Monday, January 12, 2009

Jack Bauer and the Problem of Justice

"Where do the rules of engagement end, and the crimes begin?" Jack Bauer makes explicit this season what has been an implicit question for the last six seasons of Fox's taut serial thriller, 24. It is a version of the dilemma Plato presents in the Republic, where it appears as Thrasymachus' implicit challenge to Glaucon and Polymarchos: can a just man remain just while conquering evil, or does the asymmetry of the evil/good dichotomy always favor evil in this world? Actually, Thrasymachus presses an even more sinister question than that: why would a man of strength choose to be just, when all the benefits of this world so easily accrue to the unjust man strong enough to make it stick? Plato's solution for the attainment of justice is, ultimately, to spiritualize the good city, whose citizens inhabit it irrespective of the evil surrounding them--they are citizens of the good city in their minds. This is one reason that Platonism seems such a close analog to Christianity: the just city is a city in speech.

Alas, the tension is all the more unbearable, since the Word was made flesh and has lived among us. His followers are to live by his Word, but he counsels turning the other cheek--not a policy adaptable to the city as a whole. Our consciences bear witness against us when we are forced to deal with darkness in the political realm. The dramatic tension of 24 revolves around Jack Bauer's predicament, a good man standing guard over a good regime, whose enemies, like Thrasymachus, are not constrained by regard for justice. Like Lincoln in the civil war crisis, exceeding the constitution in order to save it, Bauer must break the law to preserve the rule of law and America, its principle symbol. In life under the sun, as Ecclesiastes's Teacher refers to this world, something like Machiavelli's teaching is what we reach for: a wise prince must know how to use both good and evil, in order to preserve the good. This is not the Heavenly city; but it is not Thrasymachus' either.

The Bush administration, when faced with implacable evil, struck the balance toward Jack Bauer's rough justice; perhaps our consciences are sullied, but we are safe. Where will the Obama administration strike that balance? And will it in fact be better?

Debra Saunders has this piece, "From Jack Bauer to Leon Panetta" this morning on "torture" under Bush and "flexibility" under Obama.

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