When the ABCNews.com column assignment arrived mid-morning --"Is the TV show "24" going too far by depicting a nuclear attack in Los Angeles in its opening episode?"-- the drama went out of tonight's two-hour program. Or so I thought. As zero hour approached, I found myself assuming that the program really wouldn't actually depict a nuclear detonation near Los Angeles. I noted as the show unfolded that the script had the doomsday scenario putting the casualties of such an event at somewhere north of a hundred thousand, a remarkably low estimate, and that no mention was made of the catastrophic impact of radiation sickness or the second level but still devastating impact to surrounding infrastructure, the immediate refugee problem, or the collapse of the national economy. Given that the consequences of such a blast, I found myself doubting that the program would risk absurdity by depicting a post-nuclear attack America far more simple than anyone has a right to conceive.
But blow the nuke, the writers did, and apparently there are four more where that came from. How Jack and gang deals with the aftermath remains to be seen --martial law at least from Bakersfield to San Diego, and from the Pacific to Vegas, perhaps, and a Dow 1200? -- But the question put to me remains: Did the program "go too far?"
Given that there are easily, oh, 10 million people in the world who would stand up and cheer at the real version of Monday night's fictionalized attack, and at least a few tens of thousands trying hard to do a deed of at least proportionate scale given the weaponry available, it is silly to argue that "it" couldn't possibly happen. Of course it could happen. Eventually another nuke will go off, and it is not likely to be the obvious action of a state actor. So what is the "too far" in the question supposed to mean? It can only be that "24" is engaged in fear-mongering, and that is as stupid a charge as can be made.
Would a Paris newspaper have been going "too far" if it had run a short story in 1913 supposing trench warfare that would claim millions of casualties?
Had PBS run a drama proposing a Communist massacre of millions of Cambodians in 1973 or a Rawandan genocide of more than a half million Tutsis twenty years later, would those prophecies have been going "too far?"
The problem of the last century was a failure in the imagining of evil, a failure which was in some ways evil's accomplice. "It can't happen" often masked the very unfolding of the too-awful-to-occur event.
So now a few people are shuddering that "24" has gone and done it: Blown up Los Angeles and left the most productive part of the national economy crippled and hundreds of thousands dead. An event much more likely to occur in our lifetime than any catastrophe unleashed by global warming has been put on the table (and the LCD) and suddenly tongues are wagging about responsibility.
It isn't "only a television show," and appeals to the First Amendment are beside the point. The key question is whether the drama is a bit of absurd science fiction, or the projection of a not-so-distant future, not in its particulars, but in its awful core depiction.
Americans don't like to think of such an attack upon America. But prior to 9/11, they didn't like to think of airplanes crashing into skyscrapers and thousands dead in a moment and the government within hours of being decapitated.
Give the producers another fistful of Emmys and settle in to see how Jack handles post-nuclear America. "OK, I think we can agree that this is a big step up from the canister plot," Dave Barry wrote on his blog in real time after the blinding flash, a reference to the rather labored plot from last year, and an indication that even the veteran humorist who has been dining out on "24" for the past few years to the delight of a huge audience was taken aback. A shock to many, an upsetting nightmare for others.
A depiction of a happy ending for our enemies.