Congressman Jack Bauer

May 28, 2010

You would be forgiven for thinking that Jack Bauer was actually running in the fall elections, as his name is being continually invoked on the campaign trial. The Daily Beast has even been moved to identify a new breed of candidate: “Jack Bauer Republicans.”

As a presidential candidate in 2008 Mitt Romney famously promised to “double” Guantanamo if he got elected. Freshman Senator Scott Brown has made political capital out of his support for enhanced interrogation. Now a fresh crop of candidates in this fall’s election are going one step further and making their disregard for the law a national security virtue.

In April 2004 2nd Lieutenant Ilario Pantano shot two unarmed prisoners in Fallujah, Iraq, killing them both. He emptied between 50-60 rounds into the two men and actually had to reload his weapon to fire this many rounds. He then left a sign on their bodies bearing the popular Marine slogan: “no better friend, no worse enemy.”

Pantano is running for Congress in North Carolina. He claims that he acted in self-defense but the US military found his story sufficiently implausible that he was charged with premeditated murder. The case collapsed because investigators were unable to corroborate key witness testimony which came from another member of Pantano’s unit.

Pantano remains unrepentant and has been spinning the incident as evidence of his hard-line credentials on security issues. It should come as no surprise that on the campaign trail he has expressed support for torture and impunity for those who carry it out:

“What our men and women were doing in enhanced interrogations was not torture and the prospect of investigations smacked of politics.”

In August 2003 Lt. Col. Allen West stood and watched while his men beat up a suspected insurgent, Iraqi policeman Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi. He then threatened to kill Hamoodi, drawing his own handgun and discharging it next to the man’s head – all in an attempt to force him divulge information he was believed to be concealing.

It is far from clear that the Iraqi policeman was connected to insurgents in any way. Indeed, having first told investigators that he gained vital intelligence from his actions, West later changed his tune telling the New York Times: “It’s possible that I was wrong about Mr. Hamoodi.” The victim maintains his innocence to this day.

West, who is now running for Congress in Florida, has made this incident the centerpiece of his campaign telling one rally:

“You might recall that in 2003, I made the decision where I sacrificed my military career for the lives of my men… I will sacrifice every ounce of me to be your next congressman.”

Sarah Palin endorsed West as having served with distinction in Iraq despite the fact that he was relieved of his command and fined $5000 as a result of the military’s own investigation into his actions.

Threatening to execute a suspect unless they provide information may be a staple of movie hardmen but it is also a war crime and grave breach of the Geneva Conventions. The US would seek to prosecute any foreign soldier who did this to an American POW.

However, it is Chuck Devore’s campaign for the senate in California that has gone furthest to lay claim to Jack Bauer’s mantel in a bizarre television spot that mixes fact and fiction by suggesting that Devore and “Cadet” Bauer served together in the ROTC at Fort Knox.

The ad ends with the tag line:

“Ask yourself this question, Jack Bauer fans: which person would Jack want as his US senator?”

Fictional characters have little to teach us about counter-terrorism. They inhabit lurid world of weekly cliffhangers, elaborate conspiracies and doomsday weapons that bear as much relation to the real threat we face as the adventures of James Bond do the craft of intelligence-gathering.

The test of who one would want answering that 3am phone call has much merit. There is no shortage of individuals on both sides of the partisan divide with credible real world experience and values we can all admire. Such people do not need Hollywood scriptwriters or well-paid defense attorneys to polish their resumes.

The apparent popularity of Pantano, West and Devore speaks volumes about the erosion of American values since the September 11 attacks and the importance of fighting to restore them. Abhorrence of torture used to be a norm in American public life, now the taint of brutality seems to be an asset.

Yet it is worth noting that neither Pantano’s nor West’s actions actually advanced America’s cause in Iraq. Indeed their actions constitute precisely the kind of “nonbiodegradable” behavior that General David Petreaus believes attracted new volunteers to Al Qaeda in droves in 2003 and 2004 and cost 1000s of American lives.

America will be a much safer place if the ‘Jack Bauer candidates’ – like their hero – fail to attract the ratings in the fall that they need to stay on the air.