Osama bin Laden vs Jack Bauer. A study of American television after 9/11.

Social historian Richard Waterhouse defines popular culture as “widely practiced, watched, heard and read, and generally accepted by the majority.” As such, historians can use popular culture to learn about the society in which it originated. In the 1960s, Star Trek showed us the Cold War, presented through the framework of the Starship Enterprise’s adventures. In the 1970s, Taxi Driver showed the fracturing American society through the story of scarred Vietnam veteran Travis Bickle. In the 1980’s, the emergence of rappers such as Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five articulated the harsh realities of life in America’s African-American neighbourhoods, when contrasted to the economic boom of the period. By examining all aspects of a text, from a script to the advertising used, historians can learn about the context in which it was created, and thus create a means of understanding the past.

My research has been into the changes in American television after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, and how it reflected changes in American culture. I chose television for this research because of a key aspect of its nature; while individual songs, films and programmes may be kept from broadcast, the television station itself cannot stop working. If a show is pulled for having inappropriate content, another more appropriate one must take its place, lest the broadcaster lose viewers and thus advertising revenue. The show must always go on.

"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists"

Following the events of 9/11, the American culture changed to a definitive war footing. 9/11 was historically linked to Pearl Harbour by President George W Bush and speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Nine days later, the President declared that one was either with the US, or with the terrorists. Seven weeks later, the USA PATRIOT act was passed; allowing the government massively expanded domestic powers in order to deal with terrorism. Within eighteen months, the armed forces were deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq with massive popular support. As these wars became bogged down over the ensuring years, their support began to dwindle and the populace became divided over the purpose, conduct and future of the War on Terror. These changes are all reflected within the popular culture of the period.

The most striking single example of these changes is the fourth season of the now infamous television show 24. This season was filmed and aired during the first half of 2005. In this period, attention had turned to the domestic front of the War on Terror, and how to prevent further attacks on American soil. Debate raged over every aspect of domestic counterterrorism, from whom to arrest and how to determine guilt. The most controversial of these issues was that of how to interrogate suspects. Vice President Dick Cheney publically defended the practice of waterboarding, stating that it was an essential tool for fighting terrorism.

Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) is perhaps the most prominent figure of post 9/11 television.

The fourth season of 24, which premiered in January of 2005, depicts the actions of Counter Terrorist Unit super-agent Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The opening episode season features the capture of a high profile terrorism suspect. Jack believes that he is too high profile a figure to be in the US at the time without a suitably nefarious plot. When interrogation by other CTU agents fails to yield results, Jack bursts into the room, overturns a table, shoots the suspect in the leg and then proceeds to hold his smoking pistol in the open wound. Thirty seconds later, the terrorists’ plan is divulged and Jack is off to save the America. Over the course of the day, methods similar to this are used repeatedly by Jack against other suspects. A pattern begins to emerge; no matter Jack’s actions, the story always proves him right. Torturing of suspects is proven to be the correct course of action in the face of the “ticking clock” scenario, where legal means of interrogation are unable to meet the challenge of counterterrorism. This is further emphasised through the real time aspect of the show and the omnipresent ticking clock. Every second wasted is a second closer to defeat, and the viewer is never allowed to forget this.

This question of dealing with domestic terrorist suspects was also reflected in other popular programs such as Battlestar Galactica, Law and Order and The West Wing. While each show brought its own viewpoints, agendas and answers to the questions posed, it nonetheless reflected the prominence of this theme within common discourse. The issue was on people’s minds.

Overall, this last decade in American television has been defined by the events of 9/11. Whether the fight against the Taliban was reflected in Star Trek: Enterprise, or the invasion and occupation of Iraq reflected in Battlestar Galactica, television has remained a useful tool for helping historians understand this period in history.

Image credits:

Jack Bauer: http://sky1.sky.com/24-classic-jack-bauer-pics-and-quotes

George W Bush: http://img.thesun.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01110/SNF2106_02_1110272a.jpg


11 comments on “Osama bin Laden vs Jack Bauer. A study of American television after 9/11.

  1. alfredjohnson1707 says:

    Hi Mike,
    You’re definitely onto something here. I also like your point about television channels and the show necessarily going on. The viewing public cannot avoid that the programme is on air, and the programme itself must be what the presumed audience wants to fill scheduling requirements, so the script should influence and be influenced by the public mind. Pop culture in America has had the tendency to parrot the official line, such as the “Red Scare” films of the fifties which symbolised communists as aliens or directly portrayed communism as the enemy. Satires such as The Simpsons poke fun at post 11th of September hyper-American attitudes from time to time. Have any drama programmes questioned the official attitudes towards terror suspects? How did the public react to Jack Bauer’s actions?
    Any thoughts?

    • Mike Nugent says:

      Hi Alfred,

      To answer your first question, the attitudes to terror suspects were certainly questioned from the beginning. However, what changed was the answer. In 2003, Star Trek Enterprise posed this question, and the answer was a resounding yes in the episode Anomaly. By 2005, Boston Legal answered the question with a resounding no in its episodes Tortured Souls and Stick It.

