I am a big fan of 24 – at least, I was until the last season – but the right’s gushing love of the show and the hero-worship of Jack Bauer always baffled me. It should be obvious to anyone over the age of 12 that TV suspense dramas are not the foundations on which effective government policies are built. The fact that so many in the upper levels of the federal government saw Bauer’s ridiculously improbable antics as the model when they ginned up the legal superstructure governing “enhanced interrogation” is alarming not just because it enabled torture, but because it’s just dumb on its face.

Dahlia Lithwick takes this point to its logical conclusion, which is that those who emulated Jack didn’t really understand him or the milieu in which he operates. He is the outsider, the only person willing to cross any bureaucratic, legal, and moral line to save the day:

Bauer is also willing to accept the consequences of his decisions to break the law. In fact, that is the real source of his heroism—to the extent one finds torture heroic. He makes a moral choice at odds with the prevailing system and accepts the consequences of the system’s judgment by periodically reinventing a whole new identity for himself or enduring punishment at the hands of foreign governments. The “heroism” of the Bush administration’s torture apologists is slightly less inspiring. None of them is willing to stand up and admit, as Bauer does, that yes, they did “whatever it takes.” They instead point fingers and cry, “Witch hunt.”

In other words, the moral universe of 24 is a little more complicated than it’s usually given credit for. Jack Bauer is the only character on the show – and, by extension, in 24‘s fictional U.S. government – with the judgment to cross those lines. And he pays a terrible price for it. By legalizing and bureaucratizing torture to protect would-be Bauers, the Bush administration guaranteed that lots of people w/o Jack Bauer’s judgment, or his willingness to take the fall for the greater good, would be greenlighting torture. If this happened on the show, all those scheming CTU and Homeland Security hacks who give Jack trouble would be whipping out the electrodes on any flimsy pretext available, making it impossible to discern the truth. In fact, that’s not a bad plot device. Too bad it really happened.

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