In last night’s episode, we finally learned the answer to the question that has been raised in each of the previous seven hours of 24. Namely, what is it that separates Jack Bauer from Renee Walker?
Both Renee and Jack are former agents who have been brought back into the fold to combat Russian gangsters trying to sell weapons-grade nuclear materials to a rebellious faction of the made-up Republic of Kamistan. Both have histories of working deep undercover and torturing suspects to get information. Both are now back in deadly peril, assuming fake identities that put them in league with the Russians.
Renee willingly submitted to a kind of torture, allowing herself to be manhandled and then seduced by the Russian who once tried to rape her. But when he turned violent and began to beat her, she flew into a murderous rage. As a result of her rage, the Russian — who was CTU’s only connection to the nuclear materials — was stabbed to death, and Jack Bauer was wounded. Her rage endangered the operation and threatened to put rogue nukes into the hands of the evil Middle Easterners.
Last night it was Jack’s turn to be tortured. The top Russian bad guy, Sergi, refused to believe that Jack was an arms dealer. The elaborate cover established to fool one set of Russians proved completely ineffective when Jack tried to use it on the wealthier and more diabolical set. Where the earlier Russians (whose hideout was a Queens garage) seemed convinced of the authenticity of the cover story by Jack’s willingness to kill, last night’s restaurant-hideout Russians dismissed Jack’s argument that he couldn’t be a cop because he had stabbed a Russian gangster in the eye. (Well, actually, it was Renee, but the Russians didn’t know that.) “I’ve seen a KGB agent throw an entire family off a rooftop,” Sergi says. “I know what cops can do.”
This is Sergi’s worldview in a nutshell: There is a moral equivalence between the government and criminals. Both are gangs of torturers and murderers who will do anything to accomplish their goals. Justice is nonexistent, except perhaps as a cover for the powerful to excuse their ruling over the weak. All that matters is who does what to whom.
Sergi doesn’t realize it, but he is actually articulating the philosophy of communism — the philosophy of the KGB agents he seems to despise. He has adopted the worldview of his own captors, those who kept him in a work prison for a dozen years. It was Lenin who famously said that politics could be reduced to one question: “Who/Whom” (or “Kto/Kogo” in Russian). It was the Cold War critics of U.S. foreign policy who used to employ arguments that tended to equate military actions by the United States with military actions by the Soviet Union. At its heart, this is a denial that when two combatants meet, one side may be just while the other is a force for injustice.
Here is where 24 gets really challenging. After all, it was a “cop” — Renee — who stabbed the Russian gangster in the eye. Jack’s assertion that this wouldn’t have been possible if he were a cop is simply wrong. Sergi is correct here. He does know what cops can do. His worldview has given him a clearer view of the immediate truth than the illusion of virtuous police that Jack tries to insist upon.
So is 24 quietly teaching us a lesson in moral equivalence? Is all that matters in the world who does what to whom? Is all our high-moral talk about justice and protecting the innocent simply a cover for helping our friends and hurting our enemies? Is the government just the gang with the most guns?
We’ve mentioned before that the underlying philosophy of 24 seems to track that of violent anarchism. Rules, conventional morality, systems, and bureaucracies get in the way of Jack carrying out his mission to protect his friends, family, and “innocent people.” The answer to threats is never the better implementation of the rule of law or better execution of law enforcement: It is always violence, deception, and death-dealing.
But Jack is not Renee, who has come to symbolize the tendency of violent anarchism to rage out of control. Her killing the Russian gangster in the last episode was counterproductive; her rage undermined her broader objectives. Jack slays every single member of the Russian syndicate he comes into contact with — except for the leader, whom Jack needs to interrogate to discover the location of the nukes. Which is to say, Jack’s violence is controlled and purposeful. It is this control that divides Jack from Renee.
You will have noticed that nothing has undermined the worldview half-articulated by Sergi. He is right about the capacity of government agents for violence. All that Sergi underestimated was the strength of Jack. He thought he knew what cops could do but he had underestimated their capabilities.