Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Knowing Jack

Jack is back, with 22 weeks of non-stop craziness. This time it's Islamic terrorists with five suitcase nukes, though the way the series works by the end of the season it will be Sri Lankan separatists with an anti-matter device. I have to say that I love the show, and thankfully it has gotten rid of the non-stop escalation of dangers that marked its first few seasons with each season poising an ever greater threat to the country. For a while there it was looking like Season 4 would begin with terrorists threatening to hurl the Earth into the sun, but they have instead wisely moved laterally with the intimidations.

I’m not the only one that enjoys the show. Plenty of people from the political right love it as well, as shown by the concern that the administration was writing the episodes this season, what with the nuke going off in the planned community of Valencia, California (home of Magic Mountain and the California Institute of the Arts). The main gist is the crazy amount of torture that goes on in the series, and the apparent justifications for it.

I find that odd, considering how the show actually portrays it. The argument is that 24 showcases the ‘ticking time bomb’ theory of relaxing restrictions on torture. But on the show, the restrictions aren’t relaxed; Jack just tortures anyway, when he ‘knows he’s right’; but the key point is that Jack is also willing to take responsibility for his actions. In seasons past he has allowed himself to be killed and revived, resigned his post, and exiled to prison in China; all as payback for his breaking the rules. He is perfectly willing to trade his job, freedom or even his life in exchange for what he feels to be a greater good – that of preventing the deaths of thousands or millions.

Jack has character, which the people in the administration and their supporters clearly lack. They want to be able to solve the ticking time bomb problem with no consequences, and that is their ultimate argument. Aside from the well documented problems with torture delivering information of dubious quality, the punishments given by laws against torture provide a powerful check on those who would do it. Do I really ‘know I’m right?’ And if you are, it’s simple moral calculus to trade some jail time for yourself to save the lives of millions of others. Of course if you’re wrong…

There was a somewhat simplistic ‘mind game’ proposed in a Law an Order episode a while back. The idea was that if Bin Laden were standing next to you in New York with a suicide nuclear bomb strapped to his chest and you had a gun, would you be a vigilante and shoot him, or would you call the police. They just posed the question, and never answered it; but calling the police is the only legal response, and for good reason. Vigilantism results in society breaking down with countless bad results. But in the Bin Laden scenario, the correct response is to shoot the guy, and turn yourself in. Going to jail for several years is an easy trade for the lives of thousands of others. But you turn yourself in, because we live in a country that is governed by the rule of law.


For a crass read, Buffalo's free weekly, The Beast, has just published its annual list of America's 50 most Loathsome people, complete with charges, evidence, and the required punishment. One of my personal favorites from this year is the punishment reserved for Ken Lay:

Sentence: Drinking a martini in his bathrobe and reading the Wall Street Journal at his secret compound in the South Pacific, the "late" Mr. Lay starts choking on an olive when the 400th major daily article to describe his life as "Shakespearean" makes him laugh out loud. Lay falls out of his chair, impaling an eyeball with the stem of his glass and catching his penis in a $900 toaster. The electrical current triggers the long-dormant prefrontal cortex of his now-smoldering brain, suddenly activating Lay's conscience. As he is slowly and painfully electrocuted over several minutes, Lay experiences a lifetime of guilt and remorse. Then he catches fire.

The 2005 list is available here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Happy '007

And after much traveling and much working we are back on the air. Happy 2007. After my brother has been shaming me with his prolific posting (though cutting and pasting emails, however interesting and thought provoking, does strike me as a bit of a cheat), I vow to try to keep up my end of the deal.

So what does 2007 have in store? Several people have been weighing in over the past month, and though it may seem like moldy news now, it shouldn't be forgotten. First of all the right Reverend Pat Robertson announced that God told him that a 'mass killing' will hit the U.S. this year. Not to worry right now - it will apparently happen in the later part of the year. Plenty of time to prepare. When asked about it he said:

"I have a relatively good track record," he said. "Sometimes I miss."

What is odd about that statement of course is that he earlier said that he is not predicting it, but instead reporting what God told him. So the question remains about whether when God speaks he has difficulty understanding, or Mr. Robinson is using some variant of the 'royal we'; sort of a 'theological I'. That would indicate that Mr. Robinson considers himself God, not a very palatable prospect.

So should we worry? Well many don't think so, for an AP/Ipsos poll released the same day as God's announcement indicated that 25% of Americans believe that Jesus is returning this year. No word on how that relates to any previous polling done, which I would find interesting. Now granted that is 6 points higher than the number of people who think that scientists will discover extraterrestrial life this year (and only a few more points higher than the percentage of Americans who are drunk before breakfast), but still: One out of every four people that you run into in a grocery store think that Jesus is returning, not soon, but this year. Some more breakdown on the poll:

Forty-six percent of white evangelical Christians believe it's at least somewhat likely that Jesus Christ will return in 2007, while 22 percent believe it's very likely. Thirty-four percent of all Protestants say it's at least somewhat likely, compared with 17 percent of Catholics. Ten percent of those with no religion believe that Christ is at least somewhat likely to return in 2007.

So 1 out of 10 atheists and agnostics believe that it is 'somewhat likely' that Jesus is returning this year. A pretty impressive feat for the Son of God to get millions of people who don't believe that he exists to believe that nonetheless he is dropping by pretty soon.