The Terrorized Worlds of Jack and Michael

Andres Kahar begins with a question: What do Jack Bauer, protagonist of TV's 24, and Michael Ignatieff, protagonist of reality's Harvard University, have in common? That question leads us into very dark subject matter.

By Andres Kahar

So, what do Jack Bauer and Michael Ignatieff have in common? Other than the fact they're both characters played by famous Canadians.

The answer: each of them in his own way -- one via TV fiction, the other via intellectual discourse -- reminds us that our liberal democratic states are kept safe by carnivorous defenders. And these carnivores often need to employ strategies of choosing the lesser evil.

Back in January 2003, Harvard human rights professor Michael Ignatieff opened his Gifford lecture series in Edinburgh with a theme-setting question: "If terror is the greater evil, what lesser evils -- forms of violence, deceptions, suspensions of liberty -- can be justified in combating it?"

That same question was a sub-theme in season four of the Fox TV show 24 (which aired its season finale this past May). Last season, 24's main protagonist, Jack Bauer -- played by Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland -- and his counter-terrorism unit (CTU) colleagues spent an incendiary 24 hours thwarting Islamic terrorist attacks on US soil. These attacks included the abduction of the US Defense Secretary, the downing of Air Force One and the launching of a nuclear warhead.

This article compares 24's most recent season and Ignatieff's lectures ("The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror") which deal with the lesser evil question. I do so by briefly discussing three core Ignatieffian notions:

Politics matterS

Ignatieff characterizes terrorism as politics that is the enemy of politics. Echoing Max Weber, Ignatieff argues that, since liberal democratic politics is about marginalizing violence as a means of resolving conflicts, terrorism constitutes a greater evil because it uses violence against non-combatants (civilians) as a means of achieving its ends.

But Ignatieff also reminds us that state power is -- according to liberal democratic theory -- a lesser evil, since its monopoly over the use of force is what creates a zone of relative peace within borders. He insists that we call violent exertions of state power in the defence of society a "lesser evil," as that will make us more scrupulous about its use. Ignatieff often returns to the theme of torture, and how essential it is to keep interrogators under political control.

In season four of 24, attempts are made to constrain the defenders of the state with institutional controls. But the political officials who run the institutions are repeatedly depicted as "spineless libertarians" (Ignatieff's phrase) who are too removed from hard reality to make accurate threat assessments. Even top CTU officials sometimes seem too procedurally hamstrung to mount an effective defence against terrorist threats.

Enter Jack Bauer. In the first episode of last season, he's distressed by apparent dithering and poor judgment by his one-time colleagues at CTU. (Jack's now an attaché to the defense secretary.) Being an action-prone sort of fellow, Jack Bauer takes matters into his own hands: he cold-cocks a CTU guard, he jams some electronic codes, shoots a terrorist suspect in the leg and then -- just like that! -- uncovers the plot to abduct the defense secretary. (He learns this too late, and more action ensues.)

Despite concerns over procedural violations, threats of arrest, and talk of consequences, Jack Bauer is repeatedly reinstated and vested with increased authority to get the job done. In the fictional world of 24, this makes perfect sense: We viewers are made aware of undeniable terrorist threats, but the political officials are for the most part too insulated by bureaucracy to know the full scale of those threats.

However, in our world, this would be a disturbing notion indeed. The constant contravention of rules, lying, obfuscation and secrecy by key leaders and defenders in 24 -- either to prevent public panic or to protect sources -- may be necessary at times. But, as Ignatieff warns us, it surely distorts constitutional order and corrodes democratic trust.

A similar theme is playing out in a different -- and reality-bound -- situation here in Canada: Maher Arar, the Syrian-born Canadian who was deported to Syria and tortured there as a terrorism suspect, recently demanded that Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin release uncensored documents relating to his 2002 arrest and deportation. The point goes beyond justice for one apparently wronged Canadian citizen: It's also about Canadian citizens having a right to know what our elected political leaders are doing to ensure proper and transparent use of state power.

No angelic options

Ignatieff cautions us: Despite what some critics of the war on terror say -- that the war should be fought by legal means alone, not by violence and lethal force -- "angelic options" may not exist. In the real world, defenders of the state face a choice among evils, not one between good and evil.

At the same time, Ignatieff makes very plain his distaste for torture. Moreover, he argues that liberal democracies have obligations to stay on the human rights side of the torture debate -- both because of having signed to the Geneva conventions and because that's what being a liberal democratic state entails.

Of course, in the fictional world of 24, we viewers can pluck solace from knowledge that the terrorist threats facing Jack Bauer et al are very real, very big and not at all exaggerated.

Alas, reality isn't so clear-cut. Our world -- the same world Ignatieff resides in -- is one in which security threats can be exaggerated. Take, for example, British Prime Minister Tony Blair's pre-Iraq War assertion, emphatically delivered in early 2003: "Saddam's missiles are ready to be launched in 45 minutes." The failure of weapons inspectors to uncover WMDs after the war rather makes Blair's hype speak for itself, doesn't it?

Ethics matter

Ethics matter. That's Michael Ignatieff's claim. And, being a human rights professor, he urges liberal democratic types to look to human rights notions for ethical guidance about terror.

Ignatieff points out how the language of terrorist emergency is saturated with "martial metaphors" that can be used to justify abridgements of liberty, torture and extrajudicial killings. But he tags this with an obvious yet too-seldom-asked question: What if the terrorist threat is exaggerated and the curtailment of liberties is not necessary?

He says this is a big problem with the political discourse about the war on terror: the substitution of moral condemnation for threat assessment. In other words, terrorism might be nasty and repulsive, but is it necessarily a real threat to the stability or survival of the liberal democratic system?

In 24, it's possible to discern attempts to balance out the prevailing theme of moral condemnation with allusions to the root causes of Islamic terrorist anger. But this ends up sounding like tokenism.

The Islamic sleeper cells based in Los Angeles are depicted as teams of ice-veined, hard-faced ideologues with few redeeming qualities. They include a father, Navi Araz, who would kill his own teenaged son, Behrooz Araz, for failing to carry out a mission as instructed. Behrooz appears to be the only individual connected to the terrorist plot who is morally troubled in the least -- and that, it seems, owes much to his apparent Americanization.

We audience members are hardly cued to mourn the killing of such terrorists when Jack Bauer et al exterminate threats. But if we follow Ignatieff's point that it's human rights that sets liberal democracies apart, this TV objectification of Muslim terrorists is unsettling. Ignatieff's point about human rights is that having such rights is not at all dependent on moral conduct -- one has them regardless, and they cannot be taken away.

Final thought

Both Michael Ignatieff and 24 remind us that our zones of peace -- even those within state boundaries -- are defended at a moral cost. Ignatieff warns us that lesser evil strategies may be indispensable to keep our societies safe.

In 24, at the end of season four, Jack Bauer is triumphant. But he loses the girl -- in this case his girlfriend, Audrey Raines, a top Pentagon official. Despite her job, Audrey is shocked to learn of the lesser evil compromises that Jack Bauer and CTU are compelled to make -- and she cannot abide them.

Both 24 and Michael Ignatieff view the war on terror from a common starting point: They're premised on a hard-headed "realist" perspective in which force is an inevitable fact of life in the political realm. However, Ignatieff, being an academic, is more nuanced: he argues -- sometimes equivocally -- for the primacy of politics and human rights.

24 does not.

Then again, 24 is merely a TV show -- not reality.

Andres Kahar is a Toronto-based writer. He recently spotted Kiefer Sutherland on the streets of Toronto, but didn't confuse him with the terrorist-fighting character of Jack Bauer.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2005, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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