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The Morality of “24″

May 25th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon

After 8 seasons, Monday night was the last night of the series, “24.”

Most times, no matter its popularity, a TV series is just a TV series. But in the case of this TV show, when the series’ main character, Jack Bauer, was referenced more than once on the floor of Congress, and Bauer’s actions were trotted out as an exhibit A in the middle of a panel discussion about torture and terrorism law, by none other than Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and then in 2007, the Dean of West Point, Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, along with some FBI interrogators and representatives of Human Rights First, traveled to LA to ask the show’s creative team to tone down the torture scenes because of the impact they were having both on troops in the field and America’s reputation abroad. ….I think we can safely say that we’re in some other kind of realm that transcends the “it’s only a TV show” trope.

The series showrunner and exec-producer, Howard Gordon, was on Fresh Air on Monday and had his own answer to the controversy:

“To say that we’ve been some … mouthpiece for some political point of view — it’s not only specious — but I promise you, it is insane. Any fly on the wall and anyone who’s been there would tell you the same. So unfortunately, look — the show is a show for one thing. It’s a thriller in the vein of Bourne Identity or Rambo or Dirty Harry. And the hero finds the bad guy and shakes out of him where the bomb is. And again, the real-time scenario lent itself really well to that. Frankly, for the first five years, I don’t think you could find a single article or op-ed piece that used the word ‘torture’ or described that this was somehow morally repugnant or corrosive or anything. I think what happened was, when Abu Ghraib happened and Guantanamo happened — the show certainly benefited from some kind of post-9/11 wish fulfillment; you had a guy who cut to the chase, who did whatever was necessary, and again there was some wish fulfillment involved — I do think the show experienced some of the blowback. We did understand that the climate had changed, because of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, it had changed. … [A]nd it put us into a conundrum. Honestly, at the end of Season 6 — where Jack had been acting a certain way — we had a choice: Either we renounce the series and admit we’re a bunch of torture-mongering, morally corrosive torture pornographers or we find a way of confronting this issue and this changed world that we’re in. And, in a strange way, it gave us fodder for the seventh season.”

Yes, well…

As a die-hard “24″ fan I have long been ambivalent about some of the show’s script choices, but have hung in faithfully because the delights of the series seemed always to outweigh its unsettling downsides.

(That is with the exception of 2007′s notorious Season 6, which went completely and creepily off the rails, both in terms of its over embrace of brutality, and frankly, in terms of the quality of the writing in general. But then, as Gordon said, it recovered in Season 7 where it articulated some of the moral issues around torture, plus had some very nifty plot twists, so all was forgiven.

Or sort of forgiven. It was somewhat vexing that both Fox and Friends and Glenn Beck—whose moral compasses, such as they ever were, seem to have long ago rusted—became so ooozily enamored of the show in Season 7, that they failed to perceive its ambiguities and still managed to use it as ajustification for torture not a caution against it.)

And, nearly any pronouncement from former “24″ producer, and co-creator, Joel Surnow, was enough to make some of us wonder if we were, oh, I don’t know, risking the health of our immortal souls by watching the show at all. But Surnow is thankfully long gone.

Now the last few hours of Season 8 have taken us into what is, in many ways, the darkest place of all.

In hour 20, we had to watch as Jack coldly executed the latest CTU insider traitor, Dana Walsh. (“24″ has pioneered a whole new class of evil broads—13 female villains in total. They have ranged from the queen of them all, Nina Myers, through the very, very bad first lady, Sherry Palmer, to this season’s Dana Walsh, who managed to project a sort of sloe-eyed, sexy spawn of Satan look that became its own kind of special effect.)

In hour 21, there was the matter of Jack disemboweling the Russian sniper/assassin who killed FBI agent and Bauer paramour, Renee Walker—AKA Jack’s Last Chance for Happiness. Now most of us might honestly have wanted to disembowel the guy too, but most of us also, I trust, would have stopped short of it (even if there was the vague justification of getting the guy’s recently swallowed cell phone sim card).

Hour 22 featured Jack clad in an Imperial storm troopers-like outfit as he prepared to kidnap the divinely Nixonian ex-President Charles Logan who, after seeing the scarily helmeted Bauer approach in the distance, screams in high hysteria to his secret service agent “That’s Jack Bauer, he’s coming to get me!” (A great “24″ moment, as were nearly all of actor Gregory Itzin’s scenes this season.)

Finally, there was the very last two hours—which I am reluctant to give away here if you haven’t yet watched the finale. I can tell you that the poet Rumi was quoted well in a crucial moment of foreshadowing—and that, in the end, everything came down to Jack and Chloe O’Brien—Mary Lynn Rajskub’s sour-faced and fabulously courageous character creation.—which was exactly as it should be.

I can also tell you that, for me anyway, the finale was a worthy two hours with which to cap the best of the eight seasons—complicated, multi-shaded, possessed of the courage of its convictions, and fraught with the knowledge that cleaving to what is just and right and true is the only worthwhile path, no matter the cost (and that there will be a cost), but when the cleaving grows too single-minded and brittle, it has its own soul corroding moral dangers.

