A Television Milestone

by Paul Donahue

My wife reads novel after novel, but I admit it, when I want to escape from reality, I watch television instead, and rather a lot of it. I don't watch just animal-packed nature documentaries on PBS, but also crime dramas, spy dramas, war dramas - anything with intrigue, action, and, often enough, violence. It’s not that I enjoy violence, I don’t. It’s just that I’m perfectly capable of distinguishing between fictional violence and the real thing. I can abhor war and enjoy a good war movie all at the same time, and for me there’s no contradiction in that.

 In my defense, television is not completely the mind-numbing wasteland that many depict it to be. It also can be very instructive. The dramas I watch are entertaining, but they serve another function for me - they are a way to keep a finger on the pulse of the nation. Television reflects the changing attitudes of the American people. This is easily seen in the way in which sex has been handled over the decades, from the separate beds of television couples in the 1950’s and early 1960’s to the teenage and homosexual sex scenes in the television of today.

 More important to me, and more frightening, is the way in which the portrayal of the US military and US police forces has changed over time, especially in the eleven years since 9/11. The series 24, about the work of the fictitious CTU (Counter-Terrorism Unit), broke new ground in its depiction of torture by agents of the US government. Following the lead of 24, torture by the US military and US police forces soon became a common element in television shows, especially in the proliferation of programs with the “Muslims with bombs” theme. Shows like The Unit depicted US military forces breaking international law on a weekly basis, violating the sovereignty of country after country, torturing, and even assassinating foreign “terrorists”, usually Muslims. The success of these programs made it clear that Americans had come to accept torture as necessary, and felt that our military forces had the right to go wherever they wanted and do whatever they pleased, without regard to the law, and without fear of accountability, so long as they were, supposedly, protecting us from terrorists.

 Last night, September 25th, on the season premiere of NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service), self-described as television’s most highly rated drama, another television milestone was passed. In the episode, the NCIS headquarters in Washington was bombed, with an undisclosed number of fatalities resulting. The bomber, a middle-aged, white, non-Muslim (a welcome change) male was also responsible for another fatal bombing aboard a US naval vessel. The identity of the bomber was known and the order came down from the President of the United States to deal with the alleged perpetrator using “extreme prejudice”. In other words, the federal agents hunting the bomber were ordered by the President not to arrest the alleged perpetrator and bring him to justice, but to simply kill him.

 When the bomber is first located, he is lured into a hotel room by an attractive woman. When he excuses himself to use the bathroom, the woman, an undercover FBI agent, lets in four more agents in full battle dress, with “FBI” emblazoned in large white letters across the back of their body armor. With a five to one ratio, and the FBI agents armed with automatic weapons, arresting the alleged perpetrator would have been an easy task. Instead, without a word of warning, all five agents raise their assault rifles and release a volley of fire at the closed bathroom door, behind which, they assume, is the unsuspecting, and perhaps unarmed, bomber. Unfortunately for them, however, the bomber had suspected something was up and slipped out the bathroom window before the firing began.

 In the final scene, the leader of the NCIS team tracks down the bomber again. Over the past nine seasons of the show, this team leader has been built up to be an individual of strong moral fiber, a stickler for the law, with a deep love of the United States of America. Of course, like all law enforcement agents, he has taken an oath to defend and protect the US Constitution. When he arrives, the bomber is unarmed and unthreatening, and, again, there is ample opportunity to arrest him. Instead of even attempting to arrest him, however, the agent simply murders him - and, for added effect, with a knife.

 In case you are missing the significance of this, the writers and producers of NCIS, the most highly rated drama on television, now feel that the American people are comfortable accepting the premeditated murder of American citizens on US soil by federal agents acting on the order of the President. When Third World governments send teams of assassins out to kill the country’s citizens, we refer to those teams as death squads, and the term has a strong negative connotation. Should it be any different with US assassination teams? Where in the world would the writers and producers have gotten the idea that it was okay if agents of the US government were the ones doing the killing?

 We used to have documents known as the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights that guaranteed all of us, even murderers, even mass murderers, the right to due process…the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, the right to counsel, and the right to a jury trial. Obama, however, the US Assassin-in-Chief and one of the world’s more prominent reigning war criminals, has decided that these rights are no longer important or applicable and that he has the authority to play judge, jury and executioner. In his murder of at least three American citizens to date, we are supposed to forget the fact that, like law enforcement agents, Obama took an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. The Obama team even felt confident enough in their extra-Constitutional actions to leak a story to the New York Times about their weekly “kill-list” meetings, describing how Obama sits around with his advisors deciding who should live and who should die. As indication of how far we have come as a people, Obama’s ratings actually got a boost from the story, as his aides undoubtedly predicted. Television is now reflecting that massive sea change in government behavior and the American public’s acceptance of it.

 If the writers and producers of NCIS read the mood of the American public correctly, and I suspect they did, then there will be zero to little objection from the public to the radical theme of the show. If there’s no objection, then I expect the theme will soon become more common. With the series 24, real-life military interrogators were actually picking up pointers on torture from watching Jack Bauer, the lead character in the series. So far as we know, Obama has murdered three American citizens, and all were outside of the US. However, if murder by presidential decree spreads around the television dial and life imitates art again this time, perhaps agents of the federal government will feel emboldened to expand their homicidal activities to include Americans on US soil. In any case, we should all thank Obama, the Nobel Peace Laureate, for this significant contribution to American popular culture.


Pacifica, California

 26 September 2012