The Fox show 24 is getting ready to air its 8th season this January. If you’ve never seen the show it focuses around the main character Jack Bauer who works for the United States Government to help stop a looming terrorist attack. Each season the terrorists are different, the attacks are different and the situations are different but in each season Jack Bauer has to make a decision of if he wants his hand to be dirty or clean.
Countless times in the show it seems, Bauer decides whether he will torture somebody who he believes will be able to give him information that will help to stop the terrorist attack or not. He almost always decides to torture the suspect and in the process gets his hands dirty. Bauer is seen as in the Protestant Model of dirty hands to be a tragic hero. He suffers and has to deal with all of the skeletons in his closet of all the people he hurt or killed. This situation is almost the same thing as Walzer describes in his essay Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands. In his piece Walzer describes a politician having to decide whether or not he will torture a captured enemy leader who knows the locations of bombs set to explode around the city.
The moral dilemma is faced in both circumstances. The person can either choose to go with what he knows to be right and not torture, or torture them for the good of the general public. In season 8 of 24 the President, Allison Taylor, had to make several decisions involving this problem. She was seen as a good person when she was running for President but was forced to compromise her morals. Terrorists threatened that they would use a “CIP” device, that can circumvent even the most powerful firewalls and security to control computers, unless the President withdrew American troops from the fictional African country of Songala. They demonstrated this power by taking control of air traffic control and intentionally crashing two planes. The troops had been put there to help fight a brutal dictator and help the severely impoverished people of Songala. This situation is similar to the first situation proposed by Walzer in The Problem of Dirty Hands. In this situation a leader has to decide whether they will make a deal with a corrupt deal in order to win an election.
Walzer makes the point that in order to be an effective leader you have to get you hands dirty. The voters want and expect that you will do what it takes to be a leader even if it means compromising your values, but they also don’t want someone who is a bad person. So Walzer says the compromise between the two is that if you feel remorse for getting your hands dirty then what you did was ok. This seems to be the opinion of President Taylor’s decisions. Many of her advisers tell her that what she did was necessary and she was still a good person because of it. Niccolo Machiavelli in his book The Prince says that it is necessary for the prince (the ruler) to be bad. He needs to be able to go against his conscious and make the hard choice.
The opposite to these arguments state that there is always another way out, and that being a good person is more important than anything else. This view is almost never represented in 24, it is always black and white that the only choices are to torture somebody or to watch thousands of people get killed. Walzer explores this but at the end comes to the conclusion that the dirty hands problem will always persist. I think that there will always be another solution and that the dirty hands problem is not inevitable in politics.
The Prince in Modern Political Thought: Readings from Machiavelli to Nietzsche. 2nd ed., edited by David Wootton (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2008).
Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands. Walzer, Michael. 1973.