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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.

As America’s commitment to Iraq became weaker and questions were raised over treatment of detainees, the series reflected the changing attitudes of the public as a dialogue began on the show between those who believed torture was wrong and those who believed it was distasteful but necessary. The arguments were necessarily shallow, but the attempt to justify Bauer’s illegal methods in the “ticking bomb” scenario resonated with many viewers, especially those on the right. The ticking bomb scenario has largely been debunked by professionals in the military and academia. But that didn’t matter to viewers who tuned in every week to watch Jack try and beat the clock and save American lives.

As Bauer’s personality got darker, he realized that he was becoming what he most hated. Only his devotion to duty drove him on as, in the previous season to this one, he became judge, jury, and executioner in several incidents. Rather than blaming himself, he blamed those who tasked him with protecting America. His superiors never seemed to want to know how the job got done, just that the threat to America was removed.

The seventh season was delayed a year due to the writers’ strike. In the intervening period, the show lost one of its creators, executive producer Joel Surnow. It was Surnow, a rare Hollywood conservative, who was largely responsible for the show’s popularity with the right as 24 became the only drama at the time to realistically portray Islamic radicals as our enemy. The series never degenerated into mindless stereotypes but rather gave the viewer a stark look at what we were fighting.

This year, the series pretty much gave in to liberal Hollywood’s idea on who the enemies of America are — and they aren’t Islamic extremists. The villains in season seven are private military contractors (Blackwater) who want to take over the government by carrying out terrorist attacks and blaming the incidents on innocent Muslims. How the takeover would have been accomplished is not explained and for good reason; it could never happen in a million years. But it works beautifully as a plot device to show that the war on terror is a sham and Muslims are innocent.

Regardless, there were two points in last night’s finale that brought to a head six seasons of personal suffering for Bauer and offered a surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic explanation for all the torture and lawbreaking he felt forced to carry out through the years.

Bauer, dying as a result of being exposed to a biological nerve agent that he had just prevented being used in an attack on Washington, had a revealing conversation with FBI agent Renee Walker, who had adopted some of Jack’s brutal methods in earlier episodes. Having captured “Mr. Big,” Walker realized that other members of the conspiracy would probably go free because the government had no hard evidence that he was actually behind the terrorist attack. With Bauer on a gurney ready to go to the hospital and die, Walker seeks Jack’s advice on whether to torture Mr. Big to get him to talk:

Bauer: I can’t tell you what to do; I’ve been wrestling with this my whole life. I see 15 people held hostage on a bus and everything else goes out the window; I will do whatever it takes to save them. I mean whatever it takes. Maybe I thought if I save them, I save myself.

Walker: Do you regret anything you did today?

Bauer: No. Then again, I don’t work for the FBI.

Walker: I don’t understand.

Bauer: You took an oath,. You made a promise to uphold the law. You cross the line; it always starts out with a small step. Before you know it, your running as fast as you can in the wrong direction just to justify what you started in the first place. These laws were written by much smarter men than me and in the end, I know that the law has to be more important than the 15 people on the bus. I know that’s right in my mind. I know that’s right. I just don’t think my heart could ever have lived with that. I guess the best advice I can give you is try to make choices you can live with.

What’s significant is that for the first time in seven seasons, we discover Bauer actually has a conscience. He may not regret anything he’s done, but he is perfectly cognizant of his transgressions and is willing to pay the price for them. While some may see this as liberal blather (indeed, it is hard to see Bauer saying this in the first few seasons), it shows a growth in his character that makes him seem far more real than the slam-bang action hero in the early days of the show.

The finale made it pretty obvious that Bauer would not die and that he will be saved by a stem cell treatment courtesy of his formerly estranged daughter Kim. I don’t think it’s an accident that the writers chose stem cells as a life saver. Nor was one of the last scenes in the episode that featured Bauer praying with a Muslim imam he had treated roughly earlier in the season an accident. The imam Gohar responds to a call Bauer made just before they were to administer morphine that would put him in a coma so that he wouldn’t have to endure the nastier effects of the toxin bio agent. His last conscious thoughts were to seek “forgiveness” from Gohar:

Bauer: I made so many mistakes. I always thought I”d have the time to correct them.

Gohar: You have the time right now.

Bauer: (tears welling up) You don’t know what I’ve done.

Gohar: We live in complex times, Mr. Bauer. Nothing is black and white. But I see before me a man with all his flaws and all his goodness. Simply a man.

(Gohar prays)

Let us both forgive ourselves for all the wrongs we have done.

Bauer: Thank you.

Clearly, the stem cell reference and this cloying scene with a Muslim imam were one more attempt to try and change the politics of the series, which for the previous six seasons largely reflected the conservative values of creator Surnow. Throughout this season, the FBI struggled to prevent Bauer from using his illegal methods on subjects, taking the point of view that it didn’t matter if there was a ticking bomb, you should never torture or violate people’s privacy. Even though Jack ended up saving the day, the message came through loud and clear: Jack was wrong even though the outcome saved lives.

Critics of the show will no doubt be pleased at this turn of events. But I think it has overly simplified the 24 universe and overlaid a stifling moral parameter that previously was left for the viewer to decipher. If Jack Bauer has really acquired the attributes of liberal guilt, can he continue to be effective in a world where hesitation means death for millions and the dictum “kill or be killed” becomes more than just a cliche?

I guess we’ll find out next year.