Jack Bauer, the indefatigable Counter-Terrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland in Fox Television’s popular prime time evening drama, is certainly headed for federal prosecution, and a long-stretch in federal prison, under the terms of the soon-to-be-adopted McCain Amendment banning cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment of any individual in the custody or under the physical control of the United States Government, regardless of nationality or physical location.
Season after season, as the clock ticks away, bringing the bad guys’ nefarious plots closer to completion, and innocent victims (frequently including Jack Bauer’s own loved ones) closer to horrible death, Jack inevitably turns outlaw, defying orders, breaking the rules, and proceeding time after time to abusive interrogation techniques, as the television audience nods in approval.
I’ve only watched a handful of episodes of 24, but the plots from one season to another seemed very similar. On one occasion, Jack forces the bad guy to talk by shooting him in the leg. In another episode, Jack kidnaps the villain right out of confinement in Counter Terrorist Unit Headquarters, drags him out into the building’s parking lot, handcuffs him to a steering wheel, and sets to work (off camera) breaking his fingers one by one.
Strong measures certainly, but Jack has his reasons. One season, he’s preventing the explosion of a nuclear warhead over Los Angeles. In others, he’s stopping the assassination of a major party presidential candidate and a Defense Secretary, and he is always saving the lives of innocent women and children.
The plots of this television series throw a lot of light on the way our society characteristically approaches moral dilemmas. We are naturally against bad things like torture, and we want there to be systems and rules prohibiting anything so cruel and unpleasant to contemplate as coercive interrogation. But we also want those in charge of protecting us to break all the rules and go outside all the systems in really serious circumstances when society’s existence or serious numbers of innocent lives are at stake. We insist that we be lied to, so that we can kid ourselves about realities too unpleasant to think about. We will reliably codify and institutionalize hypocrisy. And we don’t mind jeopardizing the real-life Jack Bauers out there, just so we can participate in a momentary gesture that makes us feel good about ourselves.