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24's Subversive Message

May 28, 2004

Season Three of Fox's highly successful "24" has drawn to a climactic close. As always, the President was in danger, the country was in peril, and only one man could save them all: special agent Jack Bauer.

What, other than ratings, is the show's underlying premise for why disaster is always imminent? Like any good soap opera, there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, but as the seasons pile up, the evidence points to one man: President David Palmer.

As first Senator, then President, David Palmer stands for integrity in the face of adversity. Though this season has seen him get his hands a bit dirty, the show places the moral structure of each dilemma in him. While it could be argued that both he and Bauer are what you might call moral utilitarians, Palmer clearly suffers from the weight of his decisions, whereas Bauer seems to shrug most things off as all in a day's work.

It is interesting, then, to reflect on the rationale for each season's crisis. Seasons 1 and 3 are both linked to a covert operation in Bosnia authorized by Palmer. Season 2, which appears unrelated (though there are plenty of theories), is instead a crisis resulting from tensions with the Islamic world.

In each case, though, the focus is on the repercussions of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Sometimes called "blowback," or what might otherwise be identified by Misesians as the unanticipated consequences of government action, the lesson is the same whether dealing with foreign or domestic policy. Government policy presumes a static and unchanging world and cannot predict or account for the human response to its policies. Even its "dynamic" models are static because they cannot account for every variation.

In foreign policy, the problem is arguably worse than in domestic policy, because the government deals with political systems its supposed experts cannot understand, cultures that are unfamiliar, and unleashes forces and responses that it never expected. The result is always some "crisis," which means nothing more than a dangerous development that had not been part of the plan.

"24's" preoccupation with this theme seems indicative of an underlying message for viewers.  Season after season, we are confronted with the reality that meddling in the affairs of other countries brings deadly consequences home to American soil.

This perspective has raised the claim that "24" is subtly blaming the victim with the claim that somehow America is responsible for the terrorism unleashed against Americans. Writing in the Jewish World Review, Steven Zak puts it this way: 24 is merely "a dramatic expression of the idea that America is responsible for the attacks this country experienced or may yet suffer."

That's not quite right. To observe the existence of a provocation is not to deny the guilt of the criminal. The convicted carjacker, for example, is guilty and deserves every bit of punishment. At the same time, if one is aware of an area of town where carjackers roam freely, it is best to use your head and avoid driving through that area with a new BMW. This isn't blaming the victim; it is merely using good sense.

In the case of US foreign policy, we are not always dealing with rampant criminality so much as a predictable and wholly legitimate desire on the part of a foreign peoples not to be dominated by foreign militaries. That US war planners cannot somehow account for the desire of people not to be ruled from abroad raises fundamental questions about their competence.

While perhaps not popular in recent years, the views behind the storyline may be becoming more mainstream in light of recent events overseas. Many people are shocked to discover that citizens of foreign countries resent being ruled under martial law, and are willing to resist even unto death. Perhaps the US ought to learn a lesson.

The logic traces that of the nation's first president, George Washington, in his famous Farewell Address:

The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?

The contrast to contemporary presidents could not be more evident. Republican or Democrat, the Presidents of the United States have for decades assumed the role of worldwide "great protector" and acted accordingly.

Which brings us back to Palmer's fictitious administration. Palmer, despite—or because of—his moral convictions and empathy, has placed Americans in a state of constant danger through the actions of the U.S. military overseas. If this is the message of the show, then when considered against reality, it may very well not only express the writers' ideas, but also a general sense of anxiety among the rest of Americans. The self-designated role of "policeman to the world" has, perhaps, come at too high a price, for this country and the rest of the world.

24 is fiction, but 9/11 is horrifying reality. The show thus raises questions that have relevance beyond fan-club forums. Just as the characters often seem to do during the program, Americans may be beginning to ask themselves, "What have we gotten ourselves into?"

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Matthew Hisrich is a policy analyst with The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions. He can be reached by email at: hisrich@buckeyeinstitute.org.  


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