Ex-President Palmer had saved Jack Bauer’s life.
The Chinese wanted agent Bauer extradited to execute him for the killing of their Los Angeles consul, gunned down in a crossfire between Chinese security and Bauer’s Counter-Terrorism Unit team that had penetrated the consulate on an espionage mission.
Palmer, though out of office, conspired in a CTU scheme where Jack would appear dead, to the satisfaction of the duped Chinese, and be sent to Mexico with a fake identity.
As this year’s series of Fox’s "24" opened Sunday, President Palmer is shot through an office window and assassinated. Word reaches Bauer, working in the California oil patch.
Emotional at the death of the president he loved, for whom he had often risked his life, Jack returns. He is intercepted and almost killed by the team that murdered Palmer. Wounding the leader of the terrorists, Bauer interrogates him, warning the bleeding man he will die unless Bauer helps him get to a hospital. The terrorist talks.
After he spills all his information, Bauer starts to walk away. The terrorist demands to be taken to the hospital.
Were you the one who shot President Palmer? Bauer asks. Yes, replies the wounded terrorist, in agony on the floor. Bauer stares at him for two seconds — then shoots him.
It is a Jack Bauer moment, and all addicted to "24" knew what would happen to that assassin. For Bauer is a take-no-prisoners patriot who puts love of country and loyalty to friends first, and fights by his own rules. To Jack Bauer, the only good terrorist is a dead terrorist.
What is the appeal of "24"?
It is the fastest-paced, most exciting TV out there. But at bottom, the appeal is that, as in the Westerns of old and "Dirty Harry" movies of the 1970s, Jack Bauer is a flawed but good man in a struggle against evil, who is there to see that his loved ones are secure and justice is done. To Jack Bauer, as to Clint Eastwood’s Detective "Dirty Harry" Callahan, vigilante justice is not only preferable to no justice at all, it is the best kind. Evil men should get what they deserve, without legal complications.
"24" satisfies the innate demand in all of us that, the law aside, evil should be punished and justice done.
That the audience for "24" is so loyal and large should tell us something about America and our divisions over the war we are in.
For weeks, Democrats and their media allies have been on Bush’s case for using the National Security Agency to intercept, without warrant, phone calls and e-mails to terror suspects abroad. Before that, Bush was charged with using secret detention centers in Eastern Europe to interrogate suspects. Before that, the military was accused of abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Afghanistan. Before that, the Justice Department was charged with violating the civil rights of Jose Padilla and the Shoe-bomber.
Bush thus stands accused of violating the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war, ignoring constitutional protections of U.S. citizens, and violating international agreements prohibiting torture and the "rendition" of prisoners to countries where torture is practiced.
Where do the American people stand?
The left may be right on the law, but the people seem to be standing by Bush. Believing the character of this war, where the enemy’s preferred tactic is to slaughter civilians with terror bombings, people seem to agree that we have to follow Jack Bauer’s rules, not ACLU rules.
Yet one senses that Americans are conflicted. We want to think of ourselves as decent people who fight wars honorably. But we believe the enemies of 9-11 are so evil, so depraved, they forfeit the right to be treated honorably. And while we believe in constitutional rights, human rights, civil rights, Miranda warnings and all that, we also believe in winning our wars. For without victory in the war on terror, freedom may not survive.
"Success alone justifies war," said Von Moltke, as Germany prepared to violate Belgium’s neutrality to outflank France in 1914. Americans appear to believe that, too.
President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and blockaded Southern ports, without congressional authorization. President Wilson locked up Eugene V. Debs in World War I and never let him out. FDR interned 110,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans in relocation camps, in a wartime act of racial profiling approved by the Supreme Court. Truman dropped atom bombs on defenseless cities, killing 100,000 women and children. Yet all are judged by liberal historians to be great or near-great presidents.
Now, Jack Bauer does not exist, and "24" is made-for-TV escapist entertainment. As we cheer or laugh out loud at his daring exploits, however, one wonders what liberal Democrats of the ACLU variety would do to a real-life Jack Bauer?
My guess: Put him in Leavenworth for life. But President Palmer knew his value, because President Palmer knew the real world.