      As for the second question, the reaction was varied across society. Human rights groups protested 24’s depiction of torture, and some went so far as to say that the show influenced the debate over it within the US. The best example of that is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia invoked 24 as a means of legitimising his argument in a debate on the subject of interrogation techniques. I would say that at the very least, Bauer’s actions were well received at the beginning of the show. However, I can’t find evidence to suggest that people turned against Bauer as much as they became bored of the show.

      Thanks for the feedback, I hope I’ve helped!

  2. tashturner13 says:

    Hi Mike,
    I really liked your research project, I used to watch 24 about ten seasons ago and you have definitely represented the show in a real light. It is interesting to see Terrorism reflected in television post 9/11 when it was a word that was rarely used prior. I would be intrigued to know at what point did television begin to represent an anti-war discourse, if at all?


    • Mike Nugent says:

      Hi Tash,

      The earliest anti-war discourse I could find in drama is David E Kelley’s Boston Legal, specifically the second season episode “Witches of Mass Destruction” which aired in November 2005. By this time, it was clear that Iraq was not going to be resolved any time soon, and would likely get bloodier. The debate changed from whether the war was right to what the next course of action was.

      The reason I qualified my last paragraph by stating a drama show, was because some comedies had addressed it earlier. In April 2003 South Park aired an episode called “I’m A Little Bit Country”. This episode was about the debate over the war as opposed to the war itself. It represented each side with about equal weight, if horridly oversimplified and weighted with a needless moral at the end. Comedy could voice an actual anti-war sentiment with a degree of seriousness because of its position within society. This is why The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was able to take such a political bent after 2004. By hiding behind the veil of satire and parody, profound comments can be made.\

      Thanks for the feedback, I hope I’ve helped!

  3. rhiannonmorsillo says:

    Hey Mike,
    This is a brilliant and interesting piece of research! I really enjoyed the way in which you situated your argument in the field of popular culture and in the historical period. It made the analysis of ’24’ particularly impressive and added to my understanding of the relationship between America post 9/11 and the television series’ that emerged thereafter. I have watched Battle Star Galactica and can see how your argument also applies to that program. It would be interesting to do a comparison of 24 to other television programs and also films produced in that period. Did you come across anything which shed light on what audiences think about some of the issues like the unquestioned brutal torture of American agents against ‘terrorists’ and impression that the figure of Jack Bauer is always right and always the ‘hero’? I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and I will look out for some of the features you mentioned during my future viewing of such programs. Cheers, Rhiannon.

    • Mike Nugent says:

      Hi Rhiannon,

      It was hard to find specific things that shed light on the public’s reactions to Jack Bauer, except for the ratings the show enjoyed. The fourth season premiered with sixteen million viewers, and spent the rest of the season never falling below eleven million. Subsequent seasons garnered yet more viewers.

      Interestingly, Bauer was cited by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia when debating the use of torture against suspects. He asked people if they would convict Jack Bauer, even though he saved Los Angeles.

      Link to the season four premiere ratings: http://abcmedianet.com/web/dnr/dispDNR.aspx?id=011105_11

      Thanks for the feedback, I hope I’ve helped!

  4. roya300 says:

    Hi Mike,

    Great job. Really good effort on the way you engaged your topic and intertwined it so neatly with contemporary popular culture. Your article was well read and makes for a great source of discussion. As you have mentioned in your work, we can’t avoid what is offered on television and it is all controlled so this begs the question why has American popular culture been defined by the events of 9/11 ?

    • Mike Nugent says:

      Hi Roya,

      I would argue that the events of 9/11 have defined the US’ popular culture because its fallout (The War on Terror and its baggage) dominated political and economic concerns. The US had new priorities, and a replacement for the Soviet Union in the role of national enemy. This paradigm shift also represented new grounds for television programs to cover. Who could resist being the first one with a stirring Iraq War story?

      Thanks for the feedback, I hope I’ve helped!

  5. selkadomi says:

    Hey Mike

    I have never followed a full season of 24. From what i have seen, I felt like it was a reaction to the 9/11 attacks. I agree that popular culture does reflect the views and attitudes at a certain period and this can change depending on major events and influential people. It is really interesting that you point out the “ticking clock senario” and torturing the suspect. This can be related to John Yoo’s ‘torture’ memo which was the interrogation techniques used on suspects and prisoners.
    Do you feel that television shows which were based on fighting terrorism had encouraged Americans to support the war on terror?

    good work

    • Mike Nugent says:

      Hi Selkadomi,

      There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that these television shows influenced the opinion of the War on Terror. Nikolaidis’ article on this subject (link below) presents an excellent examination of the issue with regards to 24. He argues that shows like 24 normalise the idea of torture, and create desensitisation to the more repugnant aspects of the War on Terror. It’s fascinating stuff really, to see art influence life.

      Link to Nikolaidis: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2011.553942

      Thanks for the feedback, I hope I’ve helped!

      Note: Sorry about this double posting, but I misthreaded my original reply to your post.

  6. Mike Nugent says:

    Hi Selkadomi,

    There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest that these television shows influenced the opinion of the War on Terror. Nikolaidis’ article on this subject (link below) presents an excellent examination of the issue with regards to 24. He argues that shows like 24 normalise the idea of torture, and create desensitisation to the more repugnant aspects of the War on Terror. It’s fascinating stuff really, to see art influence life.

    Link to Nikolaidis: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10304312.2011.553942

    Thanks for the feedback, I hope I’ve helped!

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