24: The Moral Work of Watching

I’m sorry that Jack Bauer is gone. He has left us before, of course–there were always those many months between seasons in the series’ eight-season run. This time, though, there is no next season. There is a possibility of a film version, but right now that is not a sure thing.

I also followed Lost faithfully through it six-season run, but its final episode did not leave me with the same sense of loss. Actually, I was relieved when Lost was over. Watching it was hard intellectual work for me: making my way through the Lost saga was like doing a difficult crossword puzzle. I got a few pieces of the puzzle right away, but constantly had to go back and see how to fill in the other blanks in the plot.

There was not that kind of mystery element in 24. I always knew pretty much what was happening. But in its own way, 24 also required work, at least for me. It was moral work: having to struggle with the obvious ethical dilemmas portrayed in the various storylines. The series began–less than two months after 9/11–with Jack as leader of CTU (for “Counter Terrorism Unit”). As the series moved along, however, his official status would change several times: sometimes working for another government agency, sometimes as a disgraced free-lancer– but even in his “fallen” condition there were enough comebacks so that in the final season he was in direct cell phone contact with the White House.

Let me confess: I also simply liked 24 as sheer entertainment. But the drama, with all of its intrigue and violent action, did help to bring some genuine moral issues into focus. For example, I have done some writing and lecturing over the past few years on the (im)morality of torture,   It may seem a bit farfetched—or even a bit superficial–to see a show like 24 illustrating moral–spiritual themes. But I want to insist that it is an important exercise in Christian discernment to look for these themes.   and have consistently argued that using torture is always wrong, even in cases where it might seem required for the sake of national security. I still hold to that view, but it has been a good exercise for me to test my convictions against the situations faced by Jack Bauer. Suppose, for example, using torture might be the most plausible way of avoiding a nuclear explosion, or the release of a deadly virus? When an urgent decision must be made to avoid a large-scale threat to a significant population, would not even an extremely virtuous person consider the torture option?

Commentators typically employed “the end justifies the means” formula to describe the moral tone of Jack’s adventures. And while the “end” was always identifiable as the avoidance of the largescale suffering of innocent people, the “means” were often–as critics of the series were quick to point out–instances of excessive brutality. As someone who was regularly drawn into the plot with empathy for Jack Bauer as the protagonist, however, I typically found myself willing to tolerate the excesses.

And that is precisely why I found the series morally instructive. It was good to find myself giving in to the seductions of the plots, and then to be able to reflect on the overall lessons. I learned some things in the process about the implications of my own views about the uses of violence. This is important for folks like me, who hold to classic Just War doctrine as the framework for thinking about how the use of violent means might be considered in pursuing moral goals.

Spiritual Risks of Violence

I opposed the Vietnam Wwar on the basis of Just War criteria, and took the same approach in recent years regarding the War in Iraq. In each case, the military initiative seemed to me to be highly questionable with reference to concerns about likelihood of success and “last resort.” But the one criterion that loomed especially large for me in both cases was the proportionality requirement–that the violent means being employed be proportionate to the goal that is aimed at. Simple example: your kid locks herself in her room as an act of rebellion, and one way to get her out of the room is to set the house on fire–producing an end result that is hardly worth it, given the problem you are trying to solve.

In both Iraq and Vietnam it seems obvious that our military interventions have resulted in worse social conditions than the ones we thought we were trying to remedy. Jack Bauer But exploring the proportionality factor raises for me an even deeper question: What does participation in warfare do to the participants? That Vietnam has had a devastating long-term effect on the lives of the persons who served there in the American military is visible to me every time I see a man begging at an intersection, holding up a sign with “Vietnam vet” scrawled on it. And the evidence about the widespread post-traumatic stress on military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan continues to pile up.

To put it bluntly: participation in acts of violence does something to our souls. And the Jack Bauer saga makes that clear. It was instructive to find myself generating some empathy for Jack as he resorted to the threat–and even to the actual act–of torture in order to achieve some noble end. A threat of mass destruction is very real, and the clock is ticking. The guy you are questioning refuses to give up vital information that can save the situation. So–shouting “Tell me! Tell me! Right now! Now!”–you cut off his finger and threaten to repeat the act. Horrible, yes. But also an understandable strategy.

