Waiting for Jack Bauer

My latest dirty little secret: I’m addicted to 24, the FOX Network’s hit show featuring Special Agent Jack Bauer of the fictional Los A ngeles Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU). I’m not alone. A reported fifteen to seventeen million viewers watched 24‘s season five premiere in January.

Seventeen million of us are glued to the screen, and it’s no secret why: Jack Bauer is sizzling hot, the show’s slick production is eye-grabbing, the tension and action are nonstop, and the theme–to relentlessly pursue and destroy evildoing terrorists–is captivating. Not only does 24 give a great adrenaline rush, but the show also appeals to us on other levels, tapping into our interest in the current American war on terror, as well as our more universal desire to see good guys win and bad guys lose.

Such analysis aside, part of Jack’s appeal (next to the sizzling hot part) is his sheer omnicompetence. Jack expertly pilots a helicopter while evading enemy fire. I, on the other hand, expertly drive a minivan full of kids to soccer practice while throwing boxes of K leenex and Cheese Nips over my shoulder to kids in the back seat. Jack BauerJack instructs CTU headquarters to download a code to his cell phone and then uses the phone to remotely detonate a terrorist’s bomb. Me, I don’t know how to answer call waiting on my cell. Really. Jack shoots weapons with deadly accuracy. I’m pretty lucky if I can toss a wad of aluminum foil into the recycling bin from across the kitchen. Jack knocks a terrorist to the ground with a single well-placed punch or kick. I can wrestle our Labrador retriever to the f loor in the vet’s office and hold her down long enough for the tech to administer a vaccine, but my martial arts skills end there. Jack’s interrogation skills leave the bad guys begging for mercy, and I can barely get my third grader to tell me what happened at school today.

Jack Bauer seems above human. In the moment it takes for a look to flicker across his face, Jack has absorbed and assessed his surroundings, evaluated his options, and plotted a course of action. He sorts and processes information faster than my Dell. In fact, Jack and his coworkers manipulate databases to instantly extract information–mug shots from Interpol or the serial number of a particular bomb detonator–crucial to their mission. Meanwhile, I’ve been driving an unregistered vehicle for nearly seven weeks, and will be for another four, because my new state is so digitally incompetent it can’t get new license plates and a title to me.

State-of-the-art digital technology enables Jack to be every where at once. With satellites, video feeds, cell phones, PDAs, radios, laptop computers, and hundreds of databases that merge seamlessly at will, distance is no barrier to Jack’s work. Does Jack need to phone the president on A ir Force One from thousands of miles away while he’s on the ground near the terrorists’ compound in California and while, from dozens of miles away, CTU headquarters downloads satellite imagery of an escaping terrorist to his PDA? No problem. Is Jack on the ground searching for an override device that will thwart a terrorism plot while maintaining contact with CTU headquarters as they in turn remotely shut down 104 nuclear power plants scattered thousands of miles across the U.S. that have been electronically co-opted by terrorists? Of course.

Jack’s singular mission is protecting Los Angeles and the U.S. from terrorism and bringing terrorists to justice. He is intently focused on getting the bad guys, and nearly everything else–including eating, drinking, peeing, sleeping, and putting gas in the car–is subordinate to that. Jack’s calling is to make the world safer and more peaceful and to ensure that, after many car chases, gun battles, and database searches, the good win and the bad are punished. To that end he operates both inside and outside the law. Jack never buys into might making right, but he clearly believes that the end–cleansing the world of terrorists–justi-fies the means. So he does what it takes to redeem the world from terrorists, even if it means blackmailing, illegally springing inmates from jail, carjacking, torturing terrorists for information, threatening, doing drugs, lying, kidnapping, and even–yuck–chopping off a colleague’s arm. (Rest assured, the arm is later surgically reattached.)

But perhaps I’ve given the wrong impression. Though Jack dispatches terrorists with remarkable efficiency, he is not a thug. Jack’s integrity is unquestionable, and his loyalty to his mission and cohorts is beyond reproach. In matters with high stakes, he makes decisions and takes actions that cause the least disruption and protect the innocent. Jack is the one who willingly sacrifices himself for the cause at hand. He’s the one who voluntarily pilots the plane with the nuclear bomb to a crash landing in the desert. He’s the one who leaves behind family and friends when national security calls for him to assume a new identity and “disappear.”

Circumstances force Jack to make hard decisions. Talk about tough choices. Should Jack allow a surgeon to continue operating to save the life of his girlfriend’s estranged husband? Or should he pull a gun on the doctor and force him to operate to save the life of Lee, a Chinese scientist under the protection of the Chinese Consulate and from whom he needs key information in order to stop terrorists? Should he coldly kill someone in order to gain credibility, go undercover and become close to a person linked with terrorists who are about to set off a nuclear bomb in L.A.? These are not decisions to be made by the faint-hearted, and Jack doesn’t shy away from making them.

Yet Jack is not a machine. His emotions are all too real. Jack is righteously indignant at corrupt government officials like Walt Cummings, President Logan’s chief of staff, and threatens to cut out Cummings’ eyes. Jack is furious at the gunman who assassinated former President David Palmer and shoots the assassin dead once he confesses. Jack breaks down in tears at the end of one particularly long and rough day.

We can deride the show for its violence and un-believability. Some have criticized 24 for depicting the torture of suspects during interrogation. No doubt it faces other charges too. Yet it’s one of the most hyped and watched television series today. Setting aside the hype, marketing, and slick production though, I suspect I know why 24 is so hugely popular. At least, I suspect I know why I’m glued to the screen.

Jack Bauer reminds me of someone.

When I watch Jack in action, I’m watching the God I want in action. Yeah, I’d like a God like that. This isn’t George Burns’s wise-cracking, distant God of the Oh, God films of the 1970s and ’80s, a God who sits back and encourages us to pick up the world’s shattered pieces. This is God as we’ve hoped God would come: guns blazing, setting all wrong right, exposing evil, tripping up bad dudes, and dispensing divine justice. Our interest in 24 ref lects a prophetic longing for justice on earth and in our time, a desire for divine intervention in the affairs of the world. Such longing is both historical and personal. We’d love a God as gung-ho as Jack, a God willing to step into our world and set things right. A Jack Bauer-like God speaks to our sense of injustice and our sense that we have waited too long for all to be made right.

Other TV series and films may appear to speak more directly to our spiritual yearnings. Highway to Heaven, Touched by an Angel, and NBC’s latest flop, The Book of Daniel, most immediately spring to my late baby-boomer mind. But our spiritual longings are broader and subtler than what’s reflected in those shows.

We’re not alone in our spiritual hungering, of course. On behalf of generations past, present, and future, prophets like Isaiah and Habakkuk have carried our lament–“How long? “–to God. How long before you intervene in this world, God? Where are you, the Jack-like, omnitalented, relentlessly-focused God of our dreams? Why are you not acting, not making hard decisions and understandable judgments, not protecting life and the world’s greater good? Why are you not loyal to us? Where is your righteous anger? Along with the Psalmist, we ask, “Why do you sleep, O Lord? …Why do you hide your face?”

Television producers can fairly easily create shows about good-looking angels descending to earth and bestowing favors on needy individuals. Assembling shows about god-like special agents rooting out evil and restoring peace isn’t too hard either. A show about a God who waits, who acts when we’re not paying attention, and who makes decisions beyond our comprehension: now that’s a real trick.

Mary DeJonge-Benishek writes, watches 24, and drives an unregistered minivan in northeast Wisconsin.