Sunday, January 09, 2005

We'll Win This War - on '24'

The New York Times
January 9, 2005
We'll Win This War - on '24'

DOES anyone still remember the war on terror? On Sunday night, Jan. 9, it will be lobbed back onto the TV screen like a hand grenade with the new season of "24," Fox's all-cliffhangers, all-the-time series about Jack Bauer, the relentless American intelligence agent played by Kiefer Sutherland. You will find no plot surprises divulged here. But tune in, and you'll return, not necessarily nostalgically, to the do-or-die post-9/11 battle that has been all but forgotten as we remain trapped in its nominally connected sequel, the war against Saddam Hussein.

This show is having none of President Bush's notion that Iraq is "the central front in the war on terror." In "24," the central front of that war is the American home front, not Mosul. "We weren't thinking of the war in Iraq when we came up with this story," said Joel Surnow, the show's co-creator, when I spoke with him last week. On "24," they're thinking about Islamic terrorism instead of Baathist insurgents, about homeland security instead of the prospects for an election in the Sunni triangle.

In the America of "24," as in the real one, government bureaucrats are busier fighting each other than Al Qaeda. Trains are unprotected from terrorists, and so is the Internet. The handsome Turkish family next door in sun-dappled Southern California is a sleeper cell the F.B.I. didn't find. The secretary of defense must not only contend with terrorists but also with a glib antiwar son who, in his view, has succumbed to "sixth-grade Michael Moore logic." Dad, amusingly enough, is played by William Devane, the actor who first became famous 30 years ago impersonating John F. Kennedy in a television drama ("The Missiles of October") about a colder war where the battle lines were clearly drawn.

In its own way, "24" is as provocative as a Moore manifesto. It shows but does not moralize about the use of abuse and torture by Americans interrogating terrorists; the results cut both ways in the four hours of the season I've seen, and there's a hint, as vibrant as an orange jumpsuit, that American criminality at Guantánamo may guarantee ugly payback in the O.C. as well as in the Middle East. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, meanwhile, has already protested this season's portrayal of Muslims. Though Mr. Surnow says that later episodes will include positive Muslim characters, he makes no apologies for focusing on the bad guys (and one very bad woman, played by the Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, of "The House of Sand and Fog"). He regrets that he "pulled punches" a couple of seasons back by using generic terrorists of murky provenance with indefinable accents. "This year we deal with it," he says. "This is what we fear - Islamic terrorism. This is what we are fighting."

Richard Clarke, the former American counterterrorism chief who once helped lead that fight, has yet to catch up with "24." But in coincidental tandem with its premiere, he is giving it some competition: for the cover of the January-February issue of The Atlantic Monthly, he has written his own distressing piece of fiction about the war he feels has been sabotaged if not lost by mismanagement, complacency and the squandering of resources in Iraq.

Titled "Ten Years Later," it takes the form of a 10th-anniversary 9/11 lecture given by Professor Roger McBride at the Kennedy School of Government. This professor, like Jack in "24," does not buy into what Jonathan Raban, writing in The New York Review of Books, calls "the pretense of fighting terrorists abroad to prevent them from attacking us at home." As McBride looks back at our decade from the vantage point of 2011, he finds that we have prevented little by fighting in Iraq. He sees an America that has endured horrors at home strikingly similar to those on Fox's show: assaults on rail transportation, a computer virus that wipes out the nation's cyber infrastructure, the rise of "Al Qaeda of North America" and the panicky instigation of new Patriot Acts that remake America into Philip Roth's nightmare of a fascistic Lindbergh presidency.

This fictional lecture is heavily footnoted with actual sources and hard, detailed information about our current security shortfalls. The reader learns that Mr. Clarke is not indulging in idle fantasy when he speculates that the next terrorist assault on American economic might is less likely to involve airplanes and financial district skyscrapers than backpacks and Winnebagos wreaking havoc at the Mouseworld theme park in Florida, the Lion's Grand casino in Las Vegas and the Mall of the States in Minnesota. But why would Mr. Clarke choose fiction as a vehicle for this dark, fact-based scenario?

"In both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the only time I was really effective in getting senior officers to pay attention was when I had tabletop war games," he said in an interview. "That did more than any briefing paper I might write." Few critics of the American fight against terrorism, both before and since 9/11, have had more of a public forum than Mr. Clarke, who gave dramatic, widely televised testimony before the 9/11 commission and published one of 2004's biggest sellers, "Against All Enemies." Yet he still feels, not without reason, that his message has failed to land. "On 9/11 my staff was consoling me," he says. "They said, 'You didn't stop it but at least everything you wanted to get done will get done. It will just happen.' For a while it did. Then it petered out. It's sad. We had the window of opportunity and just didn't know how to use it."

