Inspiration for economic recovery might come from TV’s fast turnarounds

President-elect Barack Obama wants Congress to “act boldly and act now” to fix the economy. Sounds as if he needs Jack Bauer on his economic team.

Bauer on television’s “24” is the man who fights terrorism using savvy and torture without regret. When “24” begins Sunday night, I’m hoping at some point in Season 7 there’s some evil Wall Street character Jack needs to torture.

The series finale was in the can before Bernard Madoff and his $50 billion pyramid scheme became public, but I think a lot of the folks who moaned about the show’s portrayal of torture as acceptable might be more forgiving if Bauer found a painful way to squeeze “save the world” information from a greedy Wall Street financier. Moral objections to the show might weaken if Jack were torturing one of those Wall Streeters who took huge bonuses or golden parachutes knowing their companies were going kaput.

A shot in the kneecap or a slice-and-dice of a body part could be cathartic for some of us watching our retirement money evaporate because of what’s happened to the economy, partly through the combined greed of mortgage bankers, Realtors and overconfident, unqualified homebuyers.

Plop the morality of take-the-money-and-run alongside the morality of Bauer’s do-what-it-takes approach and decide which is the more callous. At least on “24,” Bauer is saving gobs of people.

Bauer’s willingness to use torture has been hotly debated since its first season in 2001, which began less than a month after the Sept. 11 acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. At first, viewers went wild about the intense and unconventional show and not just conservatives. I wasn’t the only left-of-center columnist to confess — without any torture — that “24” was a guilty pleasure. When I wrote about the show in 2005, the focus was on how Bauer, the compelling character played by Kiefer Sutherland, provided hope that America will succeed against foreign terrorists.

Now we’re looking for a different kind of superhero, someone who can figure out how to stabilize an economy that seems as if it’s sailing down a giant water slide.

Nine days after we watch the fictional Jack Bauer defend torture as a tactic in the war against terrorism, we’ll be watching Obama’s inauguration and listening to a speech that must be crafted to give us hope that better times are ahead.

Bauer and Obama both offer hope. Hope for solutions. Hope they are right in what they do. What Bauer offers that Obama can’t is speed. Whatever happens on “24” will happen fast without any lollygagging.

The $700 billion bailout that doesn’t seem to have made any difference? Under Jack’s direction, we’d be seeing real change by now. Maybe Jack could have squeezed out of officials at financial institutions how the money is being spent.

In February, the Wall Street Journal’s story on reinventing “24” described how lead writer Howard Gordon anguished about trying to revive the show, which had lost some of its vim in Season 6. Gordon’s solution was to come up with the two-hour movie “Redemption” and have Jack sacrifice himself to save children in a war-torn country that seems a lot like Sudan or Rwanda.

Jack is what he is, and so far he hasn’t anguished about the choices he’s made. Need to cut off a finger to make someone talk? Do it. Torture works on deadlines.

Portraying torture as acceptable on a TV show was anathema to many. Others wondered whether we could do what Bauer did if hundreds of thousands of lives were endangered. This season, a female FBI agent will be the one anguishing about Bauer’s methods, not Jack. She’ll wrestle with one of our toughest yet most basic ethical questions: Do the ends justify the means?

Will today’s economy change how the public views Jack now, compared to how viewers judged him 20 months ago? Will Jack give us hope through a speedy solution? Maybe.

But just maybe by the time “24” ends its season in May our economy will have stabilized, even if it hasn’t pulled out of this nosedive.

Otherwise, by then, we should be far less concerned about debating Jack’s morality and far more concerned about whether Obama’s economic plan looks as if it’s working.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/morrison/.

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