Who Are You Working For? How 24 Served as Post-9/11 Equipment for Living

Laura Herrman, Eberhard-Karls-Universität Tübingen (Stuttgart, Germany)

JACK BAUER IS BACK—in May 2014, the Fox Broadcasting Company returned its groundbreaking television series 24 to international TV screens. Once more, CTU-Agent Jack Bauer faced ticking time bomb scenarios in which he had to conquer assassination attempts and terrorist attacks. Also, once more, viewers were tied to their screens when the real and hyper-real of reality and film will collapse (Weber 3).

For the past eight seasons, which aired between 2001 and 2010, 24 has been an interesting show to watch, analyze, and engage in. Jermyn, Allen and Mikos have pointed out 24’s stylistic inventions of split-screens; others (e.g., Furby and Mikos have analyzed the show’s real-time format; which altogether may represent reasons for why 24 may be such a groundbreaking television show). However, one may also consider it that way for its depiction of a post-9/11 society, its war on terrorism and the current political climate:

While season 1 aired only days after the 9/11-attacks, 24’s following seven seasons purposefully anticipated a reflection of pressing public issues. Whether these regarded society’s fear of biochemical weapons, nuclear attacks, and uncontrollable terrorist activity, all plots circulated around the overarching question of how to deal with the aftermath of 9/11. In this regard, “ground-breaking” may also be the new, realistic turn 24 took on our typical narratives of unity, bravery, and hero-figures in the context of a “war on terror”: while it occasionally allowed its characters to heroically survive or rescue their friends and family, all too often worst-case scenarios could not be averted, main-characters, their friends, and family died, and our fears were realized (Cavelos 7).

“Put simply,” Peacock concludes, “24 is a cultural phenomenon” (5). It certainly had its finger on the pulse of a post-9/11 era. Portraying a new and “global sense of uncertainty and suspicion with its provocative depiction of America’s role on the world stage and of terrorists activity and political double-dealing” (Peacock) to more than 100 Million viewers worldwide (Aitkenhead, “One hour with Kiefer Southerland”), the show communicated to its viewers “the very sense that American politicians . . . have been insisting upon and repeating ceaselessly . . . :  9/11 changed everything” (Caldwell and Chambers 97f.). Simultaneously though, it appears that 24 did not only reflect a post-9/11 discourse on how the world had changed, but also created a discourse anew, making it impossible to escape political reality for the matter of simple enjoyment, as Weber notes: “In the weeks after the terrorist attacks, US movie-goers who may . . . have been craving an escape from the realities of war and a return to normalcy all too often found themselves caught up in national debates about the status of the war on terror.” (3)

It might not seem surprising, that the show provoked intense reactions and fierce, moral criticism. National and international media reception evolved from questions as to whether or not the show was pro-torture (Aitkenhead, “One Hour with”; Dana, “Reinventing 24”; Mendelson, “Zero Dark Thirty Doesn’t Endorse Torture, and Neither Did 24”), or contained anti-Muslim propaganda (O’Brien “24 writers urged to be careful of portrayal of Muslims“). Nelson and Fournier even argued that the show was arguing according to the logic of the Bush Administration. And scholars such as Woolf, Herbert, or McCabe have pointed out that 24 was deliberating American values and narratives in the context of its “war on terrorism.” It seemed that fiction and reality did not only collapse within the series’ plot, but suddenly also outside the show, as public controversies at some point demanded of the show’s producers to respond to public debates of what can, should and shouldn’t be done for the sake of the country and against terror (Aitkenhead, “One hour”). In this regard, Times-author James Poniewozik (“The Evolution of Jack Bauer”) may have put a point to these discussions asking: “Is 24 just a TV show or right-wing propaganda? Or, to turn Jack Bauer’s frequent refrain on him: Who are you working for?“

However, some scholarship has taken a different turn on answering this question. In her psychological analysis, Jeanne Cavelos’ considered 24 a “coping-mechanism” (7) for post-9/11 trauma. This paper would like to elaborate her idea from the rhetorical perspective of Burke: Presenting to us our trauma on screen, how might have 24 helped us to cope, “gain some measure of confidence, some sense of control” (Cavelos 6)? Thus, I’d like to propose the idea to consider 24 piece of “literature as equipment for living.” As such, I’d like to think about how 24 might have actually worked for us, as we used and interpreted the show “so that we might equip ourselves to live better lives” (Blakesley 50) in an ever changed post-9/11 situation.

