Jack Bauer: A Perfect Post 9/11 Hero
In the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks, it became fashionable to say that America had changed and that we'd never be the same. In the grossest sense, this idea manifests itself in the realization (by most of us) that we are at war and that this conflict is unlike any other in which America has ever been involved. And what makes this war so different from others in our history is the nature of our enemy and their fanatical desire to kill as many of us as their evil designs will allow.
Our homeland is under attack and given the destructive power of our enemies wish list of weapons, it becomes absolutely essential that they be thwarted in their plans to attack us lest their success be the ruin of us all.
The stakes just can't get any higher. Win or perish are the stark choices facing all of us in the War on Terror. And as Samuel Johnson once said
'When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.'
Those words could be emblazoned across the chest of the fictional hero Jack Bauer of Fox Television's pulse—pounding action series 24.
Make no mistake. In more serene times Jack Bauer would be considered something of a thug. He routinely tortures suspects to get information. He has a nasty habit of shooting first and asking questions later. His respect for the constitutional niceties with regard to due process, search warrants, innocence until proven guilty, and many other perceived 'rights' that criminals have come to take advantage of in our legal system is, shall we say, lacking.
In short, Jack is a civil libertarian's nightmare whose predilection for violence and rejection of established law enforcement procedures and policies would ordinarily make him a candidate for prison coveralls rather than the cult hero he has become.
It would be an exercise in sophistry to try and make too much of Jack Bauer and his impact on American culture. He is, after all just a character in a TV show. But at the same time, it would be a mistake to underestimate the powerful hold that Jack has on our emotions as we follow his adventures week to week.
We watch spellbound as he relentlessly pursues the enemies of the United States with a frightening determination and dedication that brooks no opposition from friend or foe. His disputes with the national security bureaucracy are fought with the same tenacity and brutal win—at—all—costs mindset with which he battles the terrorists seeking to destroy us. In this respect, Bauer is a man outside the law rather than someone of the law.
Sound familiar? It should. Hollywood long has prospered making heroes of such men — although not quite in the same context. Jack can best be compared to the small town sheriff who finds himself up against the ruthless outlaw gang as Gary Cooper played in the classic western High Noon. Cooper's portrayal of Marshall Will Kane, who must vanquish a gang of criminals bent on revenge on the day of his wedding, had many of the same points and counterpoints found in the character of Jack Bauer. Cooper is driven to confront the outlaws rather than run away due to an overriding sense of duty. He is willing to risk his marriage, his happiness, and his life because he realizes that it is he alone who can stop the thugs from taking control of the town and terrorizing the citizens.
And in order to do this, he is willing to employ violence to defeat the threat of greater violence from the outlaws.
This lone hero motif employed in many classic westerns is a large part of what makes the genre so attractive to us. It hearkens back to an earlier period in American history when our icons were the great hunter—heroes of the plains and the mountains. Daniel Boone was perhaps the first truly American hero, lionized in dime novels of the time as a great hunter and Indian fighter. In real life, Boone's true story was certainly dramatic enough. With a single minded determination, he hacked a settlement out of the Kentucky wilderness while in the process losing a brother and two sons in skirmishes with the Indians.
But the legend of Daniel Boone played up his prowess with the rifled musket in bringing down bears and 'panthers' as well as his skills as a scout and guide. His battles with the Indians — in American eyes of the time the terrorists of the 18th century — always ended in a satisfying manner with Boone victorious. Not exactly an accurate recitation of the facts, but nevertheless indicative of what the public craved at the turn of the 19th century.
Later hunter heroes like Kit Carson and Davey Crockett were also portrayed as loners fighting against both nature and hostile Indians. In Crockett's case, his name loomed largest during the entire century as his exploits — both real and imagined — were told and retold in countless books and magazines. His career became a quintessential American story. Running away at age 11 because he didn't want to go to school, Crockett's life story from hardscrabble beginnings to hunter, Indian fighter, Congressman, and finally his death at the Alamo captured the imagination of 19th century America.
Crockett's nobility has been tarnished recently thanks to some first class research on who he really was. But the 19th century version of the man calls to mind many of the traits found in Jack Bauer: a sense of mission, a will to succeed, the ability to live alone without so much as a 'by your leave' from government or anyone else for that matter. And Crockett's famous motto, 'Always be sure you're right; then go ahead,' is reminiscent of the same kind of hard headedness we find in Jack Bauer.
The fact that a psychiatrist would have a field day analyzing Bauer's motivations for what he does should not diminish our admiration for the way Jack pursues the terrorists. Unlike most government bureaucrats, he takes personal responsibility for thwarting the terrorist's designs. Because of this, he is the bane of his superiors who always complain about Bauer not being a 'team player.' And his colleagues at CTU [Counter Terrorism Unit — a fictional agency], recognizing that bureaucratic inertia (which Jack fights with as much zest as he does the terrorists) could allow the enemy to succeed, are more than willing to assist him clandestinely in his efforts to circumvent the system when necessary.
