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, TV shows, music heard on the radio, best-selling books – is one of the best ways to transmit a message to a large audience. Through it, narratives are created and strengthened, whether they relate to a nation's history, gender roles or economic goals. This is true of terrorism, of course, and there have been studies on the cultural production that touches upon this phenomenon, especially after the attack on the World Trade Center towers in New York City on 11 September 2001. Most of them, however, have focused on the ways cultural production has reinforced the political goals of the White House, effectively making acceptable and justifying the so-called War on Terror, including the invasion to Iraq. They have explored the public's reaction to that iconic event, and have even gone so far as to imagine newer, deadlier attacks on American soil. The purpose of this paper will be to explore how terrorists themselves are portrayed, if at all, in American popular culture, specifically in the films that have come out after 9/11. Is there a mention of their goals? Is there an explanation for their actions? Are they identified at all? The first step is to clearly define what is meant by the term 'popular culture'. According to Storey (2009), “...popular culture is simply culture that is widely favoured or well liked by many people” (5). He goes on to say, however, that as this definition is too broad, we must look further into it, and that is were we run into problems. There are different conceptions of popular culture, beginning with what is meant by 'popular' and 'culture'. Thus, Storey explains that “it is the culture that is left over after we have decided what is high culture”, it can also be “mass-produced commercial culture” (6), or culture that is mass produced “for mass consumption, [...] formulaic, manipulative, [...] consumed with brain-numbed and brain-numbing passitivy” (8). Popular culture can be a form of escapism, but also of resistance against the oppresor, and finally, “[p]opular culture is marked by what Chantal Mouffe (1981) calls 'a process of disarticulation-articulation' (231)” (11). Although all of this seems only to complicate the task of establishing a definition from popular culture, keeping all of those points of view will help us better understand the impact that – in the case of this paper – American films have on the American audience when it comes to terrorists and terrorism. Popular culture then, is cultural production that is mass produced to suit the tastes of as many people as possible, through which we can escape but also aprehend notions of the world around us. In this sense, popular culture creates narratives, which in turn hold meaning and therefore understanding. Films disseminate these meanings and understandings among wide audiences, both in the United States and abroad. The attacks on New York City's World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001 created chaos. At first no one could understand why anyone would want to bring such destruction and fear into
the mainland United States. And thus, popular culture lent a hand to the Bush administration, creating meaning, understanding, a narrative. As has been mentioned before, the portrayals of the attacks and the events that came afterwards have focused on American bravery, ingenuity, courage in the face of apparently senseless and underserved violence. There have been tales of possible nuclear attacks by terrorists, such as that told by The Sum of All Fears; there has been support for American military operations abroad, as embodied by Black Hawk Down or The Hurt Locker; the Dark Knight movies seem to make a case against draconian measures (Ip 2012). However, few if any of these films look into the motives that terrorists could have to attack the United States, whether with nuclear weapons or otherwise. In these portrayals, terrorism just is. Terrorists are usually brown people; undifferentiated; perhaps power-hungry; coming from remote, isolated cornes of the world. Their attacks against the U.S. are based on pure hatred of American values; there is no reason for this hate and anger. They are Others and, in the words of Rebecca BellMetereau (2004), “the absence of the “Other” is probably the single most important way in which our views of history and society are affected by popular film, and the tendency of mainstream films to stick to certain narrative patterns reinforces our ethnocentric and patriarchal worldview” (156). According to Dixon (2004), this is because “[t]here is little room for creative freedom in the new cinema unless one wishes to exist only in the rarefied world of film festivals” (15); with little creative freedom, it is best for producers to stick to the narratives that have become accepted by the audiences, even if they are shallow. And thus, terrorism and terrorists are portrayed in the same ways over and over again. “The absence of questions about and critical commentary on the changed role of U.S. global politics” (Landy 2004, 86) is clear to anyone who watches popular, commercial films produced in the last decade. Indeed, this is a problem with representations of both the recent past and current events: films might be portraying facts accurately, but they “[fail] to be critical of cultural politics” (Landy 2004, 92). Terrorism is about messages. Much has been said about it elsewhere; it is not the purpose of this paper to review the literature about terrorism, its possible messages and its relationship to the media. What I want to focus on is the other side of the coin: how popular media presents terrorists, including whether it includes their goals and motives, or whether it portrays them as crazy people who simply hate Western values. Is it true that for popular culture, especially post-9/11 American films, “all terrorism is of a piece, and all terrorist motivations are interchangeable” (Markovitz 2004, 202)? In order to answer this question, I will focus on Black Hawk Down (2001), Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002), The Sum of All Fears (2002), The Dark Knight trilogy (2005, 2008, 2012), Munich (2005), Flight 93 (2006), Iron Man (2008), The Hurt Locker (2008), Captain America (2011),
