In the fourth season, among those tortured are the defence secretary's son-in-law and son (both with his full knowledge and support), and a female member of the CTU wrongly suspected of passing on information to terrorists. (When her innocence is revealed, she is asked to return to work immediately and accepts.) The CTU agents, after all, are dealing with the sort of "ticking-bomb" scenario evoked by the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to justify torture (why not torture someone who knows the location of a bomb that is jus about to kill hundreds of thousands of people?).
The agents treat themselves as expendable, ready to put their lives at stake if this will help to prevent an attack. Jack Bauer, (the agent and central character, played by Kiefer Sutherland), embodies this attitude. He not only tortures others but condones his superiors putting his own life at stake.
In the fourth season, Bauer agrees to be delivered to China as a scapegoat for a CTU covert operation that killed a Chinese diplomat. He knows he will be tortured and imprisoned for life but promises not to say anything that might damage US interests. When he is informed by the ex-president of the US that someone has ordered him to be killed, his two closest CTU friends fake his death. Both terrorist and CTU agents operate as examples of what the political philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer - someone who can be killed with impunity since, in the eyes of the law, their life no longer counts. While they continue to act on behalf of the legal power, their acts are no longer constrained by the law. It is here that we encounter the series' ideological lie: in spite of the CTU's ruthlessness, its agents, especially Bauer, are warm human beings - loving, caught in the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people.
24 should not be seen as a simple popular depiction of the sort of problematic methods the US resorts to in its "war on terror". Much more is at stake. Recall the lesson of Apocalypse Now. The figure of Kurtz is not a remnant of some barbaric past. He was the perfect soldier but, through his over-identification with the military, he turned into the embodiment of the system's excess and threatened the system itself.
The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.
There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.
Therein also resides the lie of 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.
This is a prime-television hit in North America, in case anyone is wondering whether they should start worrying about the New Man of 21st century North America.