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Does Jack Bauer Have a Place in the New Moral Climate?

March 14, 2009

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Jack Bauer sits silently in a courtroom answering questions from a United States Senate committee regarding allegations of his torturing of a known terrorist. The stone-faced senator in charge of the trial leans back in his high chair, adjusts his glasses, and inquires, “Mr. Bauer, did you torture Mr. Hadad?”

Senator,” Jack replies, “Ibrahim Hadad had targeted a bus carrying 45 people, ten of which were children. I stopped that attack from happening. For a combat soldier, the difference between success and failure is your ability to adapt to your enemy. The people that I deal with don’t care about your rules…. I simply adapted.  Please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions that I have made. Because, sir, the truth is, I don’t.”

Such is the conscience of Jack Bauer, America’s most decorated fictional hero in the last decade. When the first season of 24 premiered on November 6, 2001, America was a very different country.  Still reeling from the 9/11 attacks, Americans did not hesitate to call for the heads of their enemies. Nine out of ten red-blooded American males wanted their chance to ring the neck of the scrawny looking desert bandit named Osama bin Laden.  Jack Bauer appealed to that moral climate because he was a patriot who would stop at nothing to accomplish his mission of keeping America safe from those who sought to terrorize the innocent.

Eight years later, Americans have tempered their enthusiasm regarding the extent to which they are willing to go in allowing their soldiers and elected officials to fight this seemingly endless battle against terror. Taking precedent are new concerns regarding the ethical treatment of those who would seek to do harm to the innocent.  Jack Bauer, it seems, must finally answer for his crimes…

As may the George W. Bush administration, whose interrogation policies have raised concerns of  constitutional abuse.  Last Monday, the Justice Department released nine previously classified memorandums detailing the White House’s attempt to bypass congressional restraints regarding interrogation tactics of perpetrators.  Civil libertarians and torture opponents have expressed their shock and outrage over the former administration’s willingness to use extreme tactics without congressional approval.  Like Bauer, former President Bush remains unapologetic:

In terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn’t worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States, and putting plans in place that make it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking, because all these debates will matter not if there’s another attack on the homeland. The question won’t be were you critical of this plan or not; the question is going to be, why didn’t you do something?

A number of evangelical and ecumenical religious leaders are petitioning for an investigation of government policy and allegations of inhumane actions against terrorism detainees under the previous administration with the aim of making sure that the Jack Bauers of the world fade away.  This society, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, released a statement, signed by 23 prominent religious leaders from a wide variety of faith traditions including my former ethics professor, David Gushee, calling for the unequivocal end of any form of torture by the U.S. against perpetrators:

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The United States must never again engage in torture. Torture is immoral, illegal and counterproductive. It causes profound and lasting harm, especially to its victims but also to its perpetrators. It contradicts our nation’s deepest values and corrupts the moral fabric of our society.

We call for an impartial, nonpartisan, and independent Commission of Inquiry. Its purpose should be to gather all the facts and make recommendations. It should ascertain the extent to which our interrogation practices have constituted torture and “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”. Understanding the causes, nature and scope of U.S.-sponsored torture is essential for preventing it in the future and eliminating it from our system without loopholes. U.S. law will determine the extent of any criminal culpability.

As people of faith, we know that brokenness can be healed – both in individual lives and in the life of the nation. All religions believe that redemption is possible. Learning the truth can set us on a path toward national healing and renewal.

The United States must never again allow itself to be driven by blinding fears and bitter resentments in responding to national tragedy. The use of torture only serves to undermine our security in a dangerous world.  Nothing less than the soul of our nation is at stake in confronting U.S.-sponsored torture and completely renouncing its use. Let the U.S. reaffirm its values by establishing a Commission of Inquiry.
A Call for a Commission of Inquiry

Contrary to the anti-torture absolutism of NRCAT’s statement is the more nuanced view of Albert Mohler.  In his Culture Shift (2008), Mohler responds to John McCain’s sponsorship of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, which sought to render illegal all “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatments of prisoners under U.S. control.  In McCain’s advocacy against all forms of torture, Mohler sympathizes but observes some practical challenges in the policy’s wording:

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Definitions represent the first great challenge.  Some human rights activists contend that yelling at a prisoner represents the kind of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment McCain would categorically outlaw. . . . In the most extreme of conceivable cases, most [morally sensitive persons] would allow the use of far more serious mechanisms of coercion- even what we would all agree should be labeled as torture. (p.57-58)

Mohler asserts that while the United States must not officially condone torture as a national policy, real-life crises demand case-by-case moral decision making on the part of the agents of the state, which categorical bans against “torture” simply can’t address.  Case in point for our purposes: Jack Bauer has just uncovered a traitor conspiring with a terrorist cell that has planted a bomb somewhere in a major U.S.city.  Bauer has reason to believer this conspirator knows the location of the bomb.  His government superiors prohibit him from coercing the suspect.  So how should he pry the information out of him?

Mohler concludes by acknowledging the validity of both sides of the debate:

I would argue that we cannot condone torture by codifying a list of exceptional situations in which techniques of torture might be legitimately used. At the same time, I would also argue that we cannot deny that there could exist circumstances in which such uses of torture might be made necessary. . . . [A definition of these exceptions giving occasional warrant to torture] appears neither practical nor prudent, for the circumstances in which such a use of coercion might be conceived would often not allow time for such a warrant to be issued. The War on Terror is not fought on convenient terms. . . . The use of torture should be prohibited as a matter of state policy – period.  No set of qualifications and exceptions can do anything but diminish the moral credibility of this policy.  At the same time, rare exceptions can be considered under extreme  circumstances by legitimate state agents, knowing that a full accounting of these decisions must be made to the public through appropriate means and mechanisms.  (p.59-60)

Jack Bauer has spent much of this season answering for his decision-making under such “extreme circumstances.”  In the realm of dramatic-fiction, America has decided that she still needs his methods, even if she doesn’t always like them.  However, the place of real-life Jack Bauers in a post-George W. Bush moral climate remains to be seen.
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 18, 2009 4:59 pm

    The only thing I regret is that we live in a world that needs people like me.

  2. March 18, 2009 5:50 pm

    That’s a good line, Jack. And thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts! Last Monday’s 9pm-10pm was a very good episode.

  3. June 5, 2009 5:41 am

    Adam –

    This is a great post. I have recently become a 24 addict, watching past seasons on DVD. I’m only through season 4 so far, but I really do like the show. It is amazing to contrast 24’s attitude towards terrorism and torture with that of the current administration. At the end of the day, I agree with Dwight from the Office, that Jack Bauer should be promoted immediately to Secretary of Defense🙂.

  4. June 26, 2009 3:08 pm

    Thanks for the nod, John!

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