Jack Bauer in a Post-Bush World

After a nearly two year sabbatical, the series 24 has returned -- much to the delight of the political class in America which seems to have made the long-running drama a litmus test of where one stands on issues relating to war, to executive power, and to the role of the United States in a dangerous and unpredictable world.

Indeed, while conservatives have claimed the show as their own since the series debuted shortly after the 9/11 attacks and embraced Jack Bauer as an authentic American hero, liberals have also admitted to watching the show and deriving satisfaction from the action-packed portrayal of America at war with terrorism. For the left, however, the criticism about methods employed by Bauer to glean information from terrorists as well as questions about the exercise of executive power by the president have usually accompanied their professions of devotion to the series.

But what attracted most of us to 24 at the beginning was the moral certitude exhibited by Bauer. The black and white, good and evil portrayal of the war was lauded by the right and virulently criticized by the left even while they watched the exploits of Bauer along with the rest of us. The point of view taken by the show was intellectually and emotionally satisfying: that decisions made by the hero, which found an echo in actions taken by our government over the years, were portrayed as necessary if not morally correct and that the tactics employed by Bauer and the executive branch to safeguard America were ultimately proven to be justified by events. It is a slant that has sparked debate and criticism on the left even as they were as mesmerized by the plot twists, the high end production values, and the character of Jack Bauer himself.

This was what originally cheered conservatives about the series; the means used by Bauer and the government to get information and stave off disaster were legitimized by the fact that the circumstances were so dire. The ticking clock, the potential for mass murder, and the harrowing prospect of unimaginable destruction all combined to give Jack a "Get Out of This Moral Conundrum Free" pass when he would use unconstitutional methods to extract information from Americans and foreigners alike. No angst-ridden soliloquies by Bauer over whether what he was doing was right were heard in the first 5 seasons of the show. Jack's sense of duty, patriotism, and a fanatical desire to win, made any such attempt to view the inner conflict within Bauer over what he was becoming a superfluous exercise. He simply did what he had to do to prevail and save America from the terrorists.

But something began to change on the show during the last two seasons when the series reflected the changing attitudes of America herself toward the war against terrorism, the Bush Administration, and the use of torture on detainees in our custody. And it was the development of the character of Jack Bauer that pointed the way to a much more nuanced, troubled, and ultimately self-loathing hero who began to hate himself and the men who were ordering him to violate the law, more often for self-serving reasons than because the country was in peril.

This descent into darkness was precipitated by the loss of virtually all of his family, friends and colleagues over the years to various gruesome deaths until, having been forced to wade through rivers of blood and subsume any moral uncertainty he might have about what he was doing, Bauer began to pull away from the everyday, sane, world he inhabited the first few seasons. He morphed into something of an avenging angel who killed in order to mete out his own brand of rough justice as well as to achieve ultimate victory over the villains. His capture, torture, and two year incarceration by the Chinese (revenge for being wrongfully blamed for a Chinese official's death) hastened and exasperated these feelings of "otherness" that drove Bauer to the edge. He became a blunt instrument employed by evil men to protect them from blowback resulting from their own evil designs.

Finally, in last year's much-criticized season, Bauer began to question his methods for the first time, having been forced to endure torture himself at the hands of the Chinese. By this time, any extra-constitutional action he took was to satisfy his own personal agenda and not exclusively out of patriotic devotion or a heightened sense of duty.

Perhaps no other television series in history has sparked such serious debate about these issues as well as America's role in the world and our ability to be both a force for both good and evil. Serious forums involving intellectuals and constitutional experts have convened to discuss the implications of what Bauer does in order to succeed and defeat the terrorists threatening America. Numerous articles in newsmagazines from Newsweek, to The New Republic have been written about Bauer discussing his impact on our culture and politics.

One such article by Jane Mayer appeared in The New Yorker last year where the politics of Joel Surnow, one of the creators of the show, were examined and the issue of torture was highlighted by describing a meeting on the set of the show between interrogation professionals and the cast and crew.

Jack Bauer may be the first fictional character ever to be accused of inspiring real life war crimes. This charge was not made by some obscure left wing blogger but by U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, along with several senior FBI and CIA agents who have conducted thousands of interrogations in their careers. Their verdict was simple and straightforward; the torture scenes in the show were affecting the way that cadets at West Point as well as troops in the field were approaching the interrogation of prisoners.

Finnegan said that he'd like to see a show "where torture backfired." All the experts agreed that torture, even when used in the show's "ticking bomb" context, would never work. They pointed out that the fanatics, knowing that the bomb would go off soon, would simply hold out, secure in the knowledge that their suffering couldn't last much longer.

They also pointed out that terrorist prisoners actually looked forward to torture as the first step towards martyrdom. An interrogation professional would never use it and would, instead, take the opposite tack of trying to build a relationship with the prisoner, drawing him out gradually by gaining his trust. Besides, the "ticking bomb" scenario itself was totally unrealistic and would never happen in the real world.

It is a dubious proposition that a fictional TV character would cause our soldiers to forget their training and their upbringing just to imitate Jack Bauer. The evidence is purely anecdotal, presented by people with an obvious agenda. But that doesn't mitigate the fact that they felt compelled to speak out against Bauer's almost casual approach to violating the law and their concern that people get the wrong idea about the best way to interrogate prisoners.

The profile of series producer and co-creator Joel Surnow is a fascinating glimpse into the reasons why the show was such a success. An unabashed conservative, Surnow's fingerprints on the series were obvious the first 5 seasons the show was on the air.

