Jack Bauer in the Age of Obama
For six seasons, Fox's fictional action hero Jack Bauer from the series 24 battled terrorists, American turncoats, and stupid bureaucrats with a single-minded determination and fanatical devotion to duty that made him an American legend. His iconic stature in our culture was established in tandem with the war on terror and the war in Iraq -- real time events shaping Bauer's character and the plot threads on the series.
Now that the seventh season is over, it's a good point to examine the series as it has evolved over the years and what changes have been wrought as a result of America's election of Barack Obama.
I always thought it was Bauer's moral certitude that was his most interesting personality trait. Whether it was kneecapping a terrorist to get him to talk or placing homemade electrodes on his girlfriend's ex to "make sure" he wasn't hiding anything, Bauer kept his doubts about his methods buried deep. We assumed when the 24-hour interlude portrayed in the series was over, Bauer could reflect on the lives he took (both those who deserved it and the innocents whose deaths were on his conscience), as well as his extra-constitutional methods of suasion that became the bete noir of the show's many critics.
Those critics were particularly angst-ridden by what they believed was the unrealistic portrayal of torture and the singular fact that it always seemed to work. Indeed, ink barrels have been spilled in discussion of Jack Bauer and torture, with publications as diverse as The New Yorker and People magazine taking shots at Bauer for his shredding of the Bill of Rights, the Geneva Convention, and several domestic and international laws that forbid the kind of treatment Jack meted out to suspects in his custody on almost a weekly basis.
The U.S. Army was so concerned about the portrayal of torture that they sent a contingent to the set of 24 in order to try and get the writers to back off a bit. In her New Yorker piece, Jane Mayer reported on this almost unprecedented meeting with some of America's professional interrogators:
The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as 24 circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.
Mayer's last point is at least debatable. But there is no denying that Jack Bauer has affected the discussion on torture in ways that no fictional character has affected a public policy issue before.
America and Bauer have traveled a long way together. Premiering just weeks after 9/11, subsequent seasons portrayed every kind of mass casualty terrorist threat the writers could dream up -- including the invention of some high-tech gizmos that could melt down nuclear plants by remote control or bring down airplanes. But it was always Bauer himself and his descent into a 24-hour darkness that made for the most compelling drama.
As the years passed and his friends were killed off, his family drifting away, Bauer became more of a lone sheriff type facing off against evil, bringing to mind Will Kane in High Noon and other Hollywood icons. Indeed, the Bauer character was reminiscent of real American legends -- hunter heroes like Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Davey Crockett, whose exploits, portrayed in widely available dime novels, enthralled the nation. They too did what was necessary to survive, fighting savage animals and savage men, hacking a civilization out of the wilderness with their own two hands and the sweat of their brow, succeeding against almost impossible odds.
The legends that grew up around these men hid some pretty despicable real-life traits. But there is no denying their impact on the American mind in the 19th century as white civilization made its way westward. Bauer's legacy also may be complicated -- a mix of pure Hollywood invention and quiet, confident patriotism with a dash of violent, "means to an end" philosophy. But as a symbol of American determination to fight and defeat terrorism -- a cause that seems to have fallen off the rails recently -- he will always be remembered as America's post-9/11 hero. As problematic as Bauer's methods proved to be, there was the secret hope that somewhere in the American government, someone like Jack Bauer actually existed to protect us.
The Bauer mythos was enhanced by his battles with national security bureaucrats and politicos at the White House who never understood what it took to save lives. Frequently clashing with his superiors, Jack represented the quintessential American prototype who disparaged authority, was self reliant to a fault, and sought inventive means to fulfill his duty.