Friday, May 28, 2010
Jack Bauer’s Last Hobbesian Battle: Some Final Thoughts on 24 and its Politics
I must admit that I did not particularly care for this last season of 24. Looking back, I wish the show had ended with season five (seasons one, three and four are the truly brilliant ones). Seasons six and seven, to say nothing of the truly horrendous made for TV movie, lacked the energy and the writing to keep them interesting. 24 may not be a well written show in the conventional sense, but at its best it stands as the most truly addictive show in the history of television. This came from a manic intensity and the show's utter unpredictability. As the perfect show for our ADHD generation, it was always who is going to get killed next, when is the next bomb going to go off, and who is going to be the next person to be revealed as a double agent? At the center of this was Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer. Sutherland brought an aggressive power to this role, tempered by a humanity that makes Bauer the secret agent/cop hero against which all future such roles will be judged. The last few seasons descended to parodies of 24 as the same plot-lines were recycled with utter predictability, the writers followed by the actors just going through the motions.
Season eight of 24 was, for the first two thirds of the season, running steady for being the worst season of the series. Then a sniper took out Jack's love interest, Renee Walker, and Jack went off the deep end. This, in of itself, is fairly standard 24 fare. Added to the mix, though, was the reintroduction of the Nixonian former president Charles Logan. (Jack took him down in season five for his part in the conspiracy to take down the beloved President of the early seasons, David Palmer.) Logan manages to worm his way into the confidence of President Allison Taylor and convinces her to cover up evidence that the Russians were behind the events of the first part of the season (including the assassination of the president of a foreign country and a dirty bomb nearly going off in New York) in the hopes of keeping them at the peace table.
President Taylor might never have been the moral rock that President Palmer was, but she was decent enough. Her corruption is rendered plausible since it is the capitulation to that basic politician's conceit that what they do, the deals they negotiate and the pieces of paper they sign, are actually what matter and not the military reality on the ground. This sort of politician's conceit has played itself out tragically in real life with the British government covering up from the public the fact that Germany was rearming out of the fear that the public would force a war. The British eventually signed the Munich agreement to bring "peace in our time." Similarly the Israeli government signed the Oslo accords with Yasser Arafat. Throughout the peace process, whenever things broke down the reaction of the political class was that the parties needed to come back together to negotiate another round of accords, regardless of whether Arafat could be trusted to keep it. The dictum "war is politics by other means" has it backwards. Politics is warfare by other means. The natural state of affairs is for nations to wage wars of destruction with each other. Peace treaties are our attempt to find a better solution. No one has an innate right to live in peace. You earn the right to live in peace by convincing others that you can be trusted and that it is their interest to let you live. I support peace in the Middle East, even land for peace and a Palestinian State. These things will only happen when the Palestinians and the Arab world at large believe that the choices are either peace and acceptance of Israel or the destruction of their cities and countries as was done to Germany and Japan. (My brother refers to my politics as "Liberal Machiavellianism.")
Jack reacts to President Taylor's betrayal by going on a killing spree, taking down the people involved one by one, carving out the guts of one Russian operative and impaling the Russian ambassador. This climaxes in the final episode with Jack putting Logan and President Suvarov of Russia in the scope of a sniper rifle. I find Jack's actions to be perfectly morally defensible. Even to the question of whether assassinating the president of Russia will lead to war, I would respond that an international politics with leaders who initiate assassinations of other leaders and WMD attacks on other countries in order to scuttle legitimate peace treaties, is going to lead to a major war anyway. Better take your chances with attempting to remove such leaders. For treaties to mean something then those who would violate them must not be allowed to benefit from them. I was actually hoping that Jack would kill President Taylor. Governments are based on treaties with their citizens, no different than the treaties between nations. The treaty is that citizens should obey their leaders and not murder them and leaders agree to follow their own laws. Taylor violated that treaty and therefore undermined the very legitimacy of her government. She even went so far as to implicitly allow for Jack to be killed. This leaves only Hobbesian war and Jack is certainly someone capable of waging such a war. Jack could even be excused for the innocent civilians that get hurt or killed along the way. Taylor allowed herself the moral license to allow civilians to be hurt. Jack, in order to fight this Hobbesian war, has no choice but to arm himself with the same moral license. This is the reason why one needs to keep treaties. Treaties only mean something when the consequences of breaking them become too horrifying to contemplate.
What a great way for the show to go out for Jack to assassinate the President. Instead the show got cold feet and sold out. Jack does not even kill Suvarov and Logan. Instead he allows Chloe to talk him down to try to reveal the cover up. As part of the plan Jack orders Chloe to kill him, knowing that the government would never allow him to live. It would have been great if Chloe had followed through and the show could have gone out with the loyal Chloe killing Jack. Instead Chloe only shoots him in the shoulder. The plan fails, but the day is saved when Taylor repents her actions after seeing Jack's video where he explains his actions and refuses to go through with the treaty. The early seasons of 24 deserved something better for an ending.