Wednesday, June 1. 2005
I've been meaning to write something about this past season of the TV show 24 ever since I got roped into watching it. It would be a gross exaggeration to pretend that this series represents anyone's current thinking on terrorism, much less that it's likely to have any real lasting cultural, much less political, impact. For one thing, it's ridiculous. And it's not ridiculous is any useful or even particularly amusing way, as in satire. It's ridiculous in the sense that its deep assumptions about its subject have no connection to the real world. This is, of course, true about much fiction, and for all I know it may also be true about most contemporary television programming, but that's beside the point. The ridiculous in popular art is rarely a problem in general, because most of the time we have enough grounding to sort out what is real and what is ridiculous. But when it comes to terrorism most people are at a disadvantage, because what they believe to be the reality of terrorism is as ridiculous as 24.
The show is based on the schema that a team of terrorists can execute a complete series of terror plots, normally building to a climax, over a 24-hour period, and that a team of counterrorists can respond to those events quickly enough to thwart at least the climax event. This schema is in many ways a side-effect of a core concept, which is that the action takes place in real time (with dead spots conveniently spaced for commercials, of course). Real time is an intimation of reality, but by forcing everything to fit in real time everything reduces to action, suspense, momentum. The model isn't derived from literature, where writers usually strive to tie their threads together to attain a coherent story; rather, 24 is a mere video game, where the good guy (Jack Bauer) chases the bad guy (Marwan Habib) through a fast-paced gauntlet, which many side-characters suddenly smashing and vanishing on the sidelines while the rest look completely dumbfounded. In the end the viewer is dumbfounded as well, but the producers are hoping that the sense of exhaustion will predominate. 24 hours is, after all, a long goddam day.
The most obvious problem with all of this is that terrorists never work that way. Terror events occur all of a sudden, then they're done. To suggest the menace of scale, terrorists try to coordinate multiple events, but serializing them takes risks and requires resources often beyond their abilities. 24 tries to get beyond this limit by allocating stupendous resources to the terrorists -- way beyond anything that has ever been hinted at in an alien environment such as the U.S. -- and even there the serialization is their undoing. (So-called terrorists in Iraq can afford to attack frequently because they operate on their own home turf.) But the only way 24 can fill up 24 hours of terror is by vastly inflating the terrorists' resources while at the same time not giving them enough brains to manage their risks.
On the other hand, in order to keep the game going the counterterrorists also have to be allocated ridiculously superior powers -- the list is too long to get into, but my favorite is the ability to get to or from any point in greater Los Angeles in 20 minutes tops. The biggest timesaver is no doubt CTU's ability to decrypt entire hard disks in seconds then instanly identify the one critical clue that keeps them in the game. Even more remarkable is how Jack Bauer is able to get viable information in seconds from suspects he has just shot. But lest these super powers tip the odds excessively in favor of the counterterrorists they also have some exceptional handicaps: in particular, the whole management structure from three presidents down to CTU management are vain, credulous, scheming morons. (The whole Chinese consulate thread is Exhibit A here.)
Like I said, the problem with all this isn't just that it's ridiculous. The problem is that these ridiculous things reflect misconceptions that most of us have about terrorism, counterterrorism and the government. We assume, for instance, that terrorists are much more numerous, powerful, well funded, deeply ensconced, and above all nihilistic than they are. We assume that the counterterrorists' tactics, especially torture but also pervasive surveillance and massive databases, are effective means of fighting terror. But we also assume that noble public servants like Jack Bauer are kept from doing their jobs by incompetent and perfidious politicians and bureaucrats and interfering do-gooders like the "Amnesty Global" lawyer who springs one suspect. The politicians are so fickle that Bauer, after saving his country, has to fake his own death and go underground in order to avoid extradition to China.
Other threads resonate less because they don't register with our cultivated paranoias. Foremost among these is the fact that nearly all of Marwan's schemes involved hijacking dubious technology that the government bought and paid for. Wouldn't the threat of terrorism be much reduced if we didn't have those nuclear plants subject to cyber attack? Or those nuclear bombs circulating through rural Iowa? And what about the thread of the big defense contractor that employed Marwan and covered up for him? Doesn't that say something about our greed-is-good economic ideology? There's also an interesting lesson here on management philosophy: time and again we see managers, both politicians and bureaucrats, whose main qualification for the job seems to be that they can make firm decisions based on a near-absolute lack of valid information. We might also take a look at the effects of nepotism and fucking around on the job here since the writers bothered to put so much of it into the show: is this a case of cultivating clan loyalties, or is it just that everyone here is so estranged from normal life that the only people they can relate to are each other?
The problem with heavy questions is that they take time to sort out. More often than not, I found myself wondering how characters would come to understand what had happened on this fateful day over the following weeks and months. That we'll never know because nobody involved with 24 cares about understanding -- all they crave is action. And in 24 that's all they ever get.
Tuesday, May 3. 2005
My wife talked me into watching the TV show 24 this year. She's into shows like that, while I almost never watch TV. I figured a fantasy show about terrorism might be worth a comment or two, but I've been holding out to see how the plot twisted. However, after last night's show, with its climactic and rather disastrous kidnap at a Chinese consulate, I had two quick thoughts:
At the end of the episode, superman Jack Bauer shows us he can do math, letting one die to possibly save many, but the stress is finally getting to him. Or perhaps the doubt, as this seems to be his first big mistake? Or maybe he's just so clever, setting the foundation for reconciling with his girlfriend after he's killed her husband right in front of her?