His next attempt to make himself heard will also be fiction: a novel steeped in national security and foreign policy, scheduled to be published in October. Though it may not have sex scenes - "it's one of those things I'm debating" - Mr. Clarke sees popular fiction, which can outsell nonfiction by several multiples, as a way of reaching a still larger audience. He has also contributed some ideas to the script of "Dirty War," an HBO-BBC docudrama (to be shown Jan. 24 on HBO) that "24"-style portrays a self-satisfied British government as woefully ill-equipped to either prevent or respond to Islamic terrorists' detonation of a dirty bomb in central London.

"Pop culture is frequently ahead of where the news media are on these things," he says. And ahead of the government as well. Condoleezza Rice famously said in 2002, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." As we've since learned from several investigations, threat reports circulated within the American government predicted such airplane scenarios repeatedly before 9/11; one 1998 threat specifically targeted the twin towers. But fiction had been there earlier still. Mr. Clarke, like many others, cites the prescience of Tom Clancy's 1994 novel, "Debt of Honor," in which a Boeing 747 is crashed into the Capitol by a Japanese airman during a joint session of Congress, and the 1996 movie "Executive Decision," in which Kurt Russell battles Islamic terrorists who have seized control of another 747 so they can detonate a biological weapon in Washington.

Mr. Clarke says that friends who have read early copies of his Atlantic piece are e-mailing him to say, "See, it's already happening." But in his view we've hardly seen anything yet. "Madrid - 3/11 - could happen today in any of our major cities," he says. "There was security for the trains going from Washington to New York for the Republican National Convention, but what about the rest of the year?" Private security, he adds, is just as porous as government security: "When I go to an office building, I routinely sign in as Benjamin Franklin and no one ever objects. I show them my driver's license, which doesn't say 'Benjamin Franklin,' and they don't care."

Care must begin at the top, of course. In retrospect, Bernie Kerik's short-lived nomination as the new homeland security czar - "mind-blowing," as Mr. Clarke puts it - shows just how little concern there is. If homeland security were a top priority for the White House, someone would have discovered that the man selected to run the most sprawling new federal bureaucracy since the Defense Department in 1947 could not even manage his own personal finances, let alone his sex life. Were homeland security still a top priority for the country, the Kerik implosion might have whipped up some of the public outcry once sparked by the whistle-blowing F.B.I. agent Coleen Rowley (who quietly retired last month). But like duct tape and color-coded terror alerts before it, the Kerik nomination instead turned instantly into a Leno-Letterman gag that allowed us to dispel any lingering 9/11 fears with laughter.

Lost amid all those yuks was the full weight of last month's farewell confession of defeat by Tommy Thompson, the outgoing secretary of health and human services: "I, for the life of me, cannot understand why terrorists have not, you know, attacked our food supply, because it is so easy to do." He was followed out the administration's door in December by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general, Clark Kent Ervin (an actual official, despite his semifictional name), a Bush appointee whose history with the president goes back to the governor's office in Texas. Asked by Mimi Hall of USA Today what was wrong with his department, he replied, "It's difficult to figure out where to start," then described a dysfunctional agency that has failed to plug most holes in the nation's security net but has succeeded triumphantly in wasting taxpayers' money on bonuses and perks. His specific complaints overlap and confirm those in Mr. Clarke's "fiction" for The Atlantic.

But Mr. Ervin's final shots were barely noticed in the merriment that followed revelations of Mr. Kerik's ground zero love nest. He may now elucidate them further in a planned book, but you have to wonder if even best-selling nonfiction books written with the you-are-there zing of popular fiction - a description that fits both "Against All Enemies" and "The 9/11 Commission Report" - can wake up a country that has been so successfully distracted from the war initially declared after 9/11. As Mr. Clarke's Professor McBride says, "The several years without an attack on U.S. soil lulled some Americans into thinking that the war on terror was taking place only overseas." According to a roundup by the political newsletter Hotline, when some 20 Washington pundits made year-end talk-show predictions for the year to come, only one (Evan Thomas of Newsweek) foresaw the possibility of a domestic terrorist attack.

By common consent, 2004 was the year that Jon Stewart's fake news became more reliable for many viewers than real news. As 2005 begins, we must confront the prospect that a fictional TV action hero is more engaged with the war on terror than those in Washington who actually have his job.