The Jack Bauer Archetype


By Joe Campbell
March 17th, 2009

Timothy P. Carney at the National Review:

24 is a true American drama and Jack Bauer is an American hero. When I was in Germany a few years ago, a Cabinet official said that Europe was once half-full of free-thinkers and independent spirits, but then they all got up and moved to America. The American hero is the cowboy: He is Maverick, he is Han Solo, he is Batman (though, when Batman is in trouble, he turns on the Jack Bauer signal), he is the rag-tag minuteman fighting the well-trained Lobsterbacks…

What Carney gets wrong is his identification of Jack Bauer’s character as a cowboy archetype. Bauer belongs to a different but related tradition of American heroes. 

The Westerns – in which the cowboy is the hero – often had characters that, like Bauer, were vigilantes imposing their own justice on a chaotic world. Living in a land beyond civilization, they were only constrained by their own character. Without society and order, the characters of villians and heroes were more obvious. Without the law to protect the weak, it was up to the conscience of the strong to do so. The heroes not only refused to take advantage of the weak, but took it upon themselves to protect them against other strong men. But the story of the West – and the background to the Westerns – is the advance of civilization, law, and society to this chaotic world. The irony of this story of the West is that while the fortitude and heroism of strong men made the settlement of the West possible, it also made them obsolete. See especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance but also the more recent HBO Western, Deadwood

By the 1930s, as society and the rule of law had extended to virtually every corner of America, there was no longer a place for vigilantes and strong men imposing their own rough justice. Our problems were now external as great forces abroad threatened us – and gangsters undermined society at home – and so the superhero was created. The superhero fought with the police and military to defeat the enemies of civilization. 

But the 1970s saw a change in this dynamic. People felt vulnerable and threatened within their own society – and the rules of society seemed to be protecting those attacking it. The superhero became a persecuted figure – restored again to the place the cowboy had occupied in the final days of the Wild West. Dirty Harry and Batman represent this – both violent vigilantes who break the law in order to protect it.

Jack Bauer belongs to this tradition, that of the condemned superhero – condemned by society yet needed by it.

Carney concludes his piece with this nonsense:

If we believe 24, we don’t think Bill Buchanan or President Palmer will keep us safe. We believe Jack Bauer will keep us safe (if everyone on the show listened to Jack Bauer, the show would be called 12), but we also believe we are Jack Bauer.

The Capitol Dome stands today because of a handful of regular Americans—not soldiers, not bureaucrats, and not even “first-responders,” but American guys who got on a plane on a September morning…

 The lesson of the show is not that Big Brother will keep us safe. The lesson is that we need ruthless bravery from Everyman to keep us safe.

This precisely is not the lesson of 24. Jack Bauer is not “everyman” but superman. He stops cars by standing in front of them; he dies several times in a single hour, but keeps running; he has super-human determination; he gives up his family and friends to stop attacks; he can do seemingly anything. He is considered in the show to be unique – not an ordinary guy in extraordinary circumstances. 

The lesson of the saviors of the Capitol Dome is a very different one than that of 24. It did not involve superheroes – but ordinary people armed with information about a threat taking action. In the world of 24 – and in the Bush administration policies justified by 24 – secrecy is paramount; torture is required; breaking the law is always necessary; great latitude must be given to the executive branch, and especially the president. The lessons of Flight 93 are that local and spontaneous action by citizens armed with information is the best defense.

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One Response to “The Jack Bauer Archetype”

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