plot point. (He does.) It seems to be taking its toll on the old man, and only time will tell if this is a completely one-dimensional story, or of we will get even an echo of the moral and ethical questions Jack has to face in the course of his job as a Counter Terrorist Unit agent.

More problematic is plot thread with a character who is the head of an Islamic advocacy group. He was rounded up with several other American Muslims and sent to a detention facility. Initially, it seemed as though the show might be looking at the problems associated with racial profiling, and the difficulties of respecting civil liberties while safeguarding against threats. As far as we know, Walid is innocent of any crime. But some of the detainees aren’t, and Walid is able to eavesdrop on their plans. The moral of the story: Its okay to round up “dangerous” ethnic groups into detention camps, because chances are some of them will be guilty.

Granted, the season has only just begun. I don’t know how the rest of the day is going to play out. And I’m not condemning the show either. I like it and will continue to watch. I just wish the writers would pay more attention to the moral ambiguities inherent in the situations in the show. As it stands, 24 doesn’t ignore these ambiguities exactly. It just portrays them as less than ambiguous.

And just a side note: 24 airs on Fox. All the anti-terrorist heroes of CTU watch Fox News. The nuclear terrorists watch CNN. Huh.

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