As any devoted fan knows, the Fox hit show “24” is in its eighth and final season. Jack Bauer has saved the United States from dirty bombs, missile strikes, and biological attacks, tracked down Middle Eastern terrorists and Russian gangsters, along with traitors inside the White House, the Pentagon, and corporate America. He has survived multiple captures, savage beatings, and endless streams of bullets directed his way. The women in his life are killed one by one, but that only prompts him to keep going after the evil-doers, abandoning successive plans to slip off into semi-retirement. Nothing subtle here.
But it’s not just the fantasy superhero’s exploits that explains the mass appeal of this show: it’s the way “24” has tapped into the national psyche and our worst fears about nightmare scenarios. It has also conveyed more than one message, which is something that often gets overlooked. Just like the standard TV script has a main plot and a sub-plot, “24” has a main message about how to fight terror and an intriguing corollary message about our current total dependence on cyberspace for everything we do.
The key message, of course, is that Bauer is so effective because he is willing to do anything to save his country. He always knows how to make someone talk, especially—as almost always is the case—when there’s that ticking time bomb about to go off. In the early seasons of the show, post-9/11, the notion that extreme measures were both necessary and worked was gospel; anyone who labeled them “torture” was naïve and at the very least unwittingly helping the terrorists.
Later, Bauer exhibited the occasional pangs of conscience about what he had to do to get results, and there were fewer incidents where he was applying the extreme measures—and more where he was the victim of such measures. But every viewer knew that, reluctantly or not, Jack would continue to do whatever it took to save the country and the world from the next Armageddon.
But if that message accurately reflects our yearning for assurance that we can defend ourselves against the forces of darkness out there, the corollary message focuses on the cyber tools in the struggles we face—employed both by our protectors and our enemies. Bauer fully depends on the high-tech surveillance capabilities of CTU, the Counter Terrorist Unit. And here the real hero is Chloe O’Brian, the mousy techie who saves the day time and again by reconfiguring computer programs, fixing servers, and giving Bauer his digital eyes and ears that make his guns and fists so effective. Little wonder that in this final season, O’Brian is suddenly catapulted into the post of acting director of CTU.
Those hatching the most devious plots are all too aware of CTU’s cyber capabilities, and they are intent on crippling them and other cyber systems. In an earlier season, terrorists were able to penetrate air traffic controllers’ communications, causing passenger planes to collide in mid-air. In the current season, the plotters manage to use an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) device to make CTU suddenly digitally blind; all its surveillance systems are brought down. It’s Chloe O’Brian who figures out how to make things work again, allowing the pursuit of the terrorists to continue.
The bottom line is that today’s real heroes are the Chloe O’Brians of this world who can defeat the enemies who want to target our cyber vulnerabilities to carry out their most sinister plans. Cyber crime, cyber terror, cyber warfare are now all too familiar terms. If we don’t secure cyberspace, we are all in big trouble. Even Jack Bauer won’t be able to save us. In that sense, “24” has anticipated a growing trend in the real world: the push for cybersecurity.
Just look at all the attention governments, the media and think tanks are suddenly showering on this subject. Look at how intelligence officials are openly fretting about our abilities to outwit those who would use cyberspace to do us harm. And not just in the United States. In India, China, Russia, and so many other countries, cybersecurity is rising rapidly to the top of the agenda. Cyberspace doesn’t recognize national boundaries, which is why there’s more and more talk of the need for international solutions, with expanded cooperation between national agencies (like the fictional CTU). The EastWest Institute will be hosting a Worldwide Cybersecurity Summit in Dallas, starting on May 3—and expect plenty more such gatherings soon.
But Chloe O’Brian’s promotion doesn’t mean Jack Bauer is fading away. No worries on that score. You still need the people who can act on the information that O’Brian and others supply them about what the bad guys are up to. “24” may be in its final TV season, but there are already plans to make the show into a movie. So Bauer will keep dodging bullets and saving the world—as long as he has the likes of O’Brian to keep winning the battles in cyberspace.
Andrew Nagorski is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute. A former Newsweek foreign correspondent and editor, he is the author of The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II.