Burke’s concept of “literature as equipment for living“ describes one of the major functions of literature to provide “strategies” (“Literature as Equipment for Living” 296)—which Burke also calls “attitudes” ("Literature" 297)—for naming and dealing with situations in our real life. By literature, Burke means any piece of “imaginative cast” (Burke, Literature 1), that “singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structure, that recurs sufficiently often mutandis mutatis, for people to ‘need a word for it’ and to adopt an attitude towards it” (Philosophy of Literary Form 300).

As such, works of art are “answers to questions posed by the situation in which they arise. They are not merely answers, they are stylized answers” (Burke, The Philosophy 1) to a hitherto unknown situation: “Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality” (Grammar of Motives 59).

One may say, that 9/11 marked the beginning of such a new situation. After the attacks, Cavelos notes, society “gained a new and immediate fear” (3); one that can’t be successfully countered, as there where no clear enemies, no clear home fronts, and no clear boundaries between any two terms (Weber 152). As the world had changed, so had the way society had thought of itself and of its world:

many people, prior to a trauma, hold four core beliefs: ‘The belief that the world is benign, that the world is meaningful, that the self is worthy, and that people are trustworthy’ [Epsetin qtd. in Foa]. In many of us, these core beliefs were shaken by the trauma of September 11. The world certainly no longer seems benign, . . . , the world no longer seems meaningful. While the self may still seem worthy, others may be viewed with suspicion or fear (Cavelos 14).

The attacks had violated an old belief in safety and invulnerability (Cavelos 4); as such, the effects were not limited to American society. In the aftermath of the attacks, people all over the world needed to understand what just had happened, what just had changed, and how whatever had changed might have an effect on them, too. In the wake of a new era of international terrorism, they all had to not only reflect on a new concept of a possible ‘other,’ but also on concepts of self, that is, on concepts of identity.

According to Burke, “identity would here be its uniqueness as an entity in itself and by itself, a demarcated unit having its own particular structure” (Rhetoric of Motives 21). However, society’s particular structure was deeply questioned in the aftermath of the attacks. 9/11 demanded of all of us to seek a new framing and new vocabularies that would be “faithful reflections” (Burke, Grammar 59) of an ever-changed reality in order to deal with the aftermath of the attacks, nationally and internationally. Post-9/11 society was confronted with multiple questions about “who we think we were/are . . . , who we’d never been; who we really are, and who we might become” (Weber 5): What can, should, and shouldn’t we do in order to impede future attacks? Do we endorse torture (Mendelson, “Zero Dark Thirty”)? Who do we consider friends, strangers and enemies (O’Brien, “24 writers“)? And what do the answers to these questions tell us about ourselves, our identity? What did it mean to be a citizen before 9/11, and what would it mean to be one after, be it individually, nationally and internationally? As Weber notes, this kind of deliberation “wasn’t just about what we ought to do in response to 9/11; it was about who we are—about how our responses to 9/11 morally configure us” (Weber 4).

In the wake of this new situation, Burke considers rhetoric coming into being, as it “is par excellence the region of the Scramble“ (Burke, Rhetoric 19). As we know from Burke, rhetoric in his understanding aims for identification. Considering the state of a post-9/11 society an identificational crisis, Burke would prefer to name this kind of crisis “ambiguity.” That’s what he’d consider the state of mind where you put “identification and division ambiguously together so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (Rhetoric 25). As identification is key to persuasion, and aims for consubstantiality, it best describes the creation of social relations: “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so” (Burke, Rhetoric 20). The relationship between rhetoric and identification works according to a sine-qua-non-formula: “If men were not apart from one another, there would be no need for the rhetorician to proclaim their unity” (Rhetoric 22).

