31 January 2007

The Moral Dilemma of 24

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent piece on the moral dilemma provided in a show like 24. An excerpt:

But it is not merely a question of choosing between family and a greater good; or -- in other contexts that crop up repeatedly on the show -- between civil liberties and national security; or between torture and human rights. It is a failing of our politics that these kinds of questions, in the real world, are presented by both sides as either easy to answer or unnecessary to choose between -- or both. It is one achievement of "24" that it treats these tradeoffs as both real and difficult. They are questions that depend on the circumstances in which they are asked.

Which is not to say that the characters in the show always see things as difficult; it would stretch credulity if every character had a knack for moral subtlety. The show's characters -- good, bad and in between -- can be judged by the extent to which they are able to weigh these countervailing demands. The reputation of Jack Bauer, the counterterrorism officer extraordinaire, has survived episodes in which he threatened to cut out the eye of a presidential aide or shot bad guys in the knees because he never seems to lose sight of the larger goal of saving the country or of resolving the apparent contradictions into which he is sometimes forced in that quest. One of the president's aides, by contrast, reacts to the nuclear blast by suggesting that it's a good opportunity to round up Muslims en masse. The callousness of the idea, as much as its content, exposes him as morally obtuse and thus sinister.

In another difficult moment from last week, Bauer was forced to choose between saving the life of a known terrorist and murderer and taking the life of a federal agent and friend. If history is any guide, viewers of the show will presumably be given reason to question whether Jack made the correct decision before this season is out. But the contrast between Bauer and the agent he had to kill to save the terrorist lies in the ethical realm: Much as he hates to save the bad guy, he knows that the terrorist may be the only hope of preventing even more murders down the road. The agent he kills, by contrast, is motivated purely by the desire for personal revenge.

The entire thing is available on the OpinionJournal Page.

1 comment:

Lillie said...

I love how you watch TV Joe. I used to think that watching TV just made people stupider... but you have a way of turning any show's viewing into an educational endeavor. That's talent.

Thank you for making me realize that we're not lazy, we're studying ethical dilemmas; debates between "civil liberties and national securities; or between torture and human rights...."