Then there was that gruesome scene in Episode 21 of the final season, when Jack actually disemboweled Pavel Tokarev. To be sure, Tokarev had killed Jack’s latest love-interest, Audrey Raines. And now Tokarev had swallowed the SIM card that contained extremely valuable information. Having once cut off someone’s finger to get information, Jack now takes a next step–cutting Tokarev open to retrieve the vital data on the SIM card.

The bloggers have it right when they say that at this point Jack seems completely to lose his humanity. A parable, I think, for the larger issue: when we commit acts of violence, we run great risks– spiritual as well as moral. The reality of these risks, I think, has to be factored into our “proportionality” assessments of any program of “going to war.” What does committing acts of violence do to the human soul?

Influencing Culture

In weighing the moral lessons of 24, it is important, of course, not simply to focus on the sins of Jack Bauer. The series was also an extended portrayal of presidential leadership. The four presidents who were in office throughout the series occupy different places on the moral spectrum, from genuine evil (Logan), to sortof evil (Prescott), to likeable but morally confused (Taylor), to virtuous (Palmer)– with the morally “purest” of them becoming a victim of assassination.

In one sense, the presidential portrayals are the least believable of the moral subplots of the series. It’s difficult to imagine, for example, a president quite as evil as Logan or quite as good as Palmer. But the overall effect is certainly a reinforcement of the message of Psalm 146:

Do not put your trust in princes,

in mortals, in whom there is no help.

When their breath departs, they return to the earth;

on that very day their plans perish.

It may seem a bit farfetched–or even a bit superficial–to see a show like 24 illustrating moral-spiritual themes. But I want to insist that it is an important exercise in Christian discernment to look for these themes. Rick Warren once commented that Christians who care about moral issues in public life often concentrate too much on political and legislative remedies, while ignoring the ways in which the battle for the other side is often being waged effectively and seductively in the entertainment industry. This is certainly the case with issues of samesex relationships. While the Religious Right has concentrated on public policy reinforcements of biblical concerns, the folks who advocate a change in our sexual standards have been devoting their talents to writing scripts for situationcomedies and drama series–the gay and lesbian characters in The Wire and Six Feet Under, or Ellen Degeneres’s talented stand-up routines and interviewing, for example, have been powerfully effective instruments of cultural change.

Is it OK to Watch?

My sense is that 24 provided us–if we are willing to go beyond its value as mere entertainment– with a good opportunity to think in healthy ways about themes that loom large in our culture: national well-being, the uses of violence, leadership, the virtues that are necessary for the preservation of our humanity. But having said that, I do need to take seriously the question of whether it was a good thing for me to watch the show so faithfully over its eight seasons. Granted, it had the capacity for teaching lessons about what participating in acts of violence does to a human being. But what about watching those acts of violence being played out in the life of a Jack Bauer? Shouldn’t we also be thinking about what fictional displays of morally dangerous situations do to us?

I recognize the dangers, and take seriously the chiding I received when, as a cocky undergraduate English major, I argued in a class discussion that we needed to read fictional accounts of sexual misbehavior in order to understand better the realities of sin. The professor, a wonderful lover of good literature, rightly reprimanded me: “Mr. Mouw,” she said sternly, “we do not have to go around sniffing garbage dumps to know what garbage is!”

She was right. But we do need at least some reality checks. Several decades ago, when Myron Augsberger and I were preparing for a public debate about pacifism versus Just War doctrine, he suggested that we each begin by testifying to what we find attractive in the other person’s perspective. I said some nice things about pacifism, but Myron’s testimony was memorable. He had just seen the Holocaust series on television, and when he saw the American soldiers riding into death camps in jeeps and tanks, with guns drawn, and being greeted by Jews who had to muster all their strength simply to stand and cheer, for a moment, he said–but just for a moment–he was tempted to see those soldiers as faithful servants of the Prince of Peace.

For a pacifist of Myron Augsberger’s convictions, that moment was fraught with moral temptation. But in his own eyes it was a necessary moment of testing his principles against the brutal realities of human suffering. The show 24 provided me with some moments that offered similar benefits. But I’m not going to push the limits by watching the DVDs!

Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Seminary. Intervarsity Press recently issued a revised and expanded edition of his Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. He is now hoping to be interviewed by Glenn Beck.