An example of Surnow's influence is this telling exchange in season 4 between Bauer and the ruthless, fanatical Muslim terrorist Habib Marwan who has targeted a cruise missile to hit somewhere in America and Bauer, having captured him, questions him in order to discover where the missile is headed:

Jack: You and I both know all I want to do right now is kill you. But I have my orders. You win. I've been instructed to ask you what you want.

Marwan: What I want is already happening.

Jack: The death and destruction is a means to an end, Why don't we just skip to the end?

Marwan: To the end?

Jack: Everything you did today you did for a reason, for your people. What do you want to change?

Marwan: I have no desire to have a political discussion with you..

Jack: You tell me where the missile is headed, you help me stop it and I'll guarantee you'll talk to the President. Believe me, he'll have no choice but to listen. You have a chance to get what you want.

Marwan: I already have agent Bauer. After this day, elected officials and the American people will know that they can't intervene in our lives, in our countries with impunity. Besides, your President sees me in only one dimension - evil.

Jack: As you see us?

Marwan: Yes...and vulnerable.

This might be termed the classic conservative position with regard to our enemies as well as a subtle critique of the liberal point of view about how to fight the war. The implacable terrorist who seeks only death for his enemies speaks in a language not understood by those who want to ask him what he wants, what his grievances are.

Contrast that exchange with this summary I made of Jack's conversation with the former Secretary of Defense and father to the love of his life Audrey Heller who  at the end of last season was so terrorized by the Chinese while in their custody that she has become catatonic. (The exchange occurs in the last 10 minutes of the finale):

Heller is at his home talking on the phone when he hears the door open. He knows right away who it is. It's Jack, who in one of the most obvious breaks in the real-time continuum in the show's history (how did Jack get from the shore to the Secretary's house so quickly on foot), has come for Audrey.

He's not going to get her. But Jack lets Heller have it with both barrels. He's just seen his father die and felt nothing. He blames Heller and people like him for what he has become: "The only thing I have ever done is what you and people like you have asked of me," which is as telling a statement about who Jack Bauer really is that has ever been uttered on the show. Jack is a creature of those who created him. And in order to do as they have asked through the years, he has become what he most hates.

Heller tries to fob him off with platitudes about what the country owes him. Jack's having none of it. "I'm not interested in what you think the country owes me. I want my life back."

That last line was delivered almost plaintively by Jack. He wants to be normal again. He wants to live in a sane world. He warns Heller not to send anyone after him, that he's "very good at disappearing" and "pretty good at killing, too."

But Heller is brutal. "You'll get back into the game," and Audrey will suffer for it. It is then that Jack realizes that Heller is right, that he is, in fact, cursed. Anyone who comes in contact with him is doomed.

Gone is the certainty that Bauer is in the right and fighting for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. This is a Jack Bauer who now sees that only death will release him from the demons that haunt him -- a consequence of his using brutal means to achieve his ends. In a very real way, Bauer's journey from duty-bound patriot to this troubled, torn, and cynical soldier can be traced to the altered perceptions of the American people and their loss of faith in our efforts in Iraq, the president, and America's mission to bring freedom to the world.

You may recall that it was the summer of 2005 when sectarian bloodletting rose to tragic heights in Iraq, turning a majority of citizens against the war. And the federal response to hurricane Katrina proved to sour most Americans on the Bush Administration. It is no accident that the following year on the show, with a terrorist threat to unleash chemical weapons on several American cities in the offing, we discover that it is the president himself who is in on the plot while Bauer, having left government service, is drawn back in for personal reasons -- the death of his friends at the hands of the plotters. The killing of one of those friends -- the ex-president whose life he saved from assassins in the show's first season -- drove him to execute his murderers in cold blood. Even Bauer's few remaining friends were shocked and at the end, tried to save him from his own dark impulses - all to no avail.

This was not the Jack Bauer the audience had come to know and love. Nor was the traitorous president, seeking to guarantee the flow of oil to America, the kind of white-hat chief executive we had become used to. The cynicism of the show seemed to match the growing sense of unease and dissatisfaction in the country with the direction of the war and the Bush Administration.

Then last season, with Bauer fighting not only terrorists but his turncoat father and brother (ultimately watching both of them die), the personal became the political. While the show was rightly criticized at mid-season for losing focus, Bauer's fall into a deep pit of anger and hopelessness as well as his sense that he was betrayed by higher ups set the stage for this year's incarnation of the series.

Judging by the prequel to the season that aired in November - the 2 hour movie Redemption -- Jack's past will indeed come back to haunt him this upcoming season as he will be forced to confront his inner furies as well as his past actions. No matter how the plot plays out, this will be a much different Jack Bauer than the one we met 7 years ago. It can hardly be otherwise. We are a much different country than we were then. We are sobered by our experience in Iraq that while apparently winding down to a successful conclusion is nevertheless seen by a majority of Americans as an effort we should never have undertaken in the first place and not worth the cost in blood and treasure. We have less faith in government, more suspicion of what it does in our name. And the belief that we must bring freedom and democracy to the dark places of the world has taken a hit as well.

In short, the native optimism that has made us such an exceptional people has been shaken. It shouldn't surprise us that this should be reflected in the Jack Bauer character. Television, if nothing else, tends to reflect trends rather than create or lead them. In this respect, season 7 of 24 will no doubt mirror the mood of the country in the post-Bush era; a determined effort to take a respite from history and the last 8 tumultuous years here and abroad. This yearning for "change" resulted in an historic election where the people rejected what they saw - rightly or wrongly - as more of the same and elevated to power someone with very different ideas than Jack Bauer started out with about how to fight the terrorists.

Many conservatives will probably scoff at the Jack Bauer who will emerge this year. But Bauer remains perhaps the most fascinating single character on television and watching him as he tries to redeem himself in his own eyes will no doubt prove to be "must see" TV.

Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.