There is a popular television show on FOX called 24. It’s about a special agent from an imaginary Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) who bends the rules to keep America safe from evildoers. Sounds like a show George and Dick might enjoy, right?
Before I continue — I am not a "24" junkie. But I do know that each season takes a tour around the clock (24 segments). Every show is presented as a single consecutive hour in the day and night of national security.
I watched last Monday’s episode, and was amazed at its libertarian and anti-state message. It is a great day when one of the most popular TV shows in America might be viewed with appreciation by Thomas Jefferson and H.L. Mencken.
There is an early scene where two government analysts fight over a computer that has a special capability. The inability to prioritize, the personal quirks of civil servants doing the "work of the people," and the authoritarian way it was solved were both entertaining and typical of how our tax dollars are employed. Cute. We get it.
The Evil Terrorists are tricky, but the CTU agents use a massive national driver’s license database and other networked systems (yeah, we get that too!) to find a guy who knows a guy.
Oh — I forgot to mention — the president’s plane crashed earlier that evening, and he is now in critical condition. The nuclear football/briefcase was stolen by the Evil Terrorists, who also had a lead on a guy who drove a truck with a nuke on it. As I understand it, this lowly driver was first bought and then butchered by the Evil Terrorists who bought him, and they got the nuke. "Bought, then butchered" might also be a libertarian message of sorts!
The Vice President has now been appointed president. He appears to be an emotionally driven coward. We know this because his lips quaver and he says things like "Is it safe to come up now?" One might think that the new president is the Anti-Bush, but in fact the opposite seems to be true. You’ll see in a minute.
So they bring the guy who knows a guy in, and he won’t talk. The CTU would like to pressure him (i.e., inflict a little pain) so they call the President. This, dear reader, in a nutshell, illustrates the nanny state. Federalism taken to its Terri Schiavo extreme. Oh, dear! What to do? We must immediately call the president! He’ll solve our problem.
But of course, the new president is indecisive. Bush-like, he can’t tell right from wrong, so he waits for his attorney general (significantly, a man who never shows up) to tell him. For TV, and in government, real logic destroys the plot line and fractures the tension. But — typically for government decision-making — the solution (torture the guy) is articulated before the problem (a multifaceted system problem of a missing nuke). It immediately becomes the argumentative focus, and then precious time is spent in justifying this single simple solution instead of solving the real problem. Apparently, the real multifaceted response is all up to Jack Bauer, the hero of "24."
I’ve just noted several examples of the anti-state perspective of "24." Enter the individualistic libertarian hero. Jack first tenders his resignation, becomes free of the government, and then tortures the guy himself, gaining the information and more shocking — taking full personal responsibility! In an age of Abu Ghraib, you have to love that. I will serve my country as an individual torturer, but not as a member of the state apparatus where I might be protected from blame (as were the long line of senior officers just last week).
In dealing with torture, the script writers ventured into libertarian land where individuals do what they believe is right and take full responsibility for their actions. I’m still in a state of shock. What would this mean if we applied it to Social Security, the welfare state, the EPA, the Education and the Defense Departments? My goodness, it’s just plain frightening.
More significantly, it wasn’t his loss of federal position or possible state punishment that bothered Jack Bauer, but the possible moral condemnation of his friends. And he appeared to be bothered by his decision. Humanity challenges the state at its very core.
The drama continues. The cowardly emotional president becomes angered that his "no torture until I talk to my Attorney General" wishes were disobeyed by Jack, the momentary civilian. He now demands in a rage that his Secret Service arrest Jack in the middle of the terrorist capture. Which they do, disrupting the mission, allowing the terrorists to escape, and saying the classic words, "Sorry, we are just following orders."
The expected audience response is one of healthy disgust for duplicative, no-value added and order-obeying government employees and representatives of Washington. For a TV show to present and celebrate this libertarian perspective for millions of adoring fans in America is nothing short of a miracle. It was the Secret Service on Monday. Homeland Defense and the U.S. Congress, FOX is coming for you next!
The Evil Terrorist prepared the obligatory video explaining why he was blowing up a nuke on American soil. E.T. (Evil Terrorist) Marwan explained he was attacking the US because American citizens had allowed their government to run amok in the world, interfering where it knew nothing, and claiming foreign lands as its own. It was right out of George Washington’s farewell speech.
But it was the final scene in last Monday’s "24" that screamed libertarianism. The female computer analyst is sent, untrained and unprepared, on a field mission to pick up an E.T. laptop. She has a small team of government protectors, who are immediately killed by the terrorist out to get back his computer. The woman analyst manages not only to escape, but to phone back to the CTU and request immediate assistance.
Panicked and ineffectual, the CTU says it will be at least ten or fifteen minutes, as the government struggles to heave its many layers of "citizen defense" to the task at hand. If she relies on the state, she will die. In the end, the analyst (now being shot at and rammed by the E.T.’s vehicle) gets out of her bulletproof government car, stands up, and fires directly at the E.T. and blows him away.
She would have done it sooner, but the guns were locked up in the back seat of the government vehicle.
Individualism versus the state, in a hundred ways, in less than an hour.
I don’t like to recommend TV. I do enjoy Sponge Bob Square Pants, whose advice for his cohort who wishes to take over the world, is honestly and simply, "Good luck with that."
But "24" has real libertarian potential. Enjoy!
Karen Kwiatkowski [send her mail] is a retired USAF lieutenant colonel, who spent her final four and a half years in uniform working at the Pentagon. She now lives with her freedom-loving family in the Shenandoah Valley, and writes a bi-weekly column on defense issues with a libertarian perspective for militaryweek.com.