Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Jack Bauer and Just War

Raymond J. Keating

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On the Church and Society
March 1, 2008

Raymond J. Keating

I'm worried. Who the heck is protecting these United States of America from assorted terrorist threats?

After all, even though the Hollywood writer's strike is over, Jack Bauer and "24" will not return to FOX until 2009.

I'm going through some serious "24" withdrawal.

For those who have never watched "24" over the past six seasons, where have you been? It is by far the most edge-of-your-seat show on television. Each episode plays out in a real-time one-hour period. Put 24 shows together, and you get one wild day. Though some seasons clearly have been better than others, each is jam packed with thrills, action, interesting characters, deception, and plot turns and surprises.

Bauer is a government agent who stops at nothing to foil evildoers intent on inflicting great harm.

England has James Bond. We have Jack Bauer.

The situations that Bauer and his colleagues confront, and their responses and actions certainly provide fodder for reflection about ethics and morality. Indeed, you could build an entire college ethics class around "24."

From a Christian perspective, "24" lends itself to a Just War analysis during this time of war against terrorists.

Let's consider the scope of what we are talking about over the six days (seasons) of "24." By my unofficial tally, Jack Bauer has wracked up a body count of 167. That is, Bauer killed -- or apparently killed -- 12 people on Day One, 27 on Day Two, 13 on Day Three, a high of 41 on Day Four, 35 on Day Five, and 39 on Day Six.

Bauer's lethal actions make James Bond's license to kill look like an elementary school hall pass.

But the question is: How do Bauer's actions hold up to the Christian Just War Theory?

Let's first briefly review what the Just War Theory instructs. Rooted in Holy Scripture, the Just War principles teach that there must be a righteous, just cause for war, that is, for self-defense; to secure peace; and to establish justice, remedy justice, protect the innocent or defend human rights. In addition, a just war must be a last resort and rely on a formal declaration.

The Just War Theory also governs how war is to be conducted. The first principle here is proportionality, meaning that war should be the lesser of two evils, and should be what is needed to secure peace and improve conditions. The second principle is discrimination, i.e., war should be waged against enemy combatants and military targets, not against civilians and other noncombatants.

So, how does the Just War Theory gauge Jack Bauer's actions? First, it is important to keep in mind that Bauer works for the government. Clearly, the state's right to wage war and right to use force when necessary are affirmed by Holy Scripture. For example, St. Paul wrote: "Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain." (Romans 13:3-4) Bauer is a combatant or a bearer of the government's sword.

Let's consider each day (season).

Day One. Senator David Palmer, who is running for U.S. president, and Bauer are targets of a revenge plot by the family of a Serbian war criminal. Previously, Palmer had approved and Bauer led Operation Nightfall carried out against the murderous Victor Drazen. The Drazens kidnap Bauer's family, and plant moles inside the Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU), the agency where Bauer works.

Most of Bauer's killings in Day One are justified as self-defense and in protecting his family. All, that is, except one. Bauer mistakenly believes that the Drazens have killed his daughter, and when Victor Drazen drops his gun and puts his hands in the air, Bauer nonetheless shoots him dead.

At the end of the day, Nina Myers, a CTU colleague and former lover who turns out to be a mole, murders Bauer's wife.

Day Two. Eighteen months after Day One, Bauer and President Palmer face an imminent nuclear threat by terrorists in Los Angeles.

To stop the terrorists, Bauer undertakes a variety of extreme actions. Again, there are assorted justified actions that take the lives of terrorists.

But Bauer also shoots and kills an FBI criminal informant during an interrogation in order to present the informant's head to the criminals so as to infiltrate the operation and track the terrorists. At various points, Palmer authorizes torture, while Bauer threatens Nina Myers and tortures a terrorist to get information about the nuclear weapons.

Day Three. Three years later, Bauer faces a bio-terror threat, as the possible release of a weaponzied virus looms. Bauer again is placed in situations where he must kill terrorists.

But there are two other situations worth noting. In the first case, the lead terrorist demands that President Palmer order the death of CTU official Ryan Chapelle, or the virus will be released. After exhausting all possibilities, Palmer gives the order. Chapelle accepts the sacrifice, and Jack has to carry out the order. Bauer says, "God, forgive me," and then shoots Chapelle dead.

In the second case, Jack shoots Nina Myers after she killed several members of CTU and attempted to murder Bauer's daughter. But while Myers is still alive on the floor, Jack shoots her three more times. Recall, again, that Myers murdered Jack's wife.

Day Four. After another 18 months, Bauer is now working for the Pentagon. The secretary of defense and his daughter -- Audrey Raines who is in a relationship with Jack -- are kidnapped by terrorists intend to set off a series of meltdowns at nuclear power plants. Later, the threat shifts to a missile attack.

