Sunday, February 19, 2006

Ethical Dilemmas

One of my favorite TV programs is 24. I know that it’s unrealistic that one organization, CTU, and one person, Jack Bauer, could succeed in saving the nation from diabolical terrorist plots so many times and all in a twenty-four hour period, but it’s still exciting TV about highly skilled people and an extraordinary hero triumphing over evil time and again.

In the most recent episode, CTU,
Jack Bauer, and the president of the United States are faced with a terrible ethical dilemma. Russian separatists, angry that their plot to use a deadly nerve agent against the Russian government and people has been foiled by elements in the U. S government, are determined to exact revenge by using the gas to inflict heavy casualties on the American people. They have many canisters of the gas, and they decide to use the first in a shopping mall filled with a thousand men, women, and children. Jack Bauer is working undercover with two of the terrorists preparing to unleash this gas in the mall. CTU, the president, and, ultimately, Jack Bauer must decide whether to allow the terrorists to kill the people in the mall with the gas so that these terrorists can maybe be followed back to the other terrorists and the remaining canisters of gas, or to stop them in their tracks. Of course, if they’re stopped, the other terrorists will be able to use those other canisters to kill perhaps hundreds of thousands of people.

What should the president decide? What would you decide if you were the president? The president decides to sacrifice the lives of the relative few for the lives of the many, and CTU concurs. But Bauer, who has seen the faces of the would-be victims of this attack up close and personal, is in a position to overrule the president’s decision or to go along with it and allow the terrorists to do their deadly deed. What should he do? What would you do?

I can think of an analogous real life situation that took place during World War II. Allied intelligence had broken the German code and knew when the Germans were planning to destroy ships carrying passengers and supplies from allied countries. The allies could have used this info to save those ships and many lives, but if they did, the Germans would know that their communications were being deciphered and greater harm could result than was prevented. The Allies decided not to tip their hat, and many innocent people lost their lives.

I would hate to be in a position of having to decide what to do in cases such as this, but I love to see fictional stories posing these kinds of
ethical dilemmas and to grapple with them in my mind and heart. Part of the attraction I find in this is that there seem to be no clear-cut answers. While part of us hungers for clarity and certainty, it would seem that part of us loves ambiguity and uncertainty. At least part of ME does.

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