However, by arguing that 24 served as equipment for living, this paper does not mean to eliminate ambiguity, “but to clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (Burke, Grammar xviii). In doing so, it will employ Burke’s dramatism in its analysis.

In this context, dramatism is considered especially helpful as it is employed as the analytic lens, that allows studying literature a symbolical adaption to a specific situation (Burke, Literature 299) in which a type of equipment for adapting shared, lived experience occurs (Blakesley 50). More importantly, it is a helpful resource to link identification to the concept of equipment for living, since one concept could not work without the other.

Furthermore, focusing on five key pentadic elements, dramatism does not only provides a clear procedure to points of departure “for human motivation in complex situations” (Blakesley 97), but may also serve as guiding orientation itself in an identificational crisis. Taking the pentadic ratios into account, we will consider clusters of “equipment for living”:

We will begin by looking at the scene and act, which according to Burke are “at the very center of motivational assumptions” (Grammar 11). We’ll consider their ratio, as the scene can be considered a “fit ‘container’” (Grammar 3) for the act; and vice versa, “we learn of a scene, or situation, . . . central to its motivation (Burke, Grammar 4). As the scene—realistically or symbolically—reflects the course of action, it furthermore “contains implicitly all that the narrative is to draw out as a sequence explicitly (Grammar 7). As I will try to show by analyzing the scene-act ratio of 24, the stage-set contains the action ambiguously. It presents to us an ideal-projection of how we’d like to deal with exceptional situations, yet, might fail to do so. As I will show in the course of the scene, the initial ambiguity of “who we think we” are (and who we are not) will be “converted into a corresponding articulacy” (Grammar 7). Thus, this ratio analysis is summed up as “who we think we are.”

Considering the scene a “motive-force” (Grammar 9) behind characters, the analysis will then proceed with considering the agent contained in the scene. In doing so, it builds up on the “correlation between the quality of a country and the quality of its inhabitants” (Burke, Grammar 8) in the containing scene and act 24 presents to us. In this regard, I’ll try to trace references to self and personal responsibility (Griffin 331f.) made by the agent, summing up this cluster under the heading of “who we really are“.

Lastly, the analysis will consider agency and purpose. Both have a certain overlap with the first cluster; so does for example agency, if we consider the scene pragmatically “not as a way of life, or act of being, but as a means of doing” (Grammar 15). Thus, agency may bear traces of the agent’s mindset of pragmatism. Correspondingly, an analysis of purpose may uncover “common concerns” (Griffin 331f.) 24 presents to us. However, grounded in scene and act, agency and purpose will be presented to us ambiguously, which is why they are summed up as a cluster of “who we might become.”

Altogether, the three clusters of “who we think we are,” “who we really are,” and “who we might become” aim to uncover the identificational ambiguities that arose in the aftermath of September 11. They reveal the attitudes and facets of identification 24 presented to us, which lastly offer “equipment for living” to a post-9/11 society.

In order to reduce the large amount of data record of eight seasons, the analysis will focus on season 2 (aired 2003) to season 7 (aired 2009). As season 1 was written and directed well before the attacks in New York and Washington D.C., season 2 truly marks “the first post-9/11 representation of counter-terrorism on the show” (Caldwell and Chambers 97). Aligned closely along the actual political discourse, it deals with a nuclear threat to Los Angeles by terrorists from the Middle East. Season 7 marks an important turn within the show. Following the political development of reality, it is a critical assessment of what has been done in the “war on terror,” which can be thought of according to the lines of Burke’s question: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?“ (Burke, Grammar xv). The opening of the season presents to us an interesting meta-perspective, as Jack Bauer interprets his interpretation of his “war on terror” while on trial for the alleged crimes he committed working for the CTU.

