Whenever the topic of September 11 comes up in conversation, I’m frequently asked about my experience as a native New Jerseyan. Thankfully, I didn’t have any great personal connection to the tragedy. But now that I’m old enough to go into New York City by myself, the heretofore abstract concept of terrorism has been hitting a little closer to home.
No doubt you’ve heard of the recent attempted Times Square bombing; on my most recent trip to the city, only days after the May 1 incident, I noticed that the number of policemen in the Times Square area seemed much greater than usual. However, I still couldn’t really grasp the magnitude of the hard work that had to take place to eradicate a terrorist plot, nor could I understand the fear a witness might have felt watching a swarm of cops cordon off a smoking SUV. In all honesty, I think about these matters of contemporary concern far less than you would expect from a fairly educated NYC cognoscente who came of age in a post-9/11 world.
There’s one thing that gets it across to me, however, and you may find it somewhat pathetic. When I came home to New Jersey for Thanksgiving break, I discovered that my family had recently become obsessed with the television show “24.” Before the long weekend was over, I had inadvertently joined the ranks of hardcore fans. The show, which premiered in the fall of 2001 and ended its series run on Monday, concerns the fictional Counter Terrorist Unit and the various professional and personal struggles of a fast-thinking agent and sometimes fugitive, Jack Bauer. Even if you don’t know the show, you’re probably familiar with its innovative structure: each one-hour episode takes place in real time, meaning that each 24-episode-long season is one day. (There are, however, gaps of time between seasons — the characters are not continuously stumbling through one weeklong terror plot, however realistic that might be.)
I’m still not sure why I like “24.” It’s often too violent for me (despite being conservative, as a good Catholic I can’t condone the torture often demonstrated) and frequently writes off gratuitous killings. On a superficial level, however, the exciting, meaningful plots and compelling characters make it a show for the whole family — well, almost the whole family.
But it’s far more than my primetime drama fix. It has tried and for the most part succeeded in making sense of post-9/11 responses to terrorism. While it ostensibly supports the policies of the Bush administration, the show’s real strength lies in harnessing the heightened tension of its TV world and relating it to ordinary Americans in the real world.
Where other September 11-themed films have depicted the lives of ordinary people caught up in the catastrophe, “24” takes purely fictional acts of terrorism (which are not always centered on the Middle East) and deals with Jack’s response as both an anti-terror operative and a conflicted man. The show never mentions 9/11, nor does it tear its highly structured plotlines from the headlines. It is not always looking to have the edgiest of contemporary resonances. And in taking this route, it serves its viewers well, because it makes memos and debriefings and stormy ethical quandaries something we can not only understand, but also discuss sportingly as though we were Jack or any one of his comrades or enemies. In fact, NYC Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly alluded to the show when discussing the arrest of Faisal Shahzad, the alleged plotter in the attempted Times Square attack, saying, “We know that Jack Bauer can do it in 24 minutes [sic]. But in the real world, 53 hours is a pretty good number.”
Does it say something negative about our knowledge of the world, that people like me only fully understand terrorism via a television program? Perhaps it does, if you spin it like that. But if it gives students like me and you an appreciation for the guardians of our cities, if it helps us to understand what waterboarding is and how terrible it can be, and if we can still muster sympathy for those people who have to decide every minute if the ends justify the means — well, evoking empathy is what good fiction should do.
And if you still wonder if taking cues from fiction is worthwhile, you’re welcome to catch up on eight seasons’ worth of episodes, in addition to Monday’s series finale. It’s not as hard as it sounds. You’ll be addicted before long.
Anna Paone can be reached at email@example.com.