Ethics Quote Of The Week: Kiefer Sutherland

“I’ve been mystified by this. You have to understand that we’re not writing foreign policy. This is a dramatic television show, and Jack threatening to blow someone’s knees off because he wants information is a dramatic device to show how urgent or desperate a situation is. It should not be taken as this is what we think the CIA should be doing.”

—–“24” star, as “Jack Bauer,” Kiefer Sutherland, expressing his bewilderment at criticism of his show for depicting a hero who resorts to torture repeatedly, in an interview with United’s in-flight magazine, “Hemispheres.”

jack_bauer_tortureWe shouldn’t criticize actors for not being rocket scientists, or even ethicists. Nonetheless, this comment shows a remarkable ignorance of how a society passes on values and virtues, and the role played by literature, legends and pop culture.

Sutherland is the hero of his show, one of the good guys. What our society depicts the good guys as doing, the values they hold, the virtues they display, the goals they seek and the methods they use to achieve them, both reflects the values of our culture and sends the message that these are the kinds of conduct that the culture wants to encourage. Celebrating as heroes individuals who routinely kill when they are not protecting themselves or the innocent, engage in cruelty, theft, or the abuse of others, or unapologetic law-breaking encourages our younger generations to regard such anti-social conduct as defensible, or even the norm.

Does Sutherland really not understand that? This is why an earlier generation’s pop culture heroes openly endorsed strict moral and ethical codes of conduct, unwritten, as with Superman’s scrupulous dedication to “truth, justice and the American way,” or written, like Gene Autry’s Cowboy Code, or spoken, like Green Lantern’s oath to battle evil. Now, what are referred to or treated as the heroes of movies, TV shows and video games display the ethics sensitivity of the sociopath, like Raymond “Red” Reddington, the charismatic hero of “The Blacklist” who is also a liar, a terrorist, a killer, a torturer and a hit man.  Another criminal-hero is Walter White, from “Breaking Bad,”whose character was  written to make drug dealing appear, if not exactly good, sort of noble. On “House of Cards,” Kevin Spacey’s juicy portrayal of the ultimate “ends justifies the means” politician (he is now President of the United States) would undercut any civics class, and these are just a sampling of a large, ethically repugnant—but exciting and entertaining!— group.

I am willing to believe that Sutherland is really clueless, or at least reluctant to criticize his bread-and-butter. I do not believe that Hollywood executives and writers  suddenly forgot what the industry knew and enforced for decades: that it was important to our society’s health to promote virtuous behavior and represent heroes as good citizens, admirable human beings, and inspiring role models, and not as the opposite. They still know that is important, but it’s just not as important to them as making money. If it makes future American generations cynical, mean, and willing to shoot someone in the kneecaps to get what they want, well, too bad.


24 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Kiefer Sutherland

      • The glorification of the hero who has to break the law to enforce the law is pervasive. Incompetent leadership and the rogue hero showing us the only way to enforce the law is to break it started with Dirty Harry, was hilarious with Adel Foley and on and on until the torch was passed intro the hands of Jack Bauer. Where did Malloy and Reed go? They were real cops.

  1. I dislike calling those characters heroes, they don’t really warrant it. They are the awkward word ‘protagonist’ or lead characters. Heroes may slip once in a while, but that makes them human. But they try to do the right thing and don’t forget the ends cannot justify some means. Jack Bauer passed into ‘lead’ many seasons ago, and I don’t like that so many people admire in such glowing terms.

    We have to make sure to separate the actors and their parts, Vincent Price was a gentleman offstage. But the actors also need to be able to separate the borderline villains they portray and the people and characters who ARE heroes. Being a hero is far more than standing in front of an audience or shooting a weapon.

  2. Let’s not forget Dick Wolf’s latest forays into law enforcement drama with “Chicago PD” and “Law and Order SVU’s” slow stray from the straight and narrow. Olivia Benson beat an admittedly villainous assailant nearly to death and Nick Amaro has slid further and further into the realm of beat first and ask questions later. Chicago PD features not one rogue cop, but a whole unit of them, led by the villainous Sergeant Voight who might smash someone’s hand with a pool cue today,twist a suspect’s fractured shoulder tomorrow, and then drink a coffee toast over the slain or give a smug voiceover as to how he’s going to run his unit his way as the show closes.

    BTW, your thoughts on the now-gone-9-years NYPD Blue and the depicted ethical development of the character of Andy Sipowicz from racist jerk to flawed but basically decent everyman?

    • It was a Lou Grant stunt, keeping an actor and a character that had appeal and essentially making it a different character entirely. A breach of integrity for any show. Other examples? Turning Fonzie into a nerd, making Cordelia,the spoiled bimbo from Buffy, into an admirable heroine on “Angel” (and doing the same kind of transformation with Wesley).

  3. I caught part of a showing of Inglourious Basterds on TV. I saw a scene in which the “good” guys threatened, then carried out, atrocities on prisoners in order to get results; this was presented as worthy, because of the cause and because of who the prisoners were – Germans.

    And it has happened in real life too. Some years ago, I saw the obituary of the death here in Melbourne of the founder of the Jewish Bialik Brigade that operated in Poland under German occupation. That presented as praiseworthy their threats of reprisals against whole Catholic villages to force single households to shelter Jews.