All We Are—Pentadic Analysis of 24

Who we think we are—exceptional victims in exceptional times


In each season of 24, the setting functions as the plot’s and character’s drive. It is a means to “size up” (Burke, Literature 298) and dramatize the situation of a post-9/11 society that faces the permanent threat of terrorism. It presents this threat to its viewers in all “detail and horror” (Cavelos 7), placing a ubiquitous sense of urgency and constant danger into every detail of the show. In doing so, the scene of 24 anticipates an actual existing logical pattern: The metaphoric ‘war on terrorism’ was not only a set of actual practices, but also a set of accompanying assumptions, beliefs, justifications, narratives, and thus, an entire language or discourse (Jackson 8).

After 9/11, President Bush insisted on treating the attacks “not as criminal acts but as acts of war” (Caldwell and Chambers 101). Accordingly, he created a discourse of exceptionality to the attacks, as well the victims (Jackson 33), and inferred that exceptional acts “require for their response exceptional measures” (Caldwell and Chambers 101).

Following the wake of a ‘changed world,’ circumstances in 24 realistically anticipates this pattern of a status of exception. Within the show this status is referred to as “a situation” (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.), “national crisis” (Day 2: 6:00 A.M.—7:00 A.M) or “security issue” (Day 7: 8:00 A.M—9:00 A.M.) to which countdown and worst-case scenarios are inherent.

Also, the scene is introduced to us as a current and global setting; switching from a bird’s eye perspective on Seoul, South Korea, to the US-west coast of -16 hrs. at Midnight, then turning to a very specific place at Lake Oswego in Oregon, and from thereon to the CTU headquarter in Los Angeles (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.). At a first glance, this headquarter functions as central base for communication between institutions, and as technological, strategic, and informative back-up for protagonist Jack Bauer, who will be operating mostly outside the CTU. Moreover, the CTU symbolically morphs into the center of action, the center at which decisions are made, and from where the state of exception is called into action by CTU Chief George Mason:

Alright, heads up ( . . . ). It appears there is a nuclear bomb under terrorist control somewhere here in Los Angeles and it’s set to go off sometime of the day. So from this moment on we do not communicate with anybody outside of our secured envelope. That means we do not call home, we don’t talk to friends, we do not call relatives. Our job is to find this device and stop it. We do not want to create panic. I know this is not very pleasant, but this is our job. This is what we do. So let’s do it. (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.)

At first, the state of exception is portrayed as a nightmare coming true, as “a rare and exceptional event that ( . . . ) interrupts standard order” (Caldwell and Chambers 98). However, through Mason’s call for protocol-procedure, it then transcends into standard order. The exception becomes “regularized” (Caldwell and Chambers 98), the response to it seems “rational and reasonable” (Jackson 2). As such, the CTU does not only set the stage for its narrative. Furthermore, it symbolically functions as interception of personal and political attitudes in the wake of a terrorist threat. It sizes up the situation of a terrorist threat changing everything, and calls our attention to strategies of what can, should, and shouldn’t be done in the wake of these threats. Hereto, the audience is closely engaged in through the camera’s perspective. As the department heads group around Mason, shots vary between medium and extreme close-ups, capturing a view over team members shoulders, from behind their heads, or from the side. It is a scene of what Mikos (192) calls “primary identification” (\primäre Identifikation), were the camera’s view becomes consubstantial with the audience’s view. Inviting us to become a team member, 24’s scene provides a notion that there are things more important than our fear and our lives; that is, the safety of our country, and / or “maintaining our integrity” (Cavelos 13). Identification with such strong attitudes in this scene offers to us an idea how we might do better in coping with our fear and trauma, offering to us some “confidence and hope” (Cavelos 13). As such, the plot anticipates a facet of identity of “who we’d like to be”: While 24 exposes us to our greatest fears, it represents the dream of this fear being “manageable” (Cavelos 7). Thus, it provides equipment for living with increased feeling of fear and helplessness in the context of terrorist threats.


