On 24

Jack Bauer Is the Dirty Harry for the Age of Terrorism

By Lorie Byrd

“Go ahead, make my day.”

It is not hard to imagine Jack Bauer delivering “Dirty Harry” Callahan’s famous line from the 1983 film Sudden Impact, or standing in for Callahan in the scene the line comes from, daring a man to go ahead and shoot the woman he’s holding hostage at gunpoint so Callahan will have reason to fire.

Jack Bauer is, after all, the modern-day Dirty Harry–but instead of targeting armed robbers and serial killers, Bauer goes after terrorists intent on mass murder.

Not only are Dirty Harry and Jack Bauer similar characters, but they each won pop icon status in surprisingly similar times, Dirty Harry during a period of concern over increased violent crime and Bauer during the post-September 11 focus on the threat of terrorism.

Police Inspector Harry Callahan, portrayed by Clint Eastwood, rose to popularity in a series of five movies beginning with Dirty Harry in 1971 and continuing for seventeen years, through 1988’s The Dead Pool. The Callahan character was loosely based on the chief investigator in the Zodiac Killer case, David Toschi, but Clint Eastwood made the character his own over the course of the series with his trademark squint, raspy voice, and deadpan delivery.

Dirty Harry was a new kind of fictional cop. In sharp contrast to the “just the facts, ma’am” officer epitomized by Jack Webb’s Sergeant Joe Friday in the ’50s and ’60s, Callahan did not adhere to any procedural handbook. His high-action, in-your-face approach to detective work was a drastic departure from the daily routine police work depicted on shows like Dragnet and Adam-12.

Like 24, the Dirty Harry movies thrive on an action-packed pace. Dirty Harry most often uses his unorthodox tactics when having to make split-second decisions in life-or-death situations, as when desperate criminals hold hostages at gunpoint. Jack Bauer is always working against the clock. (One of the lines most frequently used in parodies of the show is Jack’s exhortation that, “There’s no time.” Another is, “I’m gonna need a hacksaw,” but that is definitely another story.) After all, he only has twenty-four hours to save the world. His is the quintessential “ticking time bomb” scenario, in which extreme means are often necessary to beat the clock and save lives. This sense of urgency lets the audience allow their hero to engage in methods that might not otherwise seem acceptable–something that surely contributes to the popularity of both men.

Both Callahan and Bauer have problems with authority. Callahan is more openly contemptuous of his police chief and mayor, while Bauer is more deferential and respectful toward his CTU directors and the president, but both show little hesitation to disobey an order if they believe they know a better way to protect the public and put away the bad guys.

Most importantly, both characters tapped into the public’s need to see a hero successfully responding to what was going on in the world at the time. Just as Harry Callahan embodied public frustrations over restrictions on law enforcement’s ability to respond to rising violence in urban America beginning in the late ‘60s, Jack Bauer reflects the frustration of those who believe the government’s ability to respond to terrorism is often hamstrung by legal technicalities and political constraints.

In desperate times (or even desperate-seeming times), there is always a market for the fearless hero in television and film. In Dirty Harry, the villain was a particularly vicious psychopath named Scorpio, based on the real-life Zodiac Killer who terrorized Northern California in the late 1960s. The movie’s villain buried a young girl alive, but as horrible as that fictional scenario sounds, those living in the 1960s had already been traumatized by a number of shocking real-life murders, from the assassinations of presidents and civil rights leaders to the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson Family.

The villains of 24 are likewise drawn from real life. Today we live with the specters of Osama bin Laden, who killed some 3,000 Americans and others on September 11, and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who ordered the deaths of thousands of Iraqi women and children and is known to personally behead his enemies. Long after the images of 9/11 attacks left American television, new images of frightened hostages and beheaded journalists continued to appear.

In our world, villains are not always made to pay for their crimes. Both Osama bin Laden and the Zodiac Killer are still at large. One thing viewers can count on, though, is that Callahan and Bauer will not rest until they have caught, or killed, the bad guys.

In the late 1960s and ’70s many Americans saw a world in turmoil. They saw the murder rate climb more than 400 percent from 1965 to 1985, and court decisions made it harder for police and prosecutors to win convictions. Traditional institutions seemed unable to adequately address the problems of urban crime and violence. These factors created an atmosphere in which the public was ready to root for a character like Dirty Harry, who was more concerned with the rights of law-abiding citizens to be free from violent crime than he was the rights of criminals.

