Dec 12, 2013
What Would Jack Bauer Really Do?
Posted on Apr 25, 2006
In a Jan. 22, 2006, essay that quickly circulated throughout the Republican blogosphere, Patrick Buchanan asked, ?What would Jack Bauer do?? in response to the ever-escalating war on terror. Buchanan and a number of Republican bloggers claimed an affinity with the fictional counter-terror agent of the hit series ?24,? praising his willingness to ?[put his] love of country and loyalty to friends first and [fight] by his own rules.? By this, Buchanan means he admires Bauer?s determination to protect the United States by any means necessary?whether by disobeying the orders of superiors, torturing, taking hostages or breaking almost every other law in the book. Buchanan castigates Democrats for attacking President George W. Bush?s own Bauer-esque tactics: warrantless NSA wiretaps, secret detention centers in Eastern Europe, the military?s alleged abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, and the detention of Jose Padilla in the dirty-bomber case. Buchanan goes on to state that such harsh actions are warranted and supported by popular opinion:
Yet Buchanan himself concedes that fighting by Jack Bauer?s rules may be ?violating the Geneva Convention ? ignoring constitutional protections ? and violating international agreements prohibiting torture and the ?rendition? of prisoners to countries where torture is practiced.? Nevertheless, Buchanan and many other conservatives argue that such provisions are outdated and cannot protect America from its enemies. But would Jack Bauer really just push the lily-livered liberals out of the way to do what was necessary? Yes and no. In championing ?24,? Buchanan and Bush administration apologists oversimplify a complex depiction of counter-terrorism and also use an idealized fiction to justify real-world abuses of the law and authority.
A superficial viewing of ?24? gives conservative viewers plenty of ammunition. Agent Jack Bauer obeys only his own conscience, breaking regulations and bucking the authority of his superiors in order to get the job done. Bauer has no compunctions about inflicting horrific violence on terrorists or suspected foes, by killing or torturing them; he also has threatened their loved ones to obtain information. Bauer is explicitly opposed by corrupt and inefficient bureaucrats as well as bleeding hearts such Amnesty Global (a thinly drawn caricature of Amnesty International) who intervene in season four to protect the civil rights of a villain. Bauer, as Buchanan correctly points out, is a vigilante-with-a-badge hero in the tradition of ?High Noon? and ?Dirty Harry,? in Buchanan?s words a ?flawed, but good man in a struggle against evil.? This image holds a certain appeal for Bush and conservatives. Thus, the TV show can become a kind of catharsis for Americans frightened of enemies both in Iraq and lurking at home: Through Bauer, the viewer can exorcise the phantom-like presence of Al Qaeda. Certainly, Bauer?s Lone Ranger characteristics are part of the image that Bush has tried to project ever since 9/11.
However, the implications of ?24? are in fact much more complex than Buchanan recognizes. He and other conservatives cherry-pick messages from the show to support their arguments and ignore the disturbing cynicism and alarm at the heart of the show?s complex storyline. For example, Bauer does not live in the black-and-white world of George W. Bush, where there are only evildoers and good men out to thwart them. The greatest threat to Bauer is not foreign terrorists but angry ex-agents, government officials and wealthy CEOs. In season five, a right-wing cabal led by the president?s chief of staff gives nerve gas to anti-Russian terrorists and plans to double-cross the terrorists and use the gas as a pretext for invading the energy-rich Russian province that the terrorists call home; the vice president convinces the president to illegally declare martial law; the Department of Homeland Security deliberately suppresses and fires Bauer?s colleagues who are working overtime to stop the killers. In every season, corrupt officials, moles and traitors all out for their own interests populate every sector of the government. The executive branch, represented by the vacillating and cowardly President Logan, is incompetent and, in a plot twist, in league with the enemy. Far from providing any justification for the actions of the Bush administration, ?24? is a convincing argument against the concentration of power in the hands of those too corrupt or ineffectual to handle the responsibility.
Buchanan and others who ask ?What would Jack Bauer do?? also gloss over the many unrealistic aspects of the series. Bauer and his Counter Terrorism Unit comrades are self-sacrificing and heroic to an absurd extent, going to unrealistic, Hollywood-esque lengths to stop the terrorists. Bauer in particular, like ?Dirty? Harry Callahan, is a quasi-monastic figure whose integrity, power and judgment are almost infallible. To treat Jack Bauer as if he is real is like believing that Superman flies over Metropolis. Real-life examples of vigilantes are likely to be comparable to the Los Angeles Rampart cops. They did whatever they thought was necessary to put the gangbangers away?but they became gangsters themselves, dealing drugs and falsifying evidence. One could also point to Bush?s own use of unreliable intelligence and scare tactics to convince Americans to support a war that is now recognized by a majority of the public as a failure. Nietzsche warned, ?He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.? In real life, ?Dirty Harry? tactics are used by dirty cops. People are fallible?they can and will make terrible mistakes.
Ironically, Jack Bauer himself would most likely have been marginalized under Bush?s command. Like former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke, Bauer tries to speak truth to power, and in the Bush White House such inconveniences are not tolerated. When Gen. Eric Shinseki told the president that the occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops, he was rebuked in public by his superiors. When several FBI agents tried to warn their superiors about 9/11, they were ignored. The Bush administration?s contempt for those who point out fact instead of toe the line would have made it so that Bauer would not have lasted a day in a real-life Counter Terrorism Unit.
Next Page: “Bush has thrived on projecting himself as a Jack Bauer, a Lone Star individualist going against entrenched Washington politics to do good, when in reality he is as much a product of that same corrupt system as those he rails against.”
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