However, the notion of a state of exception is also taken to another extreme: In the context of 24, consideringthe act directs our intention towards act-ual incorporation of exceptions and extremes within the state of exception: “Willful acts of terrorism are thought to evoke the most severe reactions” (Cavelos 3). Hence, the show spins the logic of a state of exception to its very end. 24’s President David Palmer for example argues that his choice of kidnapping a journalist and torturing a staff member “may have been extreme, but I was only responding to the extremity of today’s events” (Day 2: 4:00 A.M.—5:00 A.M.).

This extremity furthermore accumulates in a constant atmosphere of suspicion, which anticipates the sense of society’s vulnerability: Jack Bauer can’t trust his closest colleagues (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.), and friends (Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.); President Palmer faces conspiracy (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.; Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.), there are moles in governmental institutions (Day 7: 09:00 A.M.—10:00 A.M.). Furthermore, twists and plot points highly involve the audience. Along with the characters, we constantly need to question identities and challenge loyalties. The extremer the situation becomes, the more we need to contest the course of action, as all too often, these actions are staged as “collateral damage” (Day 2: 11:00 A.M.—12:00 P.M.). The early facet of “who we think we are” is challenged, which shall be illustrated in another example.

In season 2, President Palmer is informed that Bauer threatens to kill the two sons of terrorist Sayed Ali. In an extreme-close-up, we capture the stunned and grave look on his face, as he asks: “Can we let this happen? . . . How could it have come to this?” (Day 2: 07:00 P.M.—08:00 P.M.) The state of exception has outruled the former notion of a manageable standard protocol, and worse; it has become a permanent situation. While every character tries to follow a notion of what should be done in ‘the war on terror,’ they fail to do so, and begin drifting along the lines of what shouldn’t be done: We witness how they harm themselves (Day 2: 9:00 A.M.—10:00 A.M.), loose important witnesses (Day 2: 10:00 A.M.—11:00 A.M.; Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.), sacrifice other’s (Day 2: 11:00 A.M.—12:00 P.M.; Day 2: 5:00 P.M.—6:00 P.M.) and their own lives (Day 2: 5:00 P.M.—6:00 P.M.; Day 2: 10:00 P.M.—11:00 P.M.; Day 7: 07:00 A.M.—08:00 A.M.). Yet, they hate to be in such dilemmas and may even beg to not make extreme decisions. So does for example Jack Bauer facing a potential terrorist, Sayed Ali: “I despise you for making me do this. [ . . . ]. Please don’t make me do this.“ (Day 2: 07:00 P.M.—08:00 P.M.)

As the former manageable status of exception is ‘sized up’ (Burke, Literature, 298) as a farce, the act challenges our identificational facet of “who we think we are”; a strict setting of a state of exception in return calls for a “corresponding restriction” (Burke, Grammar 9) of the acts. Thus, the scene provides an insight on the relationship of circumstances and its impact on free will. Or, as Neslon argues, lends credence to the Bush Doctrine (78). Also, it demonstrates a commitment to realism, reminding us in a Burkean manner that “a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing” (Permanence and Change 49): “The constant crisis of identity . . . takes its toll on the characters who not only subject themselves to grave physical harm and push themselves into psychological disorders. . . , but must also harm and even kill their friends and colleagues” (Monahan 109).

Overall, scene and act provide a deliberative reflection of “who think we are,” always pending (and here, also overlapping with the other clusters) between facets of “who we’d like to be,” “who we think we are,” and even a prophetic reflection of “who we might become.” This I’d like to elaborate further by focusing on the agent.

Who we really we are—Jack Bauer between Idealism and Realism


Following a notion of Burke, it is by the logic of the scene agent-ratio, that if the scene is exceptional in quality, the agent contained by the scene will partake of the same exceptional quality (Grammar 8). In 24, Jack Bauer, functions as personified exception, thus incorporating a two-folded identity between idealism and realism, constructivism and determinism.

