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The TV show 24: Jack Bauer’s political legacy

For eight thrilling seasons the action hero of the Fox television series 24 went far beyond the call of duty to battle terrorists.

Who’ll protect us now that Jack Bauer’s gone? said Dave Berg in WashingtonTimes.com. For eight thrilling seasons, until last week’s finale, the action hero of the Fox television series 24 went far beyond the call of duty to battle terrorists. The show, which launched two months after 9/11, “mirrored the insidious threat of terrorism to our way of life,” and Bauer, played to the hilt by Kiefer Sutherland, stopped at nothing to counter it. He killed for his country, tortured terrorists until they talked, and even disemboweled a Russian baddie to retrieve a cell phone SIM card the guy had swallowed. Created by outspoken conservative writer Joel Surnow, the show had a huge influence on the debate over torture, with several conservatives, including Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, citing the show’s vivid depictions of “ticking time bomb scenarios.” In fact, Bauer was “more effective in persuading viewers about what needs to be done to keep America safe than anything former Vice President Dick Cheney has ever said about waterboarding.”

Um, did someone not notice that “Jack Bauer is a cartoon?” said The Economist. Leave aside the fact that “in a typical day, Agent Bauer is shot and stabbed more often than he takes bathroom breaks.” The show’s depiction of threats to Americans was absurd, with Russians, Africans, and, of course, Islamic terrorists constantly conspiring to nuke New York and Los Angeles, foiled only when the bloodied and battered Bauer tortures the enemy in various “disgusting ways.” Fortunately, this is all a right-wing fantasy, so “he never tortures the wrong guy or extracts false information.” Yet even though the plots of 24 grew increasingly ludicrous, said Tony Norman in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, its panicky and paranoid point of view has “quietly entered the mainstream of American political thought.” By the time Bauer had “picked through the Russian’s stomach,” those of us watching were “as morally compromised as any television audience has ever been.”

Jack feels your pain, said Hampton Stevens in TheAtlantic.com. Yes, he may succumb to brutality, “but he is no killing machine, no Rambo or Dirty Harry.” In the end, his agony over his own actions subtly undermines the Dick Cheney worldview. By the show’s conclusion, Jack “is a broken man, soul shattered by the unspeakable things he has done for the sake of justice,” and his greatest penance is “living with himself.” That makes him something more “than a poster boy for waterboarding.”

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