The surprising anti-war message of '24'

Jane Mayer's article about the casually pro-torture message of '24' has gotten a lot of attention, and with reason. It's a wonderful piece of journalism that makes an important point.

But here's a less obvious side of '24' -- or, perhaps, a generally-forgotten one, just because of the passage of years.

My wife and I got into '24' late. We watched Season One on DVDs during a long snowed-in stretch in 2004; we then watched live for Seasons Four and Five; and we never caught up with Seasons Two and Three -- until just now.

At the local video store we got the complete, eight-disk set of Season Two for 40 kuai, or $5. Yes it was pirated -- duh! Yes, I would have considered buying a real version if such a thing were available. That's for another time. The surprise is what the shows of that season were actually about.

They were full of torture, in keeping with Jane Mayer's article. Electric paddles, scalpels and saws, hideous chemicals, bare fists, pressure on open wounds, even something like a soldering iron. But the larger drama of the season -- remember? -- was that the true bad guys of the world were the ones who were trying to rush the United States into war on false premises.

The country had been shocked by a surprise attack (a nuke that went off in the desert, having been diverted from LA). Political counselors said the public would never forgive the president unless he looked strong -- which meant military action somewhere in retaliation. There was "evidence" indicating that three Middle Eastern countries had been behind the attack, but the hero-president David Palmer thought the evidence might be faked.

Through all the shootings, torture sessions, and bureaucratic intrigue at the White House and within CTU, the axis of good guys and bad guys was always clear. The bad guys (including, gulp, the Vice President) were trying to rush the country into war based on "good enough" evidence. The good guys, notably President Palmer and our ultimate hero, Jack Bauer, were determined to do "whatever it takes" to find out the truth about the evidence and thus spare the country the grave and irreversible error of launching a war by mistake. And when the mistake was revealed and evidence did indeed prove to be fake, the officials who had nearly taken America to war were so chagrined that they immediately tendered their resignations.

If that season aired now, conservatives would assume that, torture and all, it had been sponsored by the Dennis Kucinich campaign or In reality the first hour of Season Two was aired, by Fox, on October 29, 2002, not long after the real-world US Senate voted to authorize war in Iraq. The last hour aired on May 20, 2003, about two weeks after President Bush's "Mission Accomplished" performance on the deck of the USS Lincoln. Was I the only one not watching that year?