24 is a high-paced action thriller about a federal counter-terrorist agent, Jack Bauer, who fights against the evil terrorists who wish to bring harm to the US citizens and government. Jack's motives are pure and he consistently does what is right for the country and its citizens, regardless of those pesky constitutional rights. Notice any contradiction there? On 24, there is always a bomb that is about to go off, and going through proper legal procedures to question suspects would result in millions of civilian deaths. Jack realizes this and tortures the dark-skinned muslim until he gives up the deactivation code for the bomb. Every episode is super-intense edge-of-your-seat action. It's some of the most exciting television I've ever seen. Frankly, I love it!
I love it because I know that it's fiction.
The myth of the super-intelligent terrorist with 18 back-up plans and an army of already-in-the-country normal-citizen-looking followers with encrypted satellite phones and nuclear bomb/chemical weapon know-how is exactly what the current US government wants the public to believe. On the show, the counter-terrorist agents regularly tap phone lines, hack into email servers, pull up bank account records, and access personal medical data. And every time they are rewarded by thwarting the terrorists and directly saving lives.
One time, a suspect brought in a lawyer from Amnesty International to protect his rights. This was clearly very distressful for Agent Bauer (since so many innocent American lives were at stake), so they decided to release the suspect without further questioning. When the suspect got into his car, Bauer was waiting in the back seat to systematically break each of the suspect's fingers until he gave up the location of his bad-guy boss. Lives were saved.
Sometime last year, I was telling my girlfriend how deeply concerned I was about the Patriot Act, and how it gave the government permission to do things, like search your home without your knowledge, that it shouldn't be allowed to do. Her response, half-jokingly, was, "But we need to let Jack Bauer into the terrorists' homes so that he can stop them from hurting people!" We hadn't been talking about 24 at all. She was the one that made the connection between "Patriot Act" and "Jack Bauer". That's when the true political danger of my favorite television program really hit me.
After recently watching a three-part BBC documentary called The Power of Nightmares (you can download and watch it yourself for free) and doing some subsequent investigating, I'm convinced that Al Qaeda does not exist. This blurring between reality and fiction is what really scares me. The fact is that the US administration already has everyone believing such outrageous stories that the step from believing that there are thousands of highly trained muslim killing machines hiding in Afghani caves following their leader with the discipline of soldiers to thinking that people like Jack Bauer's enemies really do exist is a very small one indeed.
My second favorite television program at the moment, that is very close to becoming my favorite, is House. I won't go into what the show is about, but wanted to mention it to highlight, for those who are familiar with both shows, the similarities between Dr. Gregory House and Agent Jack Bauer. Fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes, Jack Bauer, and Dr. House enjoy a luxury that no reality-based human can enjoy: they never make mistakes.
Laws that prevent governments from practicing torture during interrogation, imprisonment without trial, and capital punishment are necessary because governments are run by real people, and real people make mistakes.
Warning: I cannot guarantee that there will be no plot spoilers in the comments, so read them at your own risk.