Jack Bauer and the Ethics of Urgency

Jack Bauer and the Ethics of Urgency
Jack Bauer and the Ethics of Urgency

The fifth season of “24,” the phenomenally successful Fox television series, premiered on January 15. Composed of 24 one-hour episodes, the show chronicles the workday of the fictitious L.A.-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) as it desperately attempts to thwart a catastrophic terrorist attack. (In season four, they stopped a stolen nuclear weapon from exploding above a major U.S. city.) The “real-time” nature of the series confers a strong sense of urgency, emphasized by the ticking of a digital clock and accentuated with hand-held camera shots and split-screens showing the concurrent actions of various characters.

Even the commercial breaks contribute to this sense of urgency: Before a commercial, we see an on-screen digital clock signalling it is “7:46.” When the action resumes, the digital clock reads “7:51.” The length of the break in our, the spectators’, real time is exactly equivalent to the temporal gap in the on-screen narrative, as if the events nonetheless go on as we watch commercials. This makes it seem like the ongoing action is so pressing, spilling over into the real time of the spectator, that even commercial breaks cannot interupt it.

This brings up a crucial question: What does this all-pervasive sense of urgency mean ethically? The pressure of events is so overbearing, the stakes are so high, that they necessitate a suspension of ordinary ethical concerns. After all, displaying moral qualms when the lives of millions are at stake plays into the hands of the enemy.

CTU agents act in a shadowy space outside the law, doing things that “simply have to be done” in order to save society from the terrorist threat. This includes not only torturing terrorists when they are caught, but torturing CTU members or their closest relatives when they are suspected of terrorist links. In the fourth season, among those tortured were the secretary of defense’s son-in-law and his own son (both with the secretary’s full knowledge and support), as well as a female member of CTU, wrongly suspected of passing information to the terrorists. (After the torture, when new data confirms her innocence, she is asked to return to work. And since this is an emergency and every person is needed, she accepts!) The CTU agents not only treat terrorist suspects in this way–after all, they are dealing with the “ticking bomb” situation evoked by Alan Dershowitz to justify torture in his book, Why Terrorism Works–they also treat themselves as expendable, ready to lay down their colleagues’ or their own lives if this will help prevent the terrorist act.

[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on January 27th, 2006. (full text).]

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