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What bin Laden wrought: the United States of paranoia

In the way of things these days, it's worth noting what has been trending on Twitter. Sunday night/Monday morning, after news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a hideout in Pakistan, among other things trending on Twitter was this: "Jack Bauer."

Yep, people were thinking about 24-style action featuring Bauer in a firefight with a dangerous terrorist and the mission ending in triumph. Probably with Chloe providing vital info from CTU headquarters.

Little wonder. U.S. President Barack Obama's own brief description of how the operation played out - the surveillance, intelligence and secret military operations that ended with bin Laden's death monitored on a live feed at the White House - sure made it all sound like the climactic, season-ending episode of 24.

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Part of the bin Laden legacy is a profound effect on American popular culture, an influence defined by the deeply paranoid, ceaselessly chasing terrorists 24. In its first season - the first episode aired mere weeks after 9/11 - the show's hyperdramatic, ticking-clock storyline about terrorist attacks dovetailed with Bush-era U.S. preoccupations. And in consecutive seasons it continued to connect perfectly with the collective consciousness of the Bush era - the core of the show was recognition that the United States was under sustained terrorist attack. Even the torture tactics used by Bauer became part of the public debate about the use of torture in the war on terror.

Over the years, especially during the Bush era, drama after drama dwelt on fear - fear of others, fear of unknown forces determined to attack or subvert the United States. Some shows came and went without having much impact, such as UC: Undercover and The Agency. These shows glorified the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as TV intuitively mirrored the pro-military and pro-police politics of a Republican-held White House at a time of paranoia about terrorism.

Often these shows were deeply simplistic, celebrating the work of people and institutions that protect Americans from subversive forces. Often, the bad guys were the ones who weren't Americans. There was a widespread suspicion of foreigners and the intentions of other countries.

Just as some series dealt directly with the threat of terrorism in the post-9/11 period, others reflected the mood elliptically. The great series The Nine, on ABC in 2006, was about nine people whose lives are forever changed because they were present in a bank when it was robbed. The robbery went horribly wrong and something horrendous happened to those people. ABC said, "the series is one of hope and rebirth," but it felt bleak, as the characters struggled to revert to normality. The Nine could be interpreted as a textured allegory for all of U.S. society trying to recover from and cope with the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

At about the same time, the ABC series Invasion took a similar tack. When a massive, damaging hurricane hits Florida, in one small community things get very weird. Strange lights appear in the water. People go missing and are found but have no memory of what happened. It was all about a community - a stand-in for the country - dealing with the aftermath of a shocking attack. It was again about the United States after 9/11, and people dealing with both daily fears and a combative, oppressive authority.

Those shows celebrating the CIA and FBI, though they came and went, marked a turn in network TV. Think back to the era of The X-Files, which glorified maverick agents and cast scorn on the machinations of the institution. Back then, the CIA and the FBI were institutions to sneer at.

And just as these institution-shaped shows offered by proxy a determined, successful war against terrorism, and reassured U.S. viewers, other shows emerged that presented a different genre of enemy but were, in truth, really about fear of others, fear of Islam, fear of terrorism. Often these enemies were, literally, aliens.

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While 24 was cancelled (and the killing of bin Laden may propel a 24 movie closer to reality), a lot of paranoia still emerged on mainstream TV. And it's still going on. This season, the series V and The Event have presented people from another planet who are among Americans, looking like everybody else, but are actually terribly dangerous creatures.

All that paranoia is what bin Laden wrought. Oh sure, there was another effect. That was the flurry of mindless escapism giving viewers a chance to retreat from the paranoia and worry. But it's the counterterrorism shows - those that were glaringly about fear or subtly about worry and recovery from trauma - that matter from the past decade. That's why some people went to the streets on Sunday and chanted "USA!" while others went to Twitter and typed "Jack Bauer."

Airing tonight

Frontline: Fighting for bin Laden (PBS, 9 p.m.) follows Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi as he travels into Afghan territory to "meet a different band of militants and foreign fighters who say they are loyal to Osama bin Laden and are readying a new offensive against coalition forces." The program, obviously made some time ago, says it asks: "Is al-Qaeda once again becoming a significant presence in Afghanistan?"

Check local listings.

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