At first, many of Bauer’s characteristics offer a projection surface for identification through a scent of idealism: Bauer is a loving and caring father, a grieving widower, a loyal friend. As special-agent, he is a hero, a patriot, willing to do the exceptional for his country. It’s an ideal depiction, though, picking up on our “idealist's concern with the Einklang zwischen Innen- und Außenwelt” (Burke, Grammar 9).

However, following the logical pattern set by scene and act, exceptional threats do not only demand for exceptional heroes, but for exceptional acts of a hero. It is this strain of thought that provides a realistic reflection of a disordered “Einklang.” It’s scenes where the hero—literally rolling up his sleeves, killing or torturing suspects, getting blood on his hands—undermines his audience’s morals, challenging existing loyalty and identification. The exceptional hero speaks on behalf of his exceptional status, as he exclaims to Mason: “You want to find this bomb? This is what it’s going to take. . . . That’s the problem with people like you, George. You want results but you never want to get your hands dirty. I’d start rolling up your sleeves” (Day 2: 8:00 A.M.—9:00 A.M.).

It is this rhetorical evidentia that reflects society’s struggle with ambiguity. On the one hand, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, one may be wishing for a hero, who is willing to roll up his sleeves in order to restore our trust in safety and invulnerability. Hence, we perceive things than can be done. Killing for results is simply what Bauer needs to do in order to protect the country. On the other hand, we simultaneously perceive the limits of what can be done. Hence, we need to question this distorted ideal of an exceptional hero in an exceptional situation; or, as Burke would suggest: the character of Jack Bauer is portrayed as exceptional and brutal as his scene and thus, “is not worth saving” (Burke, Grammar 9).

The antagonism of empathy and enclosure reveal realistic cracks in an idealistic surface of a hero-figure; it is “both the genuine need for the exception and the space opened up for distorting and abusing the exception” (Caldwell and Chambers 103) that are inherent to the agent. Hence, the extreme and exceptional conception of the scene, restricted to a state of exception, as motive-force behind the character “in turn calls for a corresponding extreme restriction” (Burke, Grammar 9) upon Bauer’s personality.

Consequently, the principle of an exceptional hero is transformed into the principle of a scapegoat. As Burke notes,

the guilt from failures of perfection symbolically necessitates a sacrifice or purging of this guilt on some level, theorizing that this rhetorically functions through either victimage or mortification. Victimage requires a sacrificial “scapegoat,” [ . . . ], who is blamed for the social imperfection and symbolically punished or purged (Treat).

We witness how Bauer is left alone with the consequences of his choices, how his identity is torn between the normal and the exceptional. This can be further illustrated in season 7, when Bauer is on trial for his extreme interrogation techniques during his time at the CTU. Here, Bauer has to answer the questions of judge Blaine Mayer:

Jack Bauer: Senator, why don’t I save you some time. It’s obvious that your agenda here is to discredit CTU and generate a series of indictments ( . . . ) Ibrahim Hadad had targeted a bus carrying 45 people, 10 of which were children. The truth, Senator, is that I stopped that attack from happening.

Blaine Mayer: By torturing Mr. Hadad!

Jack Bauer: By doing what I deemed necessary to save innocent lives.

Blaine Mayer: So basically, what you are saying, Mr. Bauer, is that the ends justify the means and you are above the law.

Jack Bauer: When I am activated, when I am brought into a situation, there is a reason. And that reason is to complete the objectives of my mission at all costs.

Blaine Mayer: . . . Even if it means breaking the law.

Jack Bauer: For a combat soldier, the difference between success and failure is your ability to adapt to your enemy. The people that I deal with, they don’t care about your rules. All they care about is a result. My job is to stop them from completing their objective, at all costs. I simply adapted. In answer to your question: Am I above the law? No sir. I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent. I will let them decide what price I should pay. But please sir, do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions I have made. Because, sir, the truth is I don’t. (Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.)

