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Fox Cancels 24? They Don't Know Jack

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It's just been announced that on May 24 the Fox Network will stop the clock on 24 from ticking any more, and not even Jack Bauer can prevent this tragedy. Like many of my friends, I was sorry to hear this news. But something tells me Jack is not the type to retire quietly. One way or another, he'll be back. That's who he is.

A neighbor of mine served for many years as a Secret Service agent personally guarding four US presidents. His name -- of course -- is "Jack." He tells me that he and his wife, a former CIA bio-terrorism expert (no, I'm not making this up), watch 24 religiously, but surely, no more fervently than I do. One of my former philosophy students is a member of the FBI's current counter-terrorism SWAT team. I can't tell you his name, but I can tell you that he's sent me some of their official T-shirts. I feel like putting one on every time I watch Jack Bauer in action. During some crises, I can be found standing five feet in front of the TV, poised on the balls of my feet, ready to spring into action and help Jack if he needs it. But, of course, he never does.

After the first three or four seasons of the show, I was talking on the phone one day to one of the country's top experts on Homeland Security, and I happened to ask whether he was a regular viewer of the show. He surprised me by admitting he had never seen it. The old philosophy professor in me came out and I gave him an assignment: to go get the first couple of seasons on DVD and watch them as soon as possible. He laughed and wondered why I was so insistent. I told him that nearly every ethical issue comes up at some point or other in this truly remarkable series. It's vivid, it's gripping, and it will definitely juice your brain.

I could base a philosophy retreat around watching episodes of the show and talking about what happens in it. That's basically what many viewers have been doing since the series began. Every episode has launched lively conversations over issues of terrorism, torture, duty, politics, and national security, but also on more personal matters that impinge on the way we live.

What is a hero? What's the nature of moral obligation? And what are the limits of duty? How bad is human nature, anyway? Is the political realm always corrupt? How can we balance our various commitments and loyalties, and what should we do when they conflict? What are the limits on rational action when the outcome could be catastrophic? Has current technology changed the world forever in a more fundamental way than we realize, and how does it alter the way we think, feel, and act every day?

Some of the questions go deep: Is it ever morally permissible to torture a murderous fanatic to possibly save the lives of many? Surely, it's ok to be seriously unpleasant to such a person. But then, what are the limits of unpleasantness? Finally, if you whisper a question to someone whose actions may threaten your entire way of life and don't get an answer, is the next logical step to shout the same question into that person's face?

All right, some of these aren't exactly everyday issues, and I'm clearly joking a little bit now, and this is most likely the one thing Jack would never do. I don't think I've ever seen him crack a smile -- at least, not at a joke, or even at some aspect of a situation that's so absurd you and I would have to laugh at it. Admittedly, there's not much giggling or guffawing around CTU generally. Saving the world can be stressful. But still, it's worth pointing out that among all the human virtues identified long ago by Aristotle, wittiness is the one -- and, perhaps, the only one -- Jack does not seem to have. Is this his only flaw? Or does he have others? Granted, we don't see him except when he's rather busy. So we have no idea whether he has hobbies, likes Italian food, dances well, or enjoys walks on the beach. We lack a fully rounded sense of his personality. But what we do see is fairly impressive.

Jack Bauer has become preeminent among present-day fictional heroes as a paradigm of valor and virtue in the eyes of a great many fans of the show. But what image of the heroic does he model? Is he a modern day Stoic? Or could he be the twenty first century American version of a classic Samurai warrior? Is he a Homeric hero bound by honor and loyalty, torn only by the unexpectedly strong bonds of love he never fully understands? Or is he the old western lawman? Is he the flawed hero of modern comics? Or does he present us with something new?

Let's face it. Jack is not necessarily somebody it would be great fun to sit around and have a beer with, but I can't think of anyone I'd rather have with me at a current political rally, or in case I realized someone had just slipped a small nuclear device into my carry-on luggage. Not even an open phone line to Chloe O'Brien would give me a fraction of the confidence Jack could provide.

In this character, actor Kiefer Sutherland has clearly found the role of a lifetime. He's been engaging, entertaining, and endlessly provocative in his actions both as a counter-terrorism agent and as a man. He embodies so many philosophical issues about life so vividly that he's guaranteed to stimulate your thinking in new directions. If you don't know Jack, get the DVDs right away and get down to business.

Fox says the show is over. Jack is history. And, I admit, it looks bad. But don't count my man out yet. The clock is still ticking.