March 1, 2007
King of Pain: The Political Theologies of "24"
— Jerome Eric Copulsky
Like several million other Americans, I am a "24" fanatic.
For an hour each week, I willingly relinquish myself to the action-packed
world of the Counter Terrorist Unit of the hit FOX television series.
Yet I do so with a somewhat guilty conscience. Early on, I hit upon the show's secret: "24" is a sustained lesson in controversial jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt's decidedly illiberal concept of sovereignty. "Sovereign is he who decides upon the exception," Schmitt proclaimed at the beginning of his 1922 treatise Political Theology. To have this power is to stand outside the law, to decide upon the state of exception, when the normal rules do not apply. If we follow Schmitt's claim that "significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts," the human sovereign is the political analogue of the omnipotent God.
What better description could there be of counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, the hero of "24"? Bauer is no by-the-book agent. But when he operates beyond the law and conventional morals in order to interrogate a suspect — employing brute force or torture to obtain crucial information — we understand he is doing what is necessary to fulfill his patriotic duty. And when bureaucrats and politicians wring their hands or quibble about Bauer's methods, the show suggests that they are naïve or lack the will to do what is "necessary" to stop America's enemies. In the world of "24," Jack Bauer is clearly the sovereign.
Recently the political theology of "24" has taken another turn. At the beginning of this season, a haggard Bauer, long-haired and bearded, his back bearing the scars of his ordeal, is released by his Chinese captors to his former counter-terrorist colleagues, only to be told that he was about to be delivered to a group of fanatics in exchange for what is believed to be critical intelligence about the location of a terrorist mastermind. Resigned to his fate, Bauer is satisfied that he is going to die for a reason: "Do you know the difference between dying for nothing and dying for something? That's why I'm still alive.... Today, I can die for something."
Like a lamb to the slaughter, Bauer is led to further torture and seemingly certain death in order to save his countrymen from annihilation. The symbolism is clear: Federal agent Bauer is a Christ-figure.
This symbolism — and the other religious references that emerge throughout
"24" — would be the stuff of high school literature classes,
if not for the fact that the show has become a lens through which many
think about America's current political predicament. In Jane Mayer's bracing
New Yorker article, Joel Surnow, the co-creator and executive
producer of "24" and self-described "right-wing nut job,"
is quoted as saying that "America wants the war on terror fought
by Jack Bauer. He's a patriot."
Perhaps. We want him to fight the "war on terror" because the show is set up so that we know that Bauer is almost always correct, because the narrative and moral arguments are stacked in his favor, because we trust his intuitions, intentions, and judgments, and because the show takes the extreme case of an imminent threat, the so-called "ticking time bomb," and makes it the norm. For an hour a week, we gladly consent to Bauer's "sovereignty."
In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Brian M. Carney celebrated the show's "realistic moral tone," its ability to expose contemporary ethical dilemmas. "You don't need to watch '24' as a kind of primer on moral philosophy," he opined, "but you should."
Unlike Carney, I am not so confident that watching "24" will
help us think more deeply about moral problems or fight the war on terror
in a responsible manner. Those actually doing the fighting do not operate
in the conditions of "24," but in places where the utilitarian
calculus is not so clear cut, where the danger is not the imminent threat
of a ticking time bomb, and where torture is less likely to produce useful
intelligence. Yet, viewing "24" as a kind of training manual,
some American soldiers have come to regard torture as a justifiable practice,
and Bauer an exemplar to be imitated. Indeed, experienced American military
leaders have expressed misgivings about the show's deepening influence
on those under their command, worrying, as Mayer reports, that "the
show promoted unethical and illegal behavior and had adversely affected
the training and performance of real American soldiers."
It's not necessarily a bad thing to detect the strains of political theory or to be confronted with somewhat heavy-handed religious symbolism in a popular television series. But after we spend an hour in the thrall of Jack Bauer, Schmittian sovereign and secular savior, we should be sure to remind ourselves that entertainment which exploits our fears and strokes our hopes of simple solutions will not provide the means to our salvation, political or otherwise.
Jane Mayer's article "Whatever It Takes: The politics of the man behind '24,'" (New Yorker, February 12, 2007) can be read online at: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/articles/070219fa_fact_mayer.
Brian M. Carney's article "Jack Bauer's Dilemmas — and Ours: Watching '24' as a primer on moral philosophy" (Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2007) can be read online at:
Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. By George Schwab (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).
Jerome Eric Copulsky is Assistant Professor and Director of Judaic Studies at Virginia Tech.
The current Religion and Culture Web Forum features "The Earth Charter as a New Covenant for Democracy" by J. Ronald Engel. To read this article, please visit: http://marty-center.uchicago.edu/webforum/.
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