Agency chiefs and Cabinet secretaries usually try to be discreet about their jealousies, resentments, and grudges towards other departments and agencies in the federal government. On Friday, however, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff was upfront about his agency-envy, declaring in front of a packed house C-SPAN cameras how he wished his agency had the same technologies that the Counterterrorism Unit has in the Fox television series 24.
“I wish we could have instant communications. I wish we didn’t have systems that sometimes went down and broke.” In 24, Chloe O’Brian can instantly access real-time feeds from satellites with infra-red technology and stream the images to Jack Bauer’s PDA so he can know exactly where the bad guys are waiting to be killed.
CTU’s technological and logistical abilities are breathtaking. These few dozen people, situated in a hi-tech windowless operations center in Los Angeles, have been nearly omniscient, relatively unified, and very effective in their five-day battle against terrorist threats.
At a Heritage Foundation event on Friday, some of the cast and producers of 24 followed Chertoff onto the stage for a panel also featuring two think-tank experts on homeland security. The panelists handled–sometimes awkwardly–questions about defending the U.S. against terrorism, both in real life and in Hollywood.
Make-believe antiterrorism and real antiterrorism have some things in common and many things different, but they matter to one another in this respect: What Americans watch on TV about counterterrorism operations, whether fact or fiction, affects what they expect in real life. Further, what we expect of their homeland defenses affects politicians, which in turn influence the agencies. This is where 24 matters to our real war on terror, it seems: Jack Bauer sets our expectations, which can make things tough for our leaders.
“The show sets expectations in some sense,” said David Heyman, who directs the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They do set expectations in terms of how quickly we can get things done–how easy it is to get things done.”
If Americans believe that Michael Chertoff ought to be as efficient and effective as fictional CTU chief Bill Buchanan, then this is a problem–not just for Chertoff and President Bush, but for a country whose voters and editorialists will be operating on false assumptions about our potential for terror fighting.
Expecting DHS to be CTU wouldn’t just mislead us in the democratic political aspects of our lives, but possibly the daily aspects of our lives. If we believe that our government can do the sort of things that the government can do in 24–instantly skim through weeks of video footage from thousands of surveillance cameras around the country to find the face of a suspected terrorist–this could lull us into docility. If we believe that Big Brother will always keep us safe, we might sleep too well at night.
Heritage’s homeland-security expert James Jay Carafano was expounding along those lines on Friday: “If you’re waiting on someone in Washington to do something before we can start saving lives,” he said, “then we’re all gonna die.”
On deeper examination, however, this overdependence-on-Washington criticism does not apply to 24, because 24 is a true American drama and Jack Bauer is an American hero. When I was in Germany a few years ago, a Cabinet official said that Europe was once half-full of free-thinkers and independent spirits, but then they all got up and moved to America. The American hero is the cowboy: He is Maverick, he is Han Solo, he is Batman (though, when Batman is in trouble, he turns on the Jack Bauer signal), he is the rag-tag minuteman fighting the well-trained Lobsterbacks.
So Jack Bauer is not Big Brother, and he is not the establishment. Jack Bauer was expelled from CTU and he disobeys orders. He does what needs to be done and he does it in his own way. (Jack Bauer once played Russian roulette with a fully loaded gun, and won.) He is the fitting heir to Rambo and Maverick.
And like Rambo and Maverick, Bauer’s inhuman excellence (Jack Bauer, for example, could strangle you with a cordless phone) still doesn’t keep us from identifying with him. “Jack Bauer is an everyman,” Writer and Executive Producer Howard Gordon said on Friday, “he is the guy who stands for that American, can-do thing.”
If we believe 24, we don’t think Bill Buchanan or President Palmer will keep us safe. We believe Jack Bauer will keep us safe (if everyone on the show listened to Jack Bauer, the show would be called 12), but we also believe we are Jack Bauer.
The Capitol Dome stands today because of a handful of regular Americans–not soldiers, not bureaucrats, and not even “first-responders,” but American guys who got on a plane on a September morning. A couple of months later Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, was wrestled by flight attendants and “subdued” (read: “pounded”) by two passengers.
So, experts need not worry what will happen if we take 24 too seriously. The lesson of the show is not that Big Brother will keep us safe. The lesson is that we need ruthless bravery from Everyman to keep us safe.
– Timothy P. Carney is author of the upcoming The Big Ripoff : How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money.