Scenes as these call for a moral assessment. Firstly, because the debate between Bauer and Mayer proves that in a state of exception, distinctions of legitimate and illegitimate measures and their premises “cannot ultimately hold” (Caldwell and Chambers 107). Secondly, Bauer’s justification reveals another facet of identificational ambiguity. It proves that there are multiple identities rather than simple black and white distinctions. While we would like to consider the protagonist Jack Bauer the hero, we cannot forget that he killed and tortured people (Caldwell and Chambers 107). The evidently distorted idealistic facets of identity thus offer another conclusion: no one can claim “that the exception is warranted by the law. Indeed, the exception is always an exception to the law. If it were truly warranted, if it were simply, legally legitimate, then there would be no need for the exception” (Caldwell 109). Consequently, Bauer cannot be saved. We, on the other hand, are equipped with “a new and expanded understanding of . . . fearful situation[s] and undergo emotional catharsis” (Cavelos 11).

Who we might become—No time for excuses

Agency and Purpose

Agency and Purpose both have a certain overlap with the scene-act-ratio. We can focus on agency as a way to consider the scene pragmatically not as “a way of life, or act of being, but as a means of doing” (Burke, Grammar 15). In the state of exception, agency might thus reflect a “‘get-the-job-done’ approach that springs from the agent’s mindset of pragmatism” (Griffin 332). In this regard, we can look at purpose as the stated goal of the action. Its analysis may reveal a strong desire for “common concerns” (Griffin 332).

In 24, all pragmatism aims at a common concern, which, put simply, is getting through the day. However, within a state of exception agency and purpose lack a sense of justice. While characters follow the logic of the state of exception, they ambiguously hold the interception of idealism and realism, of official and personal attitudes. They run out of time, rush into hopeless one-way scenarios, where urgency does not allow reasonable either-or-considerations or any kind human emotional response for that matter as for example President Allison Taylor concludes: “Grief is a luxury I can’t afford” (Day 7: 08:00 A.M.—09:00 A.M.).

In Day 2: 4:00 P.M.—5:00 P.M., Nina Meyers takes Jack Bauer hostage and demands of President Palmer to grant her immunity for the murder of Jack Bauer she is about to commit. While on the phone with the President, the intertwined personal challenge of all three characters is captivated in split-screens and extreme close-ups. Jermyn suggests that in this moment, the “spectator’s experience comes to parallel that of the characters; forced to scan multiple frames for information” (52). Split-screens frame the emotional “tension” (Jermyn 53) of a situation that once again deviates from standard protocol, and in which even friends have to distance themselves from one another in order to maintain the course of action they’ve agreed upon. As Bauer, Meyer and Palmer agree on Meyer’s immunity and Bauer’s sacrifice, split-screens transform into a single one again. From thereon, camera shots take turns between the plot’s settings of the CTU, the President’s office, and the location of Meyer and Bauer, suggesting that Bauer and Palmer couldn’t be further apart. Yet, they’ve agreed upon objectives and procedure, and as such, they are consubstantial. Yet, at the same time, they remain “unique” (Burke, Rhetoric 21) as conflict and crisis escalate. Bauer accepts to die, and Palmer accepts to hold responsibility for his friend’s murder: “There was only one right choice to make and you made it” (Day 2: 4:00 P.M.—5:00 P.M.). When Palmer asks Bauer for his last wishes, the screens split up again in extreme close-ups depicting Palmer’s pain and tears, and Bauer’s resignation.

Purely by being the kind of agent that is at one with the scene and accepts an exceptional agency, both Bauer and Palmer become “divine” (Burke, Grammar 8), whereas we as viewers are made aware of our human weakness; that some pain is just unbearable. And there just is no way to cope. In this regard, agent and purpose emphasize a division of attitudes, providing us with a notion of self, that pends between “who we might become” and “who we really are.”


