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January 15, 2006

Jack Bauer, Thug-Life Anti-Hero

24 debuts tonight, and the American Thinker has thoughts on the show's enduring popularity. Remember when no one thought you could repeat the same formula twice?

The question of how far we should allow those entrusted with protecting us from terror to go has been discussed, polled, and argued to the point where virtually everyone is aware that it is important. To all those who raise such questions, Jack Bauer, the hero of 24 provides an unequivocal answer: whatever it takes.

...

The ancient Greeks developed a term for what Jack Bauer supplies us. It is the narcotic of catharsis. We live in a perpetual, usually conscious, state of anxiety over what will become of us in the face of terrorists who do not hesitate to inflict mass casualties of the most horrible order. Many of us are also genuinely troubled by the potential loss of freedom if our civil liberties are infringed. As a result, we live with tension, the release of which generates pleasing endorphins in our brains.

And Jack Bauer does provide release. He Does What Needs to be Done. No worrying over constitutional protections, or even fear for the legal and personal costs when responsibility is put on his shoulders. Torture the suspect (or last season, violate the diplomatic immunity of a Chinese consulate), and protect America.

Because Jack is a fantasy figure, a gritty version of James Bond, whose ammunition never runs out, who is never the one brought down in a hail of fire, and whom we know will go on to protect us again, all of this escapism works and works well. Even as we are caught-up in the dramatic tension, we know that it is “only” entertainment.

As the article alludes, the thuggish hero is hardly a new innovation. Some of the most enduring heroes of cinema and genre-literature are basically well-educated amoral, brutish anti-heroes, living according to a code that priorities on setting things right, not necessarily acting right. The Continental Op, Phillip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, Eastwoods' The Man With No Name (and the related re-writes High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider), James Bond, "Mad Max" Rockatansky -- in objective moral terms, they're evil men, at least in terms of their actions. The thrill is that these evil men visit evil upon men who are even more evil. They do the things we can't, not just because we're not omnicompetent as they are, but because we're limited by moral codes that are hardly an afterthought to them.

Half of short horror stories, especially in the Tales From the Crypt/EC Comics tradition, create pleasure by the same formula. Here are some bad people -- gangsters, wife-murderers, rapists, pedophiles, etc. They're evil. Now here, rising from the grave, is something even more spectacularly evil to deliver gory justice to them. The cosmic horror crawling out of the mausoleum becomes, in effect, an anti-hero, the undead abomination now the reader's rooting interest, the vicious vehicle of our desire for a true justice that usually eludes us in real life.

The article suggests that 24 thrills because we know it's all "fantasy." Well, perhaps. But maybe it's not complete fantasy -- I don't think that terrorist suspects delivered into the tender mercies of Egyptian prisons consider the Bauer code entirely fantasy. And many Americans are not particularly bothered by torture, because while we recognize the practice as evil in itself, we also recognize it as somethig else when visited upon monsters -- rough justice.

The thrill comes from the anticipation of the villain's realization: "I thought I was ruthless and vicious. But Lord have mercy on my soul, this guy who's after me can teach me whole lessons about ruthlessness and viciousness." Bush's public support for his handling of the War on Terror has certainly diminished, but what sustains him is not, I think, his successes (which are fewer than we'd all like), but the public's basic understanding that he's willing to do things his political opponents and would-be Presidents simply won't.

More... Another American Thinker article makes some of the same points I do above. It's by the proprietor of Right Wing Nuthouse.


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posted by Ace at 03:44 PM

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