The depraved heroes of 24 are the Himmlers of Hollywood
The message of the TV series, that torturers can retain their human dignity
if the cause is right, is a profound lie
Tuesday January 10, 2006
On Sunday, the fifth season of the phenomenally successful television drama
24 will start in the US. Each season is composed of 24 one-hour episodes and
the whole season covers the events of a single day. The story of the latest
series is the desperate attempt of the LA-based Counter Terrorist Unit to
prevent an act of catastrophic magnitude and the action focuses on the
unit's agents, the White House and the terrorist suspects.
The "real-time" nature of the series confers on it a strong sense of
urgency, emphasised by the ticking of an on-screen clock. This dynamic is
accentuated by technical tricks, from the use of hand-held cameras to split
screens showing the concurrent actions of characters.
Almost a third of each episode is taken up by commercial breaks, which
contribute to the sense of urgency: the breaks are part of the one-hour
temporal continuity. Say the on-screen clock reads "7.46" before the break,
we return to the series with the clock saying "7.51" - indicating the real
length of the break, as if a live transmission has been interrupted. It is
as if the continuity of the action is so urgent that it cannot even be
interrupted for advertisements.
Such a sense of urgency has an ethical dimension. The pressure of events is
so overbearing, the stakes so high, that they necessitate a kind of
suspension of ordinary moral concerns; displaying such concerns when the
lives of millions are at stake means playing into the hands of the enemy.
The CTU agents, as well as their terrorist opponents, live and act in a
shadowy space not covered by the law, doing things that "simply have to be
done" to save our societies from the threat of terrorism. This includes not
only torturing terrorists when they are caught, but even torturing members
of CTU or their closest relatives if they are suspected of terrorist links.
In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary's
son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female
member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists.
(When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately
and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of
"ticking-bomb" scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz
to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb
that is jus about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).
The agents treat themselves as expendable, ready to put their lives at stake
if this will help to prevent an attack. Jack Bauer, (the agent and central
character, played by Kiefer Sutherland), embodies this attitude. He not only
tortures others but condones his superiors putting his own life at stake.
In the fourth season, Bauer agrees to be delivered to China as a scapegoat
for a CTU covert operation that killed a Chinese diplomat. He knows he will
be tortured and imprisoned for life but promises not to say anything that
might damage US interests. When he is informed by the ex-president of the US
that someone has ordered him to be killed, his two closest CTU friends fake
his death. Both terrorist and CTU agents operate as examples of what the
political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer - someone who can be
killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, their life no longer
counts. While they continue to act on behalf of the legal power, their acts
are no longer constrained by the law. It is here that we encounter the
series' ideological lie: in spite of the CTU's ruthlessness, its agents,
especially Bauer, are warm human beings - loving, caught in the emotional
dilemmas of ordinary people.
24 should not be seen as a simple popular depiction of the sort of
problematic methods the US resorts to in its "war on terror". Much more is
at stake. Recall the lesson of Apocalypse Now. The figure of Kurtz is not a
remnant of some barbaric past. He was the perfect soldier but, through his
over-identification with the military, he turned into the embodiment of the
system's excess and threatened the system itself.
The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work
without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma.
When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief
adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah
Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi
executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware
that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to
their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying
"What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things
I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed
upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of
resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in
the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and
There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the
executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and
dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita
(Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner
distance; do not get fully involved.
Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain
human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person
performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical
grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour
serves this lie.
But what if such a distance is possible? What if people do commit terrible
acts as part of their job while being loving husbands, good parents and
close friends? As Arendt says, the fact that they are able to retain any
normality while committing such acts is the ultimate confirmation of moral
So what about the response to this hair-splitting? Some argue that at least
the US is now more open and less hypocritical about its behaviour towards
terrorist suspects. To this, one should reply: "If US representatives mean
only this, why are they telling us? Why don't they silently go on doing it,
as they did it until now?" What is proper to human speech is the gap between
the enunciated content and its act of enunciation. Imagine a couple who have
a tacit agreement that they can have discreet extramarital affairs; if, all
of a sudden, the husband openly tells his wife about an affair, she would
have good reason to wonder why he was telling her. The act of publicly
revealing something is never neutral; it affects the reported content
The same goes for the US's recent admission that it is using torture. When
we hear people such as Dick Cheney making statements about the necessity of
torture, we should ask ourselves why he has decided to make a public
statement about it. The question to be raised is: what is there in this
statement that made the speaker decide to enunciate it? This is 24's real
problem: not the content itself but the fact that we are being told openly
about it. And that is a sad indication of a deep change in our ethical and
Slavoj Zizek is the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the