‘24’ masks an insult as entertainment

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Steven Zak writes scripts as well as commentaries. He has written for such publications as the Atlantic Monthly, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He lives in Sunland.

You’ve heard the 9/11 conspiracy theories: The real culprits behind the attacks were President Bush, the CIA, Israel -- take your pick. The latest in the litany of such lunacy, though, comes not from the mad Middle East but from the creators of the Fox series “24.”

The show’s fictional events center on “CTU” agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), who spent 15 of this season’s 24 episodes frantically searching Los Angeles for a nuclear bomb planted by Middle East terrorists. Bauer tangled with villains who were, for Hollywood, uncharacteristically realistic. Like one Syed Ali, who, once captured in the basement of a mosque, attempted suicide by cyanide rather than reveal the whereabouts of the bomb. In episode 15, Bauer extracted the information from Ali and found the bomb, then flew it to the Mojave Desert, where it could be “harmlessly” detonated.

But in the next episode, Bauer learned that evidence pointing to the culpability of “three Middle Eastern countries” was faked. These countries were “innocent,” we were told in subsequent episodes; the real villains were “oil investors” who stood to profit if the United States went to war. The head terrorist plotter was an American, and he was aided by an array of other Americans, including a special ops commando and the president’s wife.


The fictional portrayal of terrorists trying to detonate a nuclear bomb in the heart of an American city was an obvious metaphor for 9/11 and its aftermath. The past season of “24,” then, was a dramatic expression of the idea that America is responsible for the attacks this country experienced or may yet suffer.

The creators of “24” would no doubt deny such an accusation. They’d claim they were merely trying to tell a compelling story, one that was exciting and filled with twists. But barely more than a year after 3,000 people were incinerated by Islamic fanatics, writers don’t create a narrative that denies that reality just for the sake of entertainment. One would as soon expect a Holocaust survivor to tell tales portraying the Nazis as innocent victims of a frame-up by Jews -- just for the fun of spinning a good yarn.

That would be obscene.

The “24” team, in turning the truth about terrorism on its head, has joined with the likes of Syrian President Bashar Assad, one of the world’s prime sponsors of terror, who recently denied the existence of Al Qaeda. The show’s creators may lack Assad’s obvious self-serving agenda -- a terror master denying the existence of terrorism -- but denial need not come from conscious motivations. Any writer will confirm that the words that spill onto the page, even in mere pursuit of a salable tale, inevitably reflect the writer’s feelings, beliefs and views. Indeed, an executive producer and co-creator of “24,” Robert Cochran, in a recent interview in Scr(i)pt magazine, advised writers that “you’ve got to write what you’re passionate about.”

One wonders, then, what Cochran and his “24” colleagues are passionate about. At a time when Saudi “charities” funnel millions annually to Al Qaeda and Hamas; when Iran and Syria prop up Hezbollah, the terrorists who until 9/11 had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group; when Al Qaeda warns of pending attacks in “the heart of America” and “in the belly of the eagle” ... at such a time, what passion compels the creation of a story in which unnamed “Middle East countries” -- a clear reference to the Axis of Evil -- are portrayed as falsely accused and Americans as the true source of terrorism?

Such a narrative cannot help but reflect a worldview -- that America and Americans are fundamentally rapacious, that we are the root of the world’s problems, that we can never be victims but only victimizers. Writers in Hollywood, like those anywhere, write not what they know but what they choose to believe.

Reality may try to intrude on such ingrained beliefs, but it will encounter powerful resistance. Recently, for instance, several production companies pulled out of Morocco, a favored Hollywood location, after five suicide bombings by Islamic fundamentalists there left 43 innocents dead. But the writers at “24” will likely pay no heed. They’ll just go on spinning tales of terrorist oilmen and their U.S. administration lackeys -- of evil at the very heart of America.