So what, in the end did it all mean? Was it only a TV show as its producers say? Was it a pop cultural reflection of our desire for good and evil to be clearly demarcated with bright, shining lines in a manner that real life rarely provides? Or did it start to actually affect in troubling ways the culture it purported to merely reflect in fantastical broad strokes (with no meal times or bathroom breaks)?

Or was it all of the above—and, on occasions, like Monday night, satisfyingly more.

I’ll go with the latter.

What do you think?

Posted in art and culture, arts, Civil Liberties, torture, US Government, writers and writing | 30 Comments »

Military Veterans, the Supremes & Collateral Damage

April 6th, 2010 by Celeste Fremon


A June 2007 Supreme Court case called Bowles v. Russell,
had to do with a Mr. Bowles who missed his opportunity to file a Habeas appeal in a murder case. (Mr. Bowles was the alleged murderer.) It seems the court in question told him that the deadline was on the 26th of the month; he got his filing in a day early, on the 25th. However, the court had told him wrong. The actual deadline was two days earlier on the 24th. Ooops.

The upshot? Bye-bye appeal.

In a 5-4 decision the Supremes agreed with the lower court that while Bowles may have gotten a sucky deal, that was just the breaks. Deadlines were deadlines.

Mr. Bowles, it should be noted, was a convicted murderer and nobody’s idea of a sympathetic character.

Yet now the decision that bears his name is reaping unexpected and awful consequences-–not so much for convicted felons, but for injured military veterans.

Adam Liptak has the story in Tuesday’s NY Times.

Three years ago, the Supreme Court said there are some filing deadlines so rigid that no excuse for missing them counts, even if the tardiness was caused by erroneous instructions from a federal judge.

The vote was 5 to 4, and Justice David H. Souter wrote a furious dissent. “It is intolerable for the judicial system to treat people this way,” he said, adding that he feared the decision would have pernicious consequences.

He had no idea.

The court’s decision concerned a convicted murderer who had beaten a man to death. But now it is being applied to bar claims from disabled veterans who fumble filing procedures and miss deadlines in seeking help from the government. The upshot, according to a dissent in December from three judges on a federal appeals court in Washington, is “a Kafkaesque adjudicatory process in which those veterans who are most deserving of service-connected benefits will frequently be those least likely to obtain them.”

The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to hear an appeal from David L. Henderson, who was discharged from the military in 1952 after receiving a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. He sought additional government help for his condition in 2001, and he was turned down in 2004.

Mr. Henderson, who served on the front lines in the Korean War, had 120 days to file an appeal, but it took him 135 days. He had a pretty good excuse.

His psychiatrist has said under oath that he is “incapable of rational thought or deliberate decision-making.” As a consequence, the psychiatrist added, “Mr. Henderson has been incapable of understanding and meeting deadlines.”

The courts acknowledge this. On the other hand, they say, deadlines are deadlines.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, in Washington, ruled against Mr. Henderson in December, saying the Supreme Court’s decision from three years ago, Bowles v. Russell, left it no choice.

In a dissent, Judge Haldane R. Mayer, writing for himself and two colleagues, called the majority’s approach “both ironic and inhumane.”

Since the summer of 2008, writes Liptak, there have been more than 225 similar dismissals.

Read the whole thing. It’s very eloquent and very sad.

Transmissions,—the wonderful blog run by Diane Winston, USC’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion—frequently features smart and provocative essays.

The latest essay by Specialized Journalism grad student, Tom Pfingsten, talks about the lousy way the media covered the health care reform abortion controversy. It is particularly worth your time.

Here’s how it opens:

Politicized or not, most Christians have deeply religious reasons for opposing abortion, and that’s why it’s a shame that the U.S. media’s coverage of the issue at the most crucial moment of the recent congressional health-care debate was reduced to two lone words: “Baby Killer!”

They were shouted by Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) and they instantly displaced any thoughtful coverage that might have helped nonreligious Americans understand why abortion was such a sticking point for conservative legislators.

Neugebauer claimed he was referring to the health care bill, not Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who had opposed the bill because of its funding for abortions, but changed his mind and was speaking when “Baby Killer!” was heard throughout the room. Either way, Neugebauer’s outburst immediately became the most newsworthy thing to come from the health care debate that day, judging by the flood of coverage devoted solely to Neugebauer’s poorly timed exclamation.

Within hours, news sites and TV stations were knee deep in a whodunit-style investigation to uncover whose voice had sent the words flying across the floor of the legislature. Never mind why they were shouted. USA Today headlined its story with the revelation that Neugebauer was behind the unfolding scandal. The Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle both dissected the political consequences. And Diana Butler Bass, writing for the Huffington Post, focused on the morality of using the words “Baby Killer” as a personal insult. (Bass did, however, include an insightful paragraph about mainstream Christian beliefs regarding “any sort of intentional violence against human beings”—including abortion.)