The fierce loyalty Jack engenders among this crew is the result of Bauer's willingness to take the heat when things go bad as well as his demonstrated capacity for helping them deal with some of their emotional problems that make up many of the sub—plots in the series. At bottom, Jack is genuinely a nice fellow. He always says 'please' and 'thank you' when asking for the latest satellite intel or some other information gleaned from the vast array of gee—whiz gadgets used at CTU headquarters.
This makes Jack's transmogrification into an avenging American angel when in the field that much more of a contrast. The fact that Bauer routinely tortures suspects to get information would normally seem troubling — except that the audience recognizes that he needs the information to save thousands of lives. An example would be in last year's first episode. Following a train wreck that was staged to steal a briefcase containing a device that could melt down every nuclear reactor in the country, a captured terrorist was being interrogated at CTU headquarters. Knowing that another terrorist attack was perhaps minutes away and with the suspect being uncooperative, Jack bursts into the interrogation room, shoots the terrorist in the knee, and starts firing questions at the wounded man. Needless to say, the terrorist became much more cooperative and gave up valuable information.
Is this a case where the ends justify the means? I daresay that Jack Bauer thinks so. What's more, Jack seems remarkably untroubled when he acts in this way. There are no angst—ridden soliloquies about right and wrong or nightmares about the dozens of dead bodies that trail in his wake wherever he goes. For Bauer, the ends and the means are exactly the same thing. He has taken it upon himself to stop the terrorists from succeeding. In that context, he will do anything to win.
It is tremendously satisfying to witness this kind of certitude. For Bauer, there is no gray area in this war, only black and white, good guys and bad. This attitude is something that the left in America has a hard time coming to grips with. This is not surprising given modern liberalism's need to complicate everything so as to obscure even the simplest of questions like whose side they are on.
That said, MSNBC's Craig Crawford recently compared the tactics used by Jack Bauer with actions taken by President Bush to safeguard the homeland.
...I haven't seen rogue U.S. anti—terrorism agent Jack Bauer stop once for a court warrant—not even when he sawed off the head of an informant he was interrogating. Come to think of it, I haven't heard the Constitution mentioned a single time as Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland, repeatedly breaks the rules to thwart terrorist plots.
This is how the President wants us to see the real world. Indeed, George Bush is the Jack Bauer of presidential power. There are no rules in Bush's world when it comes to the War on Terror—only wimps like the whining bureaucrats on '24' balk at torture, spying, propaganda, whatever it takes.
'Whatever it takes' indeed. While Crawford's juvenile comparison with Bush is laughable in any context, he may have inadvertently revealed a great truth about the President and his similarity to Jack Bauer: they are able to clearly distinguish between good and evil, between who is right in this war and who is wrong.
Crawford and his ilk can't. This makes Crawford not only someone to be laughed at but someone to be feared as well. For if we ever have a government headed by a President who sees gray where there is clearly black and white, the chances of enjoying both liberty and security in the United States will disappear as surely as Jack Bauer will end up stretching the Constitution to its breaking point this season in order to protect us from disaster.
Of course, Bauer doesn't stretch the Constitution. He shatters it into a million pieces. But the questions raised by Bauer's actions are legitimate. How far do we go in protecting the country? The tension between protecting civil liberties and protecting the homeland will always be with us as long as there is freedom in America. And for that, we can be thankful that there are people like Jack Bauer somewhere out there who are protecting us. They probably will not utilize his methods. But we hope they have his determination and will to win when it comes to foiling the plots of our enemies.
Torn as America is between getting the job done at all costs while upholding American ideals, Jack simply can't help himself. He necessarily sees the world in stark relief, a place populated by some really nasty thugs who don't even blink at the idea of murdering hundreds of thousands of people. We recoil at some of Jack's tactics. But we recognize that Jack is the guy doing what needs to be done to keep us safe. This makes Jack Bauer the perfect hero in a post 9/11 America. He doesn't engage in any kind of self destructive hand wringing about not being able to do anything about the threat. His doubts — if he has any — have been left on the cutting room floor. He sacrifices his personal life for the greater good. In this respect, he is a true patriot.
In the end, it becomes enormously entertaining to watch Jack Bauer. His exploits become a safe outlet for our fears about a terrorist attack as well as perhaps the tug of war between civil liberties and national security.
To that end, I plan on never missing a single installment.
Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse. He writes about 24 after each episode, including a running body count [last year's total for Jack Bauer was 44].