Jack Bauer, bombs and British accents: all the right stuff for the rebooted season of “24.” And when I saw that the antagonists this time were a charming terrorist family with safely Anglo-Saxon names like Margot, Simone and Ian, I was relieved that the show had not devolved into its usual trope of murderous Muslims and angry Arabs, seeing as I was a peaceable Muslim myself.
But my optimism was, as George Bernard Shaw quipped about second marriages, the triumph of hope over experience. Foolishly, I had celebrated before listening for the surname — al-Harazi. Turns out the terroristic threesome were converts to Islam.
Comeuppance stings. And while my affection for the show makes me loathe to fault anything more than lazy writing, it’s hard not to feel that something is amiss.
The premise of “24” is simple: Watch the real-time exploits of the unkillable, unflappable counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer as he saves America from one crisis after another. But the show’s halcyon days came during America’s darkest post-9/11 era — unfortunately cementing if not promoting some of the ugliest practices of that time in the minds of millions.
Its repeated depiction of Muslims as mindless maniacs, hell-bent on unleashing destruction on innocents played too well with the stereotypes of the day.
“Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslim,” the unthinking slogan goes, which you can find parroted by any number of real-life conservative commentators. And even for those with a little more statistical sense, reinforcing that dictum, whether in fictional or quasi-journalistic productions, makes it much easier to swallow policies like profiling Muslims, surveilling mosques and torturing suspects.
I lived in New York City when the Twin Towers fell.
I remember morning assembly at elementary school that day and wishing that something would happen to get me out of social studies class. I remember feeling fear as my classmates starting leaving for some reason, one by one, until there were just four or five of us left, and the scared looks and wan faces of the teachers who wouldn’t say a word. And when my aunt finally picked me up, and I came home and saw Peter Jennings on the news at the wrong hour and heard Mom’s frightened voice on the phone, telling me about the planes crashing everywhere, I felt guilty for wishing to skip Ms. Barnett’s class.
People haven’t looked at me the same since. From the suspicious glances directed at my mother’s hijab to the miraculous way the entire family was randomly selected for enhanced security every time we flew, it was clear that we were different — that we were guilty for adhering to a religion that despicable people had twisted to their despicable ends.
“I don’t wanna bypass the Constitution, but these are extraordinary circumstances,” Jack Bauer responds to a human-rights worker in what amounts to a summary of the Bush administration’s approach to the law.
And bypass the Constitution he did — though, of course, always with good reason and never in unnecessarily abusive fashion. Laws, it seem, could be overlooked by roguish and rugged intelligence agents with unquestionable integrity and little time for process and procedure.
“24” has always been the neoconservative’s pipedream for one reason — its frequent and lionized depiction of torture, or “enhanced interrogation” as the euphemism went, as effective, even necessary, in the fight against terror. It implicitly endorsed the two Bush-like absolutisms that propelled this country to abandon tested principles and wage needless wars: First, others who hated our values would stop at nothing to kill us, and, second, this required us to overlook what was legal to avoid existential calamity.
I’d venture to say that this country’s acceptance of torture during the Bush administration, or at least its unwillingness to fully disavow it, is a result of who was being tortured. It’s much easier to trample over centuries of moral intuitions and legal statutes if the other side is portrayed as subhuman and foreign.
Justifying torture as public policy is tricky business — the only route one can take is the ticking-time-bomb scenario in which a catastrophic attack is known to be imminent and unpreventable by other means.
Ticking time bombs don’t really happen, any counterterrorism expert worth his salt will tell you. The thought experiment made its debut in the 1960 French novel “Les Centurions” by Jean Larteguy, not real life. Before that, France’s justification of torture of the Algerians had to rely on racist assertions that Algerians could understand only pain.
“24” provides a palatable justification of torture for today’s advocates, seeking to provide ticking-time-bomb rationalizations rather than racist ones. But I worry that it may be providing both to millions of viewers, especially when I’m the only one stopped in the airport security line — again.
Idrees Kahloon is an editorial page intern at the Post-Gazette this summer. He will return to Harvard University as a junior in the fall, majoring in applied mathematics and economics with a minor in government (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743).