Bauer once more is justified in killing various bad guys given the circumstances. But in trying to head off this terrorist threat, Bauer also shoots a prisoner in the leg, roughs up Audrey's estranged husband, and breaks the fingers of a person working with the terrorists.

In the end, Bauer winds up faking his own death in order to avoid being taken prisoner by the Chinese, who seek him after an incident at the Chinese Consulate. Bauer then must lose himself in society.

Day Five. After another year-and-a-half passes, former President David Palmer is assassinated, and Bauer emerges from hiding to head off a terrorist nerve gas attack and to expose a conspiracy leading to President Charles Logan.

Along the way, Bauer kills terrorists while defending himself and others. He also will not allow innocents to die, even though he is ordered by the White House and CTU officials to do so.

However, after an injured assassin admits to murdering Palmer, Bauer shoots him while lying unarmed on the ground. Jack also threatens to carve out the eye of a traitorous White House official to extract critical information, and shoots another traitor's wife in the leg in order to uncover the plot.

At the close, the Chinese discover that Bauer is alive, and take him away to China.

Day Six. Bauer is returned to the United States after being a prisoner of the Chinese for 20 months, so that he can be turned over to a terrorist in return for information. The United States government is desperate after 11 weeks of terrorist bombings across the country.

In order to protect a former terrorist who is now looking to help, Bauer is forced to kill CTU agent and friend Curtis Manning. Jack then cannot imagine going on, until terrorists actually set off a nuclear bomb that kills thousands of Americans.

While again unwilling to allow harm to come to innocents, Bauer actually tortures his own brother, who helped the terrorists acquire nuclear weapons, to get vital information.

So, what do we make of Jack Bauer's actions from a moral perspective via the Just War Theory?

First, Bauer clearly is partaking in a just war -- acting in self-defense; securing peace; and establishing justice, remedying justice, and protecting the innocent -- against terrorists.

The more challenging questions regarding Bauer pertain to how war is waged. Do Bauer's actions meet the requirements of proportionality, i.e., that war should be the lesser of two evils, and should be what is needed to secure peace and improve conditions? When confronted by immediate and clear terrorist threats against civilians, it seems that Bauer's actions meet the proportionality standard.

I would argue that even instances where Bauer tortures terrorists, it is justified. The threat of a massive terrorist attack is immediate, and Bauer is directing the torture at actual terrorists or their suspected allies. It is waged against actual combatants, and combatants whose stated objective is to do harm to civilians.

That, of course, does not mean his assessment was always correct, as was the case with Audrey's husband, who actually was not involved with terrorists.

But what about discrimination? Here is where it gets even more dicey. Discrimination means that war should be waged against enemy combatants and military targets, not against civilians and other noncombatants. But Bauer raises a serious question when shooting the FBI criminal informant during Day Two, and clearly violated Just War principles when he shot the traitor's wife in the leg in Day Five.

But there are even harder questions.

How does one gauge Jack having to shoot Chapelle in Day Three, per the order of the President in order to stop a terrorist attack? In the best light, it would seem to meet the proportionality mandate of being the lesser of two evils.

Finally, the big questions come down to the three instances when Bauer shot and killed an unarmed person of his own accord -- Victor Drazen in Day One, Nina Myers on Day Three, and President Palmer's assassin on Day Five. Those acts certainly would not pass legal muster. But what about the morality of such actions?

Well, in each case, Bauer doled out a death sentence to an individual guilty of horrific, deadly crimes. Holy Scripture clearly allows the government to use the death penalty, and does not get into due process.

Christians are free to disagree regarding Jack Bauer's actions in each of these cases. But, as much as one can see the justice in death being the penalty for these moral monsters, few of us can probably say that we are comfortable with a government agent like Jack Bauer doling out such justice on his own.

In the end, it must be acknowledged that there are enormous evils in the world that government has the responsibility to confront on behalf of its citizens. And while every action taken in that defense might not be morally ideal, make no mistake, when confronting Islamic extremism -- today's most daunting evil -- we need individuals like Jack Bauer who are willing to risk everything to protect innocent life.

Given the inevitable imperfections in any human endeavor, we still should thank God for the individuals willing to undertake such vital missions.

And back in the fictional realm, I can't wait until Jack Bauer is back in action next year, battling evildoers

Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, is the editor and publisher of the "On the Church & Society Report." This column is from the latest issue of the "On the Church & Society Report." To receive a free four-issue trial of "On the Church & Society Report," send an e-mail request to ChurchandSociety@aol.com.

Posted: 05-Mar-08

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