One might think that we would have become habituated to the fear of a terrorist attacks more than a decade after September 11. But even now researchers, e.g. Glazer, are finding that “Americans are suffering lingering symptoms of anxiety and trauma,” (qtd. in Cavelos 3) trying to find their way to cope. And since we are constantly reminded of a possible attacks—be it by the government and / or the media—it surely “is difficult for a threat to fade into the background of our lives” (Cavelos 4).

Yet, this paper concludes that post-9/11 society is also provided equipment to cope with the aftermath of 9/11. “With their stories, artists name a situation, they give us words to name a situation, and behind that lies strategy” (Burke, Literature 596). 24 surely provided us a name for an ever-changed situation; even more so, by symbolically offering to us a state of exception, it revealed the whole range of exceptionality and crisis that affected our sense of identity before and after. While it presented to us our fear and trauma, it simultaneously helped us to deal with it; and to symbolically overcome our trauma (Burke, Literature 299). 24 provides some sense of “developmental repair. While the worst often happens on 24, each day ends with the specific terrorist threat conquered” (Cavelos 12).

Moreover, as one of the first post-9/11 shows 24 provided a reflection on society’s identificational ambiguity: “What does it mean to be a moral American, and how might we act morally in the post-9/11 era?” (Weber 151) Thus, the show rather equipped viewers with a critical reflection on multiple selves.

As it followed the lead of a hegemonic discourse of the “war on terror” it depicted revenge, war, and means that are justified not by law, but by their ends. We consider these facets fragments of our identity, as we interact with characters and ask the same questions: How do we deal with fear, loss, and tragedy? How do we deal with the fact that there are constantly threats in this world that are out of our control? Here, 24 provided us with an “empowering sense of knowledge, preparation, and control” (Cavelos 12).

Furthermore, 24 may have been supporting a moral and deliberative discourse that was imagining a world at war with terror; a world of how we as society think it is and might become. Ultimately, it points out that in exceptional situations there are many strategies and attitudes that may equip us for a better live, and by that, a way of coping. 24 constantly pushes the limits of such attitudes by the means of its dramatistic elements, illustrating modes of action and their consequences. Thus, the show does not only reveal the inconsistencies of the existing discourse of a “war on terror.” It also opens space for individual considerations: Projecting heroic idealism onto a post-9/11 society may look good on the outside; yet, heroic visions are not reliable, the relationship between crime and consciousness (Weber 135) is an uneasy one, not matter the given purpose. Lastly, they are extreme, and as such, they may end in isolation instead of unity.

Concluding, 24 serves as “equipment for living.” It emphasized the search for a nation’s identity, depicting multiple forms of ‘we.’ It accomplished the difficulty to include fragments of society, and constantly anticipated and reflected contemporary US-discourse, mirroring and creating reality anew. As such, it enhances self-reconstruction to a “country of the traumatized” (Cavelos 6). We were equipped with a lesson for life: Unlike the characters, we have options. We have a choice in who we want to be beyond our weaknesses, our grief, disbelief, and trauma. And so, 24 may have made left us “both joined and separate” (Burke, Rhetoric 21), as it provided its answers as identificational options, as a choice no matter the common concerns. Or, to say it in the words of Jack Bauer:

I can’t tell you what to do. I’ve been wrestling with this one my whole life. I see fifteen people held hostage on a bus, and everything else goes out the window. I will do whatever it takes to save them—and I mean whatever it takes (Day 7: 07:00 A.M.—08:00 A.M.).

In a way then, Jack Bauer worked for us: He engaged us in a dialectical journey of identification and division on the search for a new consubstantiality. 24 might have helped us reflect on the basis of our unity and our differences, of what is holding us together as society, no matter what.


The author would like to thank Prof. Dr. Dietmar Till and Pia Engel for their inspiration, support, and encouragement.

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