The Theory of Chaos

Monday, February 26, 2007

Somebody torture that elephant, stat! Behind the myth of Republican messages in "24"

Because show co-creator Joel Surnow and writer Manny Coto are both out and proud Dittoheads, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how 24 is the weekly Republican fantasy round-up, Monday night propaganda for people who like a little Muslim torturing to go with their Viagra. A recent profile of Surnow in the New York Times, coinciding with the disturbing reports that young soldiers serving overseas are eagerly using the show as an alternative training manual for interrogations, did much to propagate this myth.

In fairness, this is as lazy and ill-informed as people on the right who claim that Janet Jackson’s nipple will collapse civilization, or playing
Doom turns you into a murderer. I admit, the show has borrowed a few smelly clichés from the Republican playbook, like the nosy civil rights attorney who shows up to spring a key witness, or CTU’s complaints about the time-consuming approvals process for wiretaps. And it’s true that Jack Bauer hasn’t given much of a damn about due process since his wife bled to death right in the middle of his workplace.

I consider this show I love so much to be an apolitical perpetual plot-twist machine – I think the writing room grabs what they can get to keep the clock ticking and there's minds of both stripe in that room. But if that’s not enough for you, allow me to present a few spoiler-laden factoids that, taken together, amount to an argument that, if this is Republican propaganda, it’s pretty self-defeating. Consider:

-In the
24 universe, the Democratic party has elected not one, but two black Presidents, both of whom are thoughtful men, self-examinants to a self-tormenting degree, struggling to find the virtuous path and stay the awesome military power at their command until it is truly the last resort. For this, they are vilified, conspired against by their underlings, and the first of them is assassinated before he can even finish his memoirs. The fate of the second is up in the air thanks to this week’s cliffhanger, but my money’s on survival, for the moment.

-By contrast, the Republican Presidents are either narrow-minded chest-thumpers or the weasel-riffically criminal President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin), who sweats and schemes better than Nixon and self-justifies better than Bush; and, we learn this season, got nothing more than house arrest at his sprawling horse ranch as punishment for his horrific crimes. Let me sum that up – in
24 a crooked white Republican President had a noble black Democratic President shot through the throat and hundreds of his citizens gassed or blown up and got away with it. If this is the sort of thing Rush Limbaugh considers good G.O.P. wish-fulfillment, the Secret Service ought to open a file on him.

-So far in
24 we’ve seen the following plot lines: 1) An oil company colluding with rogue government elements to arrange a nuclear blast on American soil in order to spur war against the Middle East for profit. 2) A Republican Administration colluding through back channels with terrorists to unleash a nerve gas attack on American civilians in order to justify invading oil-rich Middle Eastern countries. 3) An American defense contractor with ties to a Republican administration allowing suitcase nukes to slip into the hands of Muslim terrorists, then murdering people to cover their tracks. 4) Another American defense contractor setting off an EMP in downtown Los Angeles, creating urban chaos and at least a few dozen deaths, in order to cover up their culpability in overlooking the Middle Eastern terrorist who worked under their noses, melted down a nuclear power plant and assassinated a President. 5) A Republican President stealing credit from his Democratic predecessor for defusing a crisis. 6) A cowardly Republican president setting up the President of Russia for assassination because of terrorist blackmail. Are we noticing any trends here?

24’s chief villain, when you get down to it, is not the dastardly “Islamofascist” but the eponymous star of Michael Moore’s hit book – it is the Stupid White Men. Every season, it is Stupid White Men knotting our country into peril in order to fatten their off-shore bank accounts. It is Stupid White Men exploiting a crisis – and peoples’ willingness to make sacrifices in a crisis – to strengthen their position while people die. Does anyone think ex-President Logan isn’t plotting something with his request to go to the Russian Consulate? It is Stupid White Men who poison their own sons to save a corporate empire. It is Stupid White Men like Chad Lowe, as White House Deputy Chief of Staff Reed Pollock, who squish what little conscience they might have left and plot yet another Presidential assassination because the current President is insufficiently enthusiastic about shredding the Constitution and arresting Muslims en masse.

-The one unabashed dirty hippie in the whole history of the series – the secretary of Defense’s mouthy gay son from Season 4 – not only held up under hours of torture, he turned out to be totally innocent. He failed to immediately volunteer every detail about his sex life when asked if he had any helpful knowledge, but that’s like blaming him for failing to report what he had for breakfast. If they’d sat him down and just asked him to walk through his movements for the past couple of days, and allowed a lawyer to be present, they would have actually gotten the information sooner. Because you see…

-Torture is constantly used in
24, but it rarely works. In both Seasons 3 and 4, CTU tortured its own employees on spurious evidence, costing them crucial time and rendering themselves short-staffed in a crisis. Jack has, more than once, tortured innocent people, some of whom were fingered to distract him. The information he gets is almost inevitably either a lie, or too late to do him any good. This is the truth about torture – it almost never has a benefit, but it always has a cost. This is my next point…

Jack Bauer’s life SUCKS. His wife is dead, his daughter hates him, he got addicted to heroin, he’s been tortured in Chinese prison for two years, almost everyone he cares about dies or turns against him (except darling Chloe, of course), and he will never, ever, ever get peace from the nightmares until he dies, which by now he is unambiguously looking forward to.

And it’s
because he tortures. Because he breaks the rules. He does believe in expediency when it comes to the ticking-bomb fantasies the writers concoct for him, but he also wants to be the only one doing the expediting, if it can be managed. He wants to commit all the necessary evil, expire in the agony he deserves for his actions, and leave behind the America he believes should exist, the one where the law is the law and freedom survives its enemies without men like him. He is James Bond as Sin Eater, and this is what the fervent right wing fans ignore. They want to have the torture without the cost, they want to be Jack Bauer without the scars and sacrifice. The fault, dear critics, lies not in the show but in themselves.


  • Well, done, Sir. A sterling dissection of the preconceived notions harbored by people who have never seen the show.
    Torture with sacrifice? Murder without scars? All this reminds me of the baseless charges lobbed at "Munich" upon its release, tripe prattling on about how Spielberg was "no friend of Israel", and how he was
    "emboldening terrorists". "Munich"
    succeeded, I felt, by confronting
    the baggage that comes with killing a lot of people and the struggle to maintain some semblance of a conscience. "Where does the line blur between terrorists and the men who pursue them?" Is not "24" asking the same question? Whatever happened to William Friedkin and "moral ambiguity"? Jack Bauer's employment of torture is not a far cry from Frank Costello's dropping of the N-bomb at the start of "The Departed". I may not approve of Frank's racism, but I can't take my eyes off the son of a bitch. Hence, the "24" seasons keep coming.

    By Anonymous Michael De Luca, at 1:31 PM  

  • I've had a few of those conversations about Munich, which I think is flawed but extraordinary. There is a psychology at work in some people that anyone who stands up and makes the least noise to challenge their worldview needs to be attacked, viciously and totally. Spielberg, I'm sure, sensed this was coming for daring to suggest that thirty years of bloody reprisal hasn't stopped or even slowed the growth of the conflict.

    And now, thanks to the marvel of think tanks, astroturf organizations, and an uncritical media, these attacks can be given frightening speed, resources, and focus. Seriously, how did every talk radio show in America coincidentally start talking about Al Gore's electric bill yesterday?

    By Blogger Nick, at 3:11 PM  

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