April 2007 -- A war of moral values is being fought on an unlikely battlefield: on the sound stages of “24,” the Emmy-winning Fox TV thriller series.
For those who don’t know, “24” is set in the Los Angeles office of a fictional Counter Terrorist Unit (aka “CTU”) and focuses on the exploits of one of its top agents, Jack Bauer (magnificently portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland). Each season of the show has twenty-four episodes, and each of these hour-long episodes represents one hour in a single day at CTU. That day invariably begins with the discovery of some looming terrorist threat: a planned assassination of the president, an imminent germ warfare attack, a “suitcase nuke” set to go off somewhere.
Jack and his CTU colleagues have just twenty-four hours to stop the plot and avoid Armageddon. Bauer is portrayed as a committed patriot, unflinchingly ruthless in his battle to save America. Often, he is forced to resort to brutal methods, including torture, to extract timely information from captives while the onscreen clock ticks down.
The values and ideas embodied by the show may be judged by the kind of enemies it has made. “24” is attacked regularly by Muslim lobbyists from the Council on American-Islamic Relations for depicting Muslims as terrorists. This, despite the fact that during its six seasons, most terrorists have belonged to various non-Muslim groups. Meanwhile, liberals complain about “24’s” conservative leanings. For example, a long, critical piece in the February 19 New Yorker contended, “For all its fictional liberties, ‘24’ depicts the fight against Islamist extremism much as the Bush Administration has defined it: as an all-consuming struggle for America’s survival that demands the toughest of tactics.” To liberals, you see, that view of the war is bad.
Most commonly, such critics complain about the show’s tacit endorsement of the use of torture and other extreme tactics in emergency situations. As mentioned elsewhere in this issue, the Pentagon dispatched representatives to the “24” set to try to persuade the producers to tone down such scenes. Part of their argument was a practical one: that torture is usually ineffective or even counter-productive.
Now, I do not presume to pass judgment on the practical or relative merits of various wartime tactics, including torture. Whether it can “work” to extract reliable information from captive terrorists is a matter for experts to determine.
But torture is not the real issue; the real issue is more general. It is whether in an emergency, facing a catastrophic attack from a ruthless enemy, one has the right to use extreme measures against that enemy in self-defense.
In that context, consider the ominous premises revealed in the language and arguments used by the military brass who visited the “24” set—philosophical premises that had nothing to do with the practical merits of torture and extreme tactics.
According to the New Yorker piece, the meeting “had been arranged by David Danzig, the Human Rights First official.” U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the Dean of West Point and a lawyer, led the delegation. “He always tries, he said, to get his students to sort out not just what is legal but what is right.”
What is right?
The article continues: “However, it had become increasingly hard to convince some cadets that America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did no. [emphasis added]. One reason for the growing resistance, he suggested, was misperceptions spread by ‘24’…” General Finnegan also “told the producers that ‘24,’ by suggesting that the U.S. government perpetrates myriad forms of torture, hurts the country’s image internationally.”
America ’s image internationally?
One might ask why America had to play by the rules “even when terrorists did not.” One might wonder why, while our “image” suffers, the public images of Islamic terrorists have not suffered similarly around the world, and for real rather than merely fictional brutality.
A war of moral values is being fought on the "24" set.
And what constitutes “torture,” anyway? A professional interrogator who accompanied General Finnegan “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. [He] intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.”
An interrogator remarked after the meeting, “It shows they have a social conscience that they’d even meet with us at all.” A third wasn’t so sure: “They were a bit prickly. They have this money-making machine, and we were telling them it’s immoral.”
Social conscience? Money-making machine? Immoral?
Almost as troubling is portion of the article devoted to the show’s star. “Sutherland, the grandson of Tommy Douglas, a former socialist leader in Canada, has described his own political views as anti-torture, and ‘leaning toward the left.’ According to [Human Rights First official] Danzig, Sutherland was ‘really upset, really intense’ and stressed that he tries to tell people that the show ‘is just entertainment.’ But Sutherland, who claimed to be bored with playing torture scenes, admitted that he worried about the ‘unintended consequences of the show.’”
And what would those scary “unintended consequences” be? Perhaps a growing public commitment to the no-nonsense point of view expressed in the title of the article: “Whatever It Takes”?
The opposite point of view—the one expressed within the article, and even by General Finnegan, the Dean of West Point—is that in the face of a ruthless enemy who is willing to do “whatever it takes” to destroy us, we have no right to do “whatever it takes” to defend ourselves. Instead, says the man in charge training our Army’s officers, “America had to respect the rule of law and human rights, even when terrorists did not.”
The name of the group that arranged this obscene meeting—“Human Rights First”—sums up concisely the ugly premise at the root of the delegation’s argument: that some abstraction called “rights” should survive—even if the humans holding those rights do not.
However, rights exist to protect human life, not the other way around. Rights are moral principles that define proper boundaries of human action in society; they arise and exist only in the context of human life and self-interest. So, in normal life circumstances, legal procedures of due process that protect individual rights can and should prevail. But under the coercive threat of force, normal life becomes impossible, and thus normal moral principles can no longer be applied.
The plots of “24” plots are not based on normal life circumstances. The entire context of the show is that of an emergency. “24” is built on the “ticking bomb” premise, where the prospect of imminent annihilation demands immediate action to insure survival. Jack Bauer’s most frequent line (which has become a point of parody) is: “We are running out of time.” And when you are running out of time, you do not have time for “due process.”
Colliding with those facts, however, is the conventional morality, held even by some of those supposedly committed to our defense. It is clear that the enemies of “24” hold ethical notions drawn from the toxic wells of the antiquity: incoherent “virtues” of a vague niceness, of infinite “restraint,” of turning-the-other-cheek, of dutiful self-sacrifice, of infinite generosity—all as ends in themselves, regardless of their consequences to our survival, and to be observed even in wartime emergencies. That this suicidal gospel is being preached even at West Point is, frankly, terrifying.
Fortunately, however, our young fighting men and women are hearing, and apparently heeding, another gospel:
The Gospel According to Jack.
If there’s an encouraging message in the New Yorker article, it’s that many soldiers are actively resisting this “moral” training. Again, I’m not debating the efficacy of any specific tactics; I’m simply upholding our moral right and responsibility to use extreme tactics if they work and if we have to. That’s the Gospel According to Jack.
Facing impending terrorist acts, as he does every episode, Jack Bauer is necessarily thrust into primitive self-defense situations where normal moral and legal principles simply do not apply. His mission in these crises is to restore the moral-legal order by eliminating those who threaten our survival. So, he does what he must in order to protect his highest values: his family, his country, their freedom, their security.
Joel Surnow, executive producer and philosophical guru of “24,” told the New Yorker that his show confronts threats to our national security and “makes people look at what we’re dealing with.” Given the difficulties we face, he added, “There are not a lot of measures short of extreme measures that will get it done.”
But that kind of war can’t be fought and won with the moral rules of engagement now accepted even at the highest ranks of our military. It can only be fought and won by those who possess the moral clarity to do “whatever it takes” to defend our highest values. To Surnow, that can mean only one type of soldier:
“America wants the war on terror fought by Jack Bauer.”