Whose side is Jack Bauer on? Last season of 24, a lot of pundits had decided: he was the Bush administration’s chief pop culture rationalizer of the war on terror. Several times in the season, Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) or his colleagues were called on to torture—giving injections, breaking fingers, improvising elecrocutions—to get key information to stop a terrorist nuclear attack.
Particularly because it worked (although it was also used against people who turned out to be innocent), 24 was a weekly serial illustration of the “ticking time bomb” case for torture. (In one episode, Bauer was even frustrated by a kvetchy, hair-splitting civil-liberties lawyer. Boo!) In the eyes of administration critics—and some of its supporters—Bauer was an ennobled embodiment of the by-any-means-necessary school of war, a butt-kicking apologia for waterboarding, renditions and Abu Ghraib. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek likened him to SS head Heinrich Himmler, a “perfect soldier” carrying out the state’s dirty jobs with total detachment.
Watch 24 this season, however, and you could easily think it was being scripted by the Democratic National Committee. Bauer is still willing to break the rules to get the job done, but this season, that means defying a fictional White House that resembles the most demonized portrayals of the Bush administration.
President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) is a vain, irritable man with a penchant for secrecy, who decides first to cover up news that an aide has sold out secrets to terrorists (in a backfired scheme to wipe out their camp with nerve gas) and conspired in the assassination of an ex-president. He then issues a covert order to let hundreds of people in a mall die in a terror attack, in order to try to track the terrorists to their lair—but only after being assured the public will never learn he gave the order. Prone to coverups, callous about the suffering of innocents, pushed around by strong, dark personalities in his administration—hey, I’m not saying that’s George Bush, but I’m saying you could find a person or two here on the Internet who might say so.
Curiously, last season President Logan seemed like a hawk’s caricature of a weak liberal—indecisive, shrinking from sacrifice, unable to accept that war was a dirty business and unwilling to give his soldiers the tools (i.e., authorization to torture) they needed. A year ago, he was unwilling to protect us; now he’s the one we need protection from. (Last night, Bauer insubordinately foiled the mall attack.)
In the intervening months between the two seasons, of course, we saw Hurricane Katrina, and you could say that the producers just savvily recognized that the political winds shifted. But really 24 has always been harder to pinpoint politically than its simplistic pundit critics would have you believe. In season 2, for instance, the plot involved a conspiracy to engineer a U.S. invasion of a Middle Eastern country by framing it for a terror attack—just as we were readying to attack Iraq, amid rhetoric implying a connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.
24 has always been both gung-ho and paranoid, in a way that would hearten both neocons and dissenters—and, if they’re honest with themselves, give pause to both. If it has a consistent philosophy, it is to confront us with the limitations of our beliefs—authoritarian or libertarian—and the ugly consequences of taking them to their extremes. In that sense, you could say Jack Bauer is on none of our sides. Good thing he’s willing to keep saving our lives anyway.