    I found both the fiction and the fact shocking.

    • The movie is interesting in that respect—a revenge fantasy where Jews turn the tables on Germans. It’s the ultimate Tit for Tat challenge, but Tarentino, who I enjoy immensely, is the master of creating brutal and simultaneously likable characters. It’s subversive, entertaining, and troubling.

  4. I would place Jack Bauer in a different category than Raymond Reddington or Walter White (or Tony Soprano to pick another example), because the latter are seen as bad people within the world they inhabit. They’re protagonists, so we naturally identify with them, but the other characters in the story are aware that they’re not good guys.

    Jack Bauer (or rule-breaking cops like Steve McGarrett on the new Hawaii Five-O) are different because they’re not bad guys in their world. The people around Jack may question his actions, but he usually turns out to be doing what has to be done, and Danny may nag McGarrett about his unorthodox ways, but McGarrett’s tactics usually work out.

    Part of the insidious appeal of these characters is that they exist in a world where consequentialism works. It’s not just the usual consequentialist case where doing something unethical happens by random chance to work out well this time. In the fictional world of these characters, breaking the rules works every time. Torture the bad guy, find the ticking time bomb. Break in without a warrant, save the girl. The real-world downsides never materialize. It makes them very bad examples.

    • That lack of consequences is why the supposed heroes bother me more than the villains who attract admirers. The rules usually have a purpose, and flaunting them for your convenience or revenge is not a behavior to encourage. Others get hurt by the flaunting even if they can pretend they don’t. Reddington admits he’s a villain.
      The flaw of these shows is that consequentialism always works. But it doesn’t. Break in, and the evidence could be worthless, the crooked cop’s cases all appealed. Blame the courts… until it’s the lead being framed and they love due process. I had to give up on H50 after the first season, because I thought the lead was morals poison. I don’t want people like that protecting my family.

    • “Part of the insidious appeal of these characters is that they exist in a world where consequentialism works.”

      This is an important point, actually, because that world in which they exist is not the real world. It is one (a very similar one) where everything that happens is scripted by a writer. The outcome is not only certain but also deliberately chosen by the writers.

      In such a world, the hero risks nothing, and even benefits from a weird sort of “King’s Pass” reality. What he or she does WILL work, and everything will turn out okay in the end.


      • Thence derives the adage, “don’t believe everything you see on TV”.

        An adage I hear less and less as time goes on. An adage applicable to all forms of media, and an adage likely derived from the ancestors of TV, stage acting… Where society’s distrust of actors outside their profession was understood. As Lee, apochryphally exclaimed in Gettysburg, “We move on word of an actor?!”

  5. Short and quick:

    In an unjust system, the only way to create justice is by breaking the rules of the unjust system. The modern “heroes” are just part of Hollywood’s generally Leftist message that our society is not founded on enshrined Justice. This really shouldn’t be a surprise. According to them, our society is built around grossly unfair and unjust institutions that create unfair and unjust rules, which must be skirted, in order to create “true justice”. That slippery slope inevitably helped create the cynical society we have today, that embraces the darker, just outside the law, heroes that always rely on ends justifies the means ethics.

    • Dunno what’s worse, Voight tuning suspects up because that’s what he does or him persuading Dawson to wrap his fist with a chain and use Pulpo as a bop bag until he gives up the information they need.

    • You are correct, fictional media representations go along way to skewing the Common Man’s opinion of the police.

      Yet, it doesn’t help our opinion either when the News Media increasingly focuses on bad cops. It doesn’t help either when it seems police departments rely more and more on paramilitarized or pretend-military special police units. I was seriously irritated by the Martial Law (and it was martial law) imposed to find Dzhokar Tsarnaev – of course that would have been a call made by someone outranking the police and part of my irritation was watching the sheep of Massachusetts sit by while the sheep dogs edged closer to being wolves.

      In the same vein it doesn’t help when the PDs are falling all over themselves to grab excess military equipment – which is a double edged sword, if a PD can afford it, why not go ahead and get it? That makes sense, but still, I don’t need my police rolling around in the baby brother of a tank.

      On an personal integrity note, it doesn’t help when, while sitting at a red light, I’ve seen more than a dozen police officers flip on their lights, run the red light, then switch them off again. Seen more than my fair share of officers speeding WELL in EXCESS of the speed limit. Seen plenty of them chilling out in shady parking lots jabbering with a fellow parked officer as opposed to, say, patrolling.

      When did you change your blog’s appearance?

  6. Why blame the actor for what the writer and director invented? Might as well say Will Shakespeare was a psychopath because his plays routinely feature murder, than to complain that drama in our gun-soaked, militarized culture happens to center on violence.

    • I’m not. I’m blaming him for making a statement that is ethically ignorant. He doesn’t understand why a torture addicted hero is ethically problematical. I don’t blame Mark Harmon for playing Ted Bundy, but if he gave an interview in which he argued that Ted was kind of a great guy, yes, I’d call that an unethical quote too.

    • Note, also, that this behavior would not keep happening if there was not a market for it. Have I mentioned lately that we are doomed?

    • Our culture is militarized? News to me…and I was in the military. Gun-soaked? Maybe in comparison to other countries. Who says those other countries are a healthy baseline to compare to?

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