Even before Neugebauer’s infamous flare-up on March 21, news outlets were doing a poor job of explaining why abortion was being viewed as a deal-breaker. On the previous day, the Washington Post astutely declared that the health-care vote “may hinge on abortion issues,” but did not explain why.

Read on.

NOTE: I regret to say that the comments are closed for the next few days.

Posted in crime and punishment, Guantanamo, Supreme Court, US Government, War | No Comments »

Andre Birotte Jr….Homeboys In ALA….and WLA Hiatus

December 28th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon



WitnessLA and I will be on hiatus until next Monday, Jan. 4, in order that I may spend some much-needed time focusing on a personal writing project.

From time to time during the week, I will likely put up mini posts. And I’ll tweet whenvever the spirit moves. And if something truly unignorable happens, I’ll reappear. But mostly I’ll be hiding out.

(Feel free to keep up the conversation in the interim, though. )


It was announced late last week that Andre Birotte Jr.,
who for the last six years has served as the Los Angeles Police Department’s inspector general, has been tapped by President Obama to become the top-of-the-heap federal prosecutor in Los Angeles—AKA the new U.S. Attorney. This fact has had me cheering loudly all weekend.

(Okay, part of the cheering might have been a result of those Stoli and ginger beer drinks my niece-in-law was mixing on Christmas eve. But most of it was because of the news that Andre Birotte was, indeed, as many of us had hoped, the official U.S attorney nominee.)


Congressman Bobby Scott’s Youth Promise Act, is one of those rare species of legislation: A well written bill. More than that, it’s a well written bill having to do with gang violence reduction, which makes it about as usual as a verified Yeti sighting.

And it’s picking up steam. Over half the members of the U.S. House – 234 Congress members- have signed on as co-sponsors of Scott’s bill.

But, as the Virginia-Pilot reports, there are still naysayers who favor more of the kind of get-tough policies that have not proven to be effective in the past. (Read the article. The V-Pilot does a nice job.)


For the third year in a row, Homeboy Industries has sent some of its former homeboy staff to Pritchard, Alabama, to work with young gang members and wannabees in this poorest of communities.

The LA Times’ Katy Newton has produced a stunningly good multimedia package on the trip and some of the personalities.

It is really, really worth your time to watch.

Then, after you finish with the video, click on the essay written by Trayvon Earl Jeffers, a tall, gangly former homeboy with a smile as big as the world who was among the Homeboy group who originally went to Alabama.

Then click on the Homicide Report’s account of Trayvon’s murder.



Okay, one more important read I had to add. Joel Rubin and Scott Gold have the story.

Posted in Gangs, Homeboy Industries, law enforcement, US Government | 23 Comments »

Heck of a Job, USPS! ….OR The Perils of Posting with Potter’s PO

February 19th, 2009 by Celeste Fremon


I now completely get the “going postal” thing. I mean it. Completely.
(And not in a good way.)

But, before I get into to my own pathetic US Postal Service-related story, it is important to place my petty grievances in the context of the larger USPS story that the Washington Times broke earlier this week:

As you may recall, there was a bit of a kerfuffle when the WT learned that, although more and more Americans are hurting financially, the US Postmaster General, a man named John. E. Potter, had a pretty swell year, last year.

The paper found that, not only did Mr. Potter get a 40 percent raise from his 2007 pay rate—-his salary jumped from $186,000 to $263,575— he also got a tidy bonus of $135,000, plus some additional “deferred earnings” and other perks—all of which added up to a total compensation package of $800,000 for 2008.

Nevermind that the agency he was running lost $3,8 billion last year. And that Mr. Potter told a Senate committee last month that if current trends continue, the agency could lose $6 billion or more this fiscal year. So… to cut costs, said Mr. Potter, he would like permission to deliver mail only five days a week and raise the price of postage by 2 cents, maybe more.

Some critics suggested that, given the condition of his agency, Mr. Potter’s personal fortunes were being guided by the Lose-Money-Get-Bonus theory recently pioneered at such commercial firms as Merrill Lynch and Citibank.

But Postal Service spokespersons argued that such characterizations were unfair, that the big problem was not anything that Potter was doing or failing to do. It was that, due to competition from the Internet and places like Fed Ex, fewer and fewer people were choosing to send their mail and packages through the taxpayer supported, executive-bonus-giving USPS.


OKAY. ALL OF WHICH BRINGS US to my own series of go-rounds with John Potter’s US Postal Service that have played out within the last 36 hours, and might conceivably shed some light on why so many American customers are fleeing Mr. Potter’s PO.

My sad and circuitous postal adventure began when I was preparing to mail 184-pages of a book manuscript to a destination in New York City. I needed the package to be in NY by Wednesday afternoon, Thursday at the latest. I could have sent the thing by Fed Ex, as was usually my habit, but what with the uncertain economy and all, I decided to be frugal. Instead of the $60 plus dollars that Federal Express would have charged, I would go with the guaranteed overnight of the USPS, which advertised itself to be just as good as FedEx, and it was less than half the price.

Yeah, I know. My bad.

But I didn’t realize it yet.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Economy, Life in general, US Government | 43 Comments »