Jack Bauer Syndrome
So for those who haven’t heard, 24 is coming back next year for somewhat of a bizarre 12-episode run (for a show called 24). Despite the high fantasy in which the show is set, it was always hard to turn off, what with Jack yelling “WE’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME!” every 5 minutes. Now the whole series is on Netflix making it even easier to re-binge watch. It’s a problem, and surely I’ll end up watching the reboot when it airs next year.
But more problematic was always how seriously people took 24. In the post 9/11 world in which the show thrived, millions of viewers were led to believe that art imitated life. Even 2008 Republican nominee for president John McCain cited Jack Bauer as someone he relates to, though it was Tom Tancredo, another Republican candidate, who openly called for Jack’s signature “enhanced” interrogations to disrupt the plots of real-life terrorists.
Indeed, there was a widespread outbreak of misconceptions, all together known as Jack Bauer Syndrome.
For instance, counterterrorism is only conducted in ticking time-bomb situations. Since everything in the 24 universe had to occur within 24-hour windows, including office romances, familial drama, and so on, of course there was no time for police investigation, long term intelligence operations, political oversight, etc.
Also, torture always works. Kiefer Sutherland once said in an interview that the show always made sure that Jack acquired key information from those he tortured so that the audience wouldn’t feel so bad about it—because those tortured were obviously guilty and, ipso facto, got what they deserved. Except this only reinforced the wrong message that torture works, not to mention the issue of how due process is portrayed as an annoyance—as a waste of time because Jack is always right. And how could anyone think otherwise? The situation was always such that there was a ticking time-bomb, incontrovertible proof that a suspect knew what Jack needed to know in order to stop said bomb, and doing so was just a matter of torturing the suspect into giving it up.
However, the show didn’t always cater to conservatives’ fantasies.
In the seventh season, Jack Bauer is pitted against African warlords bent on terrorizing the US in order to force the president to think twice about intervening in the genocide they’re committing in their home country. The show’s creators reportedly modelled the season’s story arc on Rwanda, suggesting that the outcome there could’ve been different if only the outside world had stepped in with their militaries.
In the show, the president ordered a humanitarian intervention in the made-up African country against the wishes of her advisors, at the risk of significant political harm, without any international partners to share the load, for no geostrategic objective, and, at one point, even in the face of Americans dying as the result of terrorist attacks against the homeland. Why? Because it was within America’s power and was its moral responsibility to stop a genocide, anywhere. It was a wholly and shamelessly idealistic premise for a show seemingly cultivated in conservative fantasyland—and yet, they might have had a point.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the most powerful militaries existed for no other purpose than to protect people? Or if humanitarian interventions could be carried out purely for humanitarian reasons? Unfortunately, as we’re witnessing with the case of Syria, intervention only seems to occur when it suits the intervenors.