Some significant Supreme Court decisions drove these changes transforming American society. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, overturned the murder conviction of Danny Escobedo and recognized a suspect’s right to an attorney during police interrogation in Escobedo v. Illinois. The court found that because Escobedo was not allowed an attorney, Escobedo’s confession should not have been allowed as evidence in his trial. The Court subsequently defined the Escobedo Rule, which guarantees individuals the right to an attorney during police questioning. This made it much harder for the police to secure confessions.

In 1963, a man named Ernest Miranda was arrested for rape. He was aggressively interrogated by police and confessed to attempted rape and burglary. At trial, he was convicted and sentenced to twenty to thirty years. Miranda’s lawyer appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court which affirmed the trial court’s decision, emphasizing the fact that Miranda did not request legal counsel. The case was appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and on June 13, 1966, in Miranda v. Arizona, the Court ruled that due to the coercive nature of interrogation by police and the fact that he had not been made aware of his Fifth Amendment and other rights and had therefore not waived them, Miranda’s confession should not have been allowed. His conviction was thereby overturned. One outcome of this decision, familiar to anyone who watches police dramas, was the Miranda Warning that now must be read to criminal suspects before they are questioned by police.

The public reaction to some of the changes resulting from these landmark cases granting specific, expanded rights to suspected criminals was reflected in the words of Harry Callahan in the following famous exchange:

DISTRICT ATTORNEY ROTHKO: You’re lucky I’m not indicting you for assault with intent to commit murder.


DISTRICT ATTORNEY ROTHKO: Where the hell does it say that you’ve got a right to kick down doors, torture suspects, deny medical attention and legal counsel? Where have you been? Does Escobedo ring a bell? Miranda? I mean, you must have heard of the Fourth Amendment. What I’m saying is that man had rights.

HARRY CALLAHAN: Well, I’m all broken up over that man’s rights! (Dirty Harry)

Like Callahan, Bauer is not one to get “all broken up” over the rights of suspects he is interrogating or apprehending. And threats from either man are always to be taken seriously.

HARRY CALLAHAN: (to suspect he has cornered) I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk? (Dirty Harry)


JACK BAUER: (to suspect he is questioning) You are gonna tell me what I want to know. It’s just a question of how much you want it to hurt. (5-1)


HARRY CALLAHAN: Where’s the girl?

HE KILLER: You tried to kill me!

HARRY CALLAHAN: If I tried to do that your head would be splattered all over this field. Now where’s the girl? (Dirty Harry)


JACK BAUER: (to terrorist suspect) The only reason that you’re conscious right now is because I don’t want to carry you. (5-2)

Callahan and Bauer allow viewers the fantasy of hearing tough talk aimed at criminals without risking any of the real-world consequences that talk can sometimes entail.

It is understandable that a character like Jack Bauer would rise to prominence in response to the terrorist threat just as America had welcomed Dirty Harry to battle urban crime and violence thirty years earlier. Clint Eastwood said of Dirty Harry, “It’s not about a man who stands for violence, it’s about a man who can’t understand society tolerating violence” (The Dirtiest).

The same could be said for Bauer, who does not engage in violence for the sake of violence, but rather engages in violence reluctantly in order to protect those unable to protect themselves. Frequently, he is the last line of defense between mass murderers and innocent, often unsuspecting, citizens.

The first season of 24 was set to air in the fall of 2001, but before it premiered America was attacked on September 11. Immediately, there was not only increased interest in the subject of terrorism, but also a desire to see the bad guys, the terrorists, pay. World developments in the years following the September 11 attacks only increased the American public’s appetite for a hero who was more concerned about protecting innocent Americans than protecting suspected terrorists.

In the years following September 11, the intensity of the backlash from the abuses of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and alleged abuses at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, as well as the government’s reluctance to engage in profiling on the basis of race or nationality, led many to believe concerns for the civil rights of suspected terrorists was overshadowing the need to aggressively fight terrorism. The season five premiere of 24 was harshly criticized by some political conservatives for being overly sympathetic to ACLU positions by depicting an administration violating the civil liberties of Americans.

Yet also in that premiere, a plot depicting frustrated and paranoid suburban Americans taking out their frustrations on an innocent Muslim victim turned on a dime when the supposedly innocent victim was revealed to be a teenage terrorist ready to shoot dead the friend who had defended him during the attack.

