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In each episode of the first season of 24, Keifer Sutherland’s voiceover introduces the overall plot of the story:

Right now, terrorists are plotting to assassinate a presidential candidate. My wife and daughter have been targeted, and people that I work with may be involved in both. I’m federal agent Jack Bauer, and today is the longest day of my life.

Premiering in November 2001, 24 was clearly topical in relation to the terrorist acts of 9/11. But despite the rhetoric of the introduction; it could be argued that the first season does not actually contain a single terrorist.

A terrorist by definition is an individual or group that uses terror in pursuit of political aims, something the enemy in the series does not do. This is a mistake which is perhaps more easily forgiven in the first 12 hours where the ambiguity of the storyline means we have yet to learn the reason why the group wish to assassinate a presidential candidate (indeed, at this point there is every possibility that they are terrorists whose could be attempted to assassinate a prominent politician in order to install fear into the American population). But this mistake is not rectified in the second 12 hours where we find out that the group are in fact Serbian soldiers that are enacting revenge on an American team (including Bauer) that caused them an injustice in the past as part of a botched secret mission.

Not only does 24 reflect a wish to ‘cash in’ on the discourse of terrorism which engulfed the US at the time (and still haunts discourses now), but I think it also reflects how we experience universal / structural problems in contemporary society. The universal threat or problem is immediately personalised and considered a threat to each individual rather than to society, and this is how Bauer can get away with calling them terrorists (even after it is revealed that their aim is a personal vendetta rather than terror) because the structural problem of terrorism is immediately experienced as a personal attack on each and every individual; not society.

Terrorism – as well as other structural problems, such as poverty – are packaged neatly into a consumable and personalised narrative which can be interpreted by the individual as a personal threat because there is no longer any collectivities to protect (or meet) with structural problems and this leads to their individualization. Instead of being autonomous or free, people are governed through biopolitical narratives where those in power justify themselves through their protection of your personal life.

When people equate the ruling ideological framework into their primal wish to survive, and experience a structural problem as a threat to their own well-being, those in power become completely justified in reducing liberty in order to further your survival (for example, see this fascinating video on police stop and search laws). What is actually needed, however, is new collectivities that reassert a common face and solidarity and which require fidelity above personal concerns. Only by attacking the values that are currently most dear to oneself – such as fear of terrorist harm – will subjects become dis-entangled from the ideological rhetoric of biopolitics.

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2 thoughts on “There Are No Terrorists In 24

  1. Great post. Interestingly, 24 was mostly written and filmed before 11 September 2001. In this image of the attacks you can see the 24 billboard, part of the pre-screening advertising campaign: http://www.abload.de/img/911-9-11-wtc-with-24-ae7w1.jpg

    Subsequently a scene involving the bombing of a plane in flight was cut from the series, for obvious editorial and ethical reasons.

    Now, even if this scene had remained, by your definition of terrorism this wouldn’t have been a terrorist attack (although you’ve seen the first series more recently than I have and I can’t quite remember the reasons for the plane explosion – presumably related to the assassination attempt and so not, as per your usage, an act of terror).

    What I would say, though, is that – whatever the intuitive appeal of your definition – it’s perhaps not one that is adhered to today out-with TV shows either. For example, the bombings in Boston recently were widely described as a terrorist attack and yet a motive was not (and has not convincingly been) identified. I think politicians, media outlets and the general population would often regard such events as acts of terror. I also think that, in the current popular usage of the term, the events of the first series of 24 would be regarded as terrorism.

    Which isn’t to say that they should be, of course. Interesting post – more of this topical stuff please!

  2. Thanks David! I hadn’t realised that they had filmed it before 9/11 (although, now i think about it, they wouldn’t have got it together in two months…)

    The scene with the plane exploding is that of a subcontractor to the ‘bad guys’ who steals someone’s identity then blows up the plane to cover her tracks (i.e. not an act of terror, just ‘ruthless’).

    You’re also right about the Boston reaction. Although I remember on the day that Obama was careful not to call it ‘terrorism’, when they found out the perpetrators were a foreign other: this was the discourse that spread (even though, as you say, we still don’t know the reason behind the attack).

    But thanks for your comment and input. Much appreciated.

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