All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war.”
Nobody can accuse Jack Bauer of not having done enough for his country. He has killed more people than polio and saved more lives than Jonas Salk. He visits enemy torture-chambers more often than he visits his dentist. He has tortured innumerable bad guys and even a few good guys just to be sure. He shot his boss in the head and his best friend in the neck. He tortured his own brother half to death. His wife was killed by Serbian terrorists and his fiancé by Chinese motorists. He cut a finger off a Russian consul and an arm off a co-worker. He spent a two-year sojourn in the bamboo gulag. He has saved the world dozens of times. There is nothing his country could ask of him that he has not already done. Jack Bauer has sacrificed more of himself for America than Nathan Hale dared dream.
Yet many are less than enamored of him. Specifically, some liberal critics of 24 claim the show glamorizes torture by portraying it as a vital and effective technique in the War on Terror; however, these critics miss the point. Taking 24 to task for its perceived violations of liberal pieties is as misguided and useless a gesture as bemoaning the scientific deficiencies of Harry Potter. Both are irretrievably mired in a world of fantasy into which the laws and norms of the real world simply do not penetrate. The real issue is to explore what kind of fantasy Jack Bauer performs and what kind of satisfaction we derive from his performance.
First consider the phenomenon of terrorism from the point of view of the man on the street: a devastating instant of catastrophe as unbidden as it is unstoppable. Shadowy conspiracies of foreigners seem ubiquitous; our leaders seem bumbling and incompetent; and the massive enterprise of securing America’s vulnerable points – power-plants, airports, population-centers, etc. – seems intractable if not hopeless. The War on Terror is waged on a level infinitely removed from the agency of the individual, who is left to nervously await every intermittent dispatch with fingers crossed. Anxiety and paranoia have become vertiginous features of our cultural landscape.
The recurrent plight of Jack Bauer not only crystallizes these concerns in the form an intense dramatic singularity but also places them within a scenario that allows for their resolution through heroic and decisive action. Jack Bauer lives our worst and most absurd nightmare of terrorism every day and every hour. He inhabits a world of vindicated paranoia – a world of mendacious facades and submerged menace where he is condemned to forever grasp after the swishing veils of an infinite conspiracy. Everyone is out to get Bauer, even the President and Bauer père. He is forbidden to rest; there’s always another bomb ticking somewhere, another kissing Judas waiting in the wings, another end-game about to be played out.
Meanwhile, the endemic anxiety of today reappears in 24 as the valorization of time. The signature digital-clock, the adrenaline-keyed plotlines, the ubiquitous countdowns, and even the synchronized split-screens (which 24 employs to the same manipulative end that D.W. Griffith invented crosscutting – namely, the excitation of tension through the impression of simultaneity) all contrive to elicit the exquisite pathos of time-running-out. The urgent pathos of time-running-out, which eventually ferments into the wine of catharsis, is characteristic of the 24 viewing experience: this is a show that brings you to the edge of your seat and keeps you there until the gripping end. Yet the enormous amount of tension built up, over both the span of season and episode, is always defused by Jack Bauer who arrives in the fullness of time to save the world.
In contrast to the debilitating snail’s pace at which our real-life government operates, Jack Bauer and the CTU move with a rapidity and flexibility nothing short of fantastic. They complete searches instantly that in reality would require a month and a morass of paperwork. Interrogation is inevitably a five-minute affair, and any two points in Los Angeles a mere five-minute drive apart. Indeed, far from a shortcoming of verisimilitude or a necessary concession to the suspension of disbelief, this characteristic goes to the very heart of the fantasy Bauer performs – the fantasy of effortless accomplishment under the magical aegis of technology. To watch 24 is to watch Jack Bauer rack up a string of successes against incredible odds and incredible opposition. Like Charlie Chaplin, he has a charmed life, and like a Charlie Chaplin film, much of the pleasure of 24 consists in beholding Jack Bauer best his opponents with disarming ease no matter the accumulation of obstacles put in his path.
Jack Bauer is tasked with the completion of one thing (“stop the terrorists”) to which all else is irrevocably secondary, and he completes this one thing boldly, clearly, and absolutely. He performs the fantasy of being charged with a task of such indubitable gravity as to permit the sweeping away of everything incidental in order to execute this one essential task whatever it takes. On the most vulgar level, this is a fantasy of being allowed to wave a gun around and tell people what to do, but with a good conscience. On a more sophisticated level, this is a fantasy of abandoning the temperate languor of modern times and taking up righteous work.
Jack Bauer embodies a ruthless mode of single-minded action that cuts transversely across all the social nicety and empty verbiage of everyday life. He gets things done, doesn’t tolerate bullshit, and above all, doesn’t waste time. In contrast to our normal patterns of behavior characterized by rules, conditions, negotiation, hesitation, palliated aims, and procedures of mediation, Jack Bauer stands for the snapping of all trammels and sundering of all bonds. He acts directly to the purpose and doesn’t deviate even if it means nearly smothering his own brother. What he enacts is not so much rationalized violence as the violence of rationalization itself. He explodes the norms of the modern bureaucratic workplace – chiefly invoked by CTU Los Angeles abuzz with its endless talk of “protocols.” Although it’s never quite clear what these protocols are, their abundance and strictness are often emphasized. Not only does Jack Bauer frequently violate these protocols and disobey his superiors, he often breaks free of the command structure entirely, struggling against terrorist foes and erstwhile comrades alike, a one-man brigade out to save the world the only way he knows how.
Such is the psychological appeal and guerdon of fantasy provided by 24: the exhilarating narcotic clarity of taking unrestrained action to an end of the utmost importance. National security is ultimately just a pretext for this species of action. Its fantastic desirability is simply the other half of its empirical rarity: the transcendent imperative of saving the world as against the hazy nebula of prosaic goals and half-buried life-plans, the irresistible sweep of the purpose-driven scythe as against the petty pace of normality. Jack Bauer counter-terrorist is in fact the secret sharer of the workaday warrior.
And yet the realization of such a fantasy extorts a horrifying symbolic cost from Jack Bauer. Perpetually hoarse and exhausted, the man exudes repression and self-denial. There is scarcely a single person close to him whom he has not had to sacrifice either literally or figuratively. An aura of doom enfolds him. Sometimes he goes on crying jags. Most of all, he is calcified in guilt. This guilt stems from the multitude of very bad things he does for very good reasons. For example, in one episode he orders a doctor at gunpoint to cease operating on a dying man even though this man is only dying because he was shot saving Bauer’s life ten minutes before. In another, after a terrorist henchman has been delivered from CTU custody pending the satisfaction of habeas corpus (thanks to the pains of “Amnesty International”), Jack Bauer kidnaps and tortures him in order to get the information he needs – all with the winking, but plausibly deniable, awareness of the President.
The key is to realize the pressing national interest behind all of Bauer’s crimes: he does what cannot be done only because it must be done. He achieves what we profess to abjure but desire nonetheless. That is his gift to America: the lifesaving fruit of a crime shorn of the guilt of its perpetration. He takes our sins upon himself the only meaningful way such a thing could be done: by committing them in our stead. At the end of Season 4, Jack Bauer is extradited to China for causing the death of their consul, an unfortunate casualty that resulted when Jack illegally stormed the Chinese Consulate and violently extracted a protected witness. He is both our savior and our scapegoat. His is the crown of thorns and his the albatross-necklace. The profound masochism he exemplifies is the symbolic recompense for the unrestrained action he embodies.