I just finished watching 24 (spoiler alert). I was struck by the disturbing yet satisfying torture and evisceration of Jack Bauer’s love interest’s killer. The ultimate brutality is narratively excused by a key piece of evidence being in the killer’s stomach, but the thirst for revenge is clear, and gratifying in its gratuity.
Prior to this, another character is tortured, unsuccessfully, by a corruptish private security firm, via waterboarding. This scene has less moral and emotional gray space, despite the fact that the victim has killed several people in cold blood. We are on her side, partly because she’s female, partly because the torturers are ruthless henchmen that lack sympathetic characteristics.
Torture in general has an odd place in 24. It’s basically never okay, but almost always necessary, as long as Jack deems it so. This is implicitly justified by Jack’s uncanny ability to look in someone’s eyes and know immediately if they’re lying and whether or not they’ll break. Since most people in 24 are lying and the majority of them will break, torture becomes a constant in the name of preventing whatever the nuclear or chemical threat of the day is. 24 goes on to say Jack’s means aren’t condoned, legally, but they are defended, morally, at the price of Jack’s sanity and soul. Someone has to do it, and there is no reward at the end of the day, so he is a hero.
Torture figures larger in the moral difficulties of the show than the 300 odd people Jack actually kills. In the whole of the series, the only questionable deaths are the two women Jack executes for revenge. Otherwise, a man’s life is merely a feather Jack holds in his hand, and over eight seasons, he basically plucks a turkey. But it’s only in the last season the viewers are led to suspect Jack’s gone nuts, because he kills and tortures the standard compliment of hostiles out of a desire for vengeance, instead of the more acceptable reason, which in 24 falls somewhere between patriotism and the desire to protect innocents and family.
I’ve recently been inundated with celebrations of revenge. The images of parties around what is still a giant hole in the ground are striking: lacking a symbol of reconstruction, thousands rallied around a tribute to failure to celebrate the death symbolizing revenge. It’s an end to a narrative, and a relatively unambiguous sense of closure.
In my work, closure is a term for a feature of my specialty programming language. Essentially, creating a closure is a way to wrap up variables in a function, or process of the program, so they have an independent existence, and don’t get mucked up by the surrounding environment’s processes. It’s an effective means of separating your problems and designing a clean, dynamic program. Of course, the most pertinent and repetitive lesson of any kind of programming is that a system of sufficient complexity, despite being based on pure logic, breaks down, providing employment for millions of people who alternately fix and cause old and new problems.
It’s nice to have a narrative of a process with a beginning and an end. It provides a defense against the inexorable increase of entropy in the world and all its systems. Jack Bauer’s narrative provides us with a vision of someone, supernaturally capable and superhumanly selfless, protecting us, sometimes by questionable means, without thanks, and leading one of the top ten most miserable lives ever chronicled. We forgive him his tortures because we know that in the end, he will have saved a million lives, and his own will be notably worse. Also, because once or twice a season he goes terminator on the evildoers, and it’s badass.
The political foosball loaded on to the table (with misleading spin created by pressing the ball down and to the right with your thumb and squeezing it out) post-death is the defense of torture in the path to the last goal. The debate misses the point that such things are, on a normative ethical level, indefensible. That’s why 24 needed a single, tragic hero to carry out the supposedly necessary. The existence of the debate at all misses the point that this narrative ended in a celebration of death, and revenge, and even Jack’s motives and methods were called into question when he became focussed on revenge. Motives aside, I’m sad that any country or any person would feel stronger or prouder or happier because of the death of a man.