While most television shows and movies were similarly reluctant to show Arabs or Muslims as terrorists, 24 was one place Americans could see terrorists portrayed as they most recently had appeared on their television newscasts, unlike in the 2002 motion picture based on the Tom Clancy book The Sum of All Fears. In the book, Muslim extremist terrorists acquire a thermonuclear device and decide to blow up the Super Bowl, hoping to ignite a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. In the year following the deadliest terrorist attack on America of all time, those making the movie version of the book decided it was best for the terrorists to be white supremacist Neo-Nazi types rather than Middle Eastern Muslim jihadists.

In its May 9, 2005, issue, Newsweek ran a story quoting a source who claimed military investigators had found evidence that American guards at Guantanamo Bay had engaged in extreme tactics to get terror suspects to talk, including at one point flushing a copy of the Koran down a toilet. (Newsweek failed to vet its sources: the U.S. Military-issued Koran is too big to fit down the toilet pipe and the toilets in the cells do not flush.) The story gained international attention. Two weeks following the original report, Newsweek retracted the Koran-flushing story, which had sparked violent riots in Afghanistan resulting in at least fifteen deaths, saying their source was mistaken. That same month, Amnesty International harshly criticized the United States’s detention center at Guantanamo Bay, calling the United States government guilty of “odious human rights violations” (“Cheney”). The United Nations later called for closing the facility.

In keeping with 24’s willingness to insert real-world scenarios into their stories, the season five premiere showed the counterterrorism unit gaining valuable information about the number of nuclear bombs set to be detonated on U.S. soil from detainees at a Guantanamo Bay-style holding facility for those suspected of terrorist ties. Characters such as President Palmer’s own sister spoke out against the detention facility and strong arguments were presented by characters on both sides of the issue, but ultimately the series showed valuable information being gained from some held at the facility. The real-life admiral in charge of the Guantanamo facilities makes the same claim.

Groups such as Amnesty International and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have fought for the rights of those suspected of terrorist activity. In November 2005, Amnesty International spoke strongly against Tony Blair’s plans for new antiterror legislation and has at other times fought against proposals in other nations, including the United States, that would increase the powers of government officials to detain terror suspects.

In season four of 24, one storyline captured not only the frustration of Americans who see some human rights advocates as more concerned with the rights of terrorists than those of law-abiding citizens, but also depicted a fantasy scenario where hero Jack Bauer worked around the rules to counter the efforts of just such a human rights group. In that episode, CTU apprehended an associate of a terrorist planning an attack with a nuclear device. The terrorist mastermind was worried that the associate would spill his guts under interrogation, but did not have anyone on the inside to quiet the guy. The terrorist called “Amnesty Global” (a fictional human rights watchdog group resembling Amnesty International) and told them that an innocent American citizen was being held by CTU without cause and was in danger of being handled roughly. A lawyer from Amnesty Global showed up at CTU with a court order prohibiting interrogation of the suspect without a lawyer present and putting many other restrictions on what the agents could do. The clock was ticking. The terrorists were in possession of a nuclear warhead and the codes to launch it, and the CTU agents couldn’t do a thing about it. Bauer’s answer to the problem was to ask CTU to release the suspect. He then resigned temporarily, becoming a private citizen. In the final scene of the episode, Bauer forced the terrorist into a vehicle at gunpoint and persuaded him (by breaking a few bones) to give up the needed information.

While fictional, this scenario–in which the civil rights group hampered the interrogation of a suspect who had valuable, life-saving information–in many ways fits the public perception of some groups advocating on behalf of suspected terrorists. Although many Americans might not have approved of Jack Bauer’s solution in reality, it did give viewers a satisfying and successful resolution. Successful resolutions are something not guaranteed in the real world of counterterrorism.

Most people don’t want their police officers acting outside of the law like Harry Callahan or torturing suspects as Jack Bauer sometimes does. The frustrations of a society battling the scourges of violent crime and terrorism are partly assuaged through the escapism Callahan and Bauer provide.

Americans have learned through their experiences with crime and terrorism that all the politicians and government officials in the world cannot keep them completely safe–especially considering the rules and laws which often constrain them. No wonder there is such a large audience for the ordinary individual who rises to extraordinary levels in reaction to dire circumstances, putting his own life at risk and sometimes breaking the rules to save others. They want to see happy resolutions to the problems they face, even if those resolutions are only on the flickering screen.

Dirty Harry’s appeal eventually dimmed as police reforms in the early 1990s brought dramatic reductions in violent crime without sacrificing suspects’ rights. As the social problem eased, Dirty Harry faded to black.

But the ever-present menace of terrorism shows no signs of abating-and Jack Bauer, the Dirty Harry for the age of terrorism, will likely be with us for a long time to come.

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