and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Of course there have been many more movies made in the last decade, but there is not enough space in this paper to review them all. I have chosen those that are both popular and related (sometimes indirectly) to terrorism. Black Hawk Down narrates an operation during the American intervention in Somalia. In this film, a Somalian warlord is presented in the light of our modern understanding of terrorism: he uses civilians for his own ends, killing them through starvation. There is no mention of his goals, we only see his actions, which lead us to believe he is simply power-hungry. He seems to be intent on destroying Somalia and the American forces, but nothing more. Terrorists live and hide among ordinary people, so that it is hard to recognize them. There are no reasons for the terrorist attacks, other than winning the war. It could be argued that Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones includes instances of terrorist violence, especially at the beginning of the film. These are framed in a larger separatist or nationalist movemenent, which has the goal of breaking away from the Republic. The film is explicit about both the motives for the terrorists and the larger political issues at stake. In The Sum of All Fears , the terrorists manipulate the superpowers to have them destroy each other. Although they emphatically state that they are not crazy, they are still portrayed as power-hungry people who will go to any lengths to achieve their goals. They obviously have means to do it – they build, transport and detonate a nuclear bomb – thus playing on the fear that terrorists in real life could use weapons of mass destruction. There are no motives or goals, other than watching Russia and the United States engage in nuclear war. The Dark Knight trilogy, which consists of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, provides an interesting case study for its portrayal of terrorists. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises actually explain the motives that terrorists have for attacking Gotham City: they are fighting corruption and greed -the exception would be The Scarecrow, but he is only a pawn, so his actions do fit in the larger framework of the League of Shadows. Especially in The Dark Knight Rises, the terrorists want to create a new society where the dispossesed can finally have some power. They are ruthless and vicious, but one can understand why they act the way they do. In the last film of the trilogy, one can even sympathize with main villain, Bane. In The Dark Knight, however, we have the opposite situation. The Joker is diagnosed as paranoid-schizophrenic and has actually been interned twice in Arkham Asylum. The police forces actually use the term terrorist when describing him, and the film revolves around the dilemma of complying with his demands or not. The Joker has no political goal; he only wants to disrupt order. As Alfred Pennyworth – Bruce Wayne's butler – puts it, “some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or
negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Nolan 2008). Munich is an interesting film because, though it takes place in 1972, we watch it already knowing the goals of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. So, in a sense, it does not need to explain the motives of the terrorists, although there is a moment in the film when the Palestinians do express their wish to recover their lands from Israel, and expose Israeli violence against them. Also, at the beginning, the newscaster actually says that they are requesting the release of Palestinian fighters. So far, it is the third film I have reviewed that openly acknowledges that terrorists may have reasons for their actions that go beyond power and greed. Flight 93 is a re-telling of the fourth hijacked plane that crashed into a field on 9/11. There is no context whatsoever, beyond the actual 9/11 attacks. It is all about the bravery of the passengers and the facts of the hijacking, and as such no explanation is provided. (This could very well be because no one at the moment knew what the goals or motives for the attacks were.) In Iron Man, we see an attack at the beginning of the film, and we do not need an explanation of motives because it happens in Afghanistan during the War on Terror. Again, the terrorists – presumably the Taliban – are inscribed in the common narrative of the War on Terror, so we do not need any futher information on them. Eventually, however, it becomes clear that the terrorists are not in fact the Taliban, but a mercenary group directed by Tony Stark's power-hungry business partner, who only wants to control Stark Enterprises. The Hurt Locker is firmly set inside the framework of the War on Terror. Thus, viewers understand that the terrorists are Islamists, although that is only made explicit from the location of the film – Iraq. As such, we do not need to know the goals or motives of the terrorists, only that they wish to attack the US Army. The only instance where we see a possible motive for terrorism is a scene in which the bomb squad intimidates a taxi driver, that they may have turned him into an insurgent if he was not one before. However, that is the only instance of a motive for terrorism being given in the film. The film Captain America does explain that the terrorist Schmidt wants to take over Hitler's power, and possible over the whole world. There is no further reason, only that he is power-hungry and has the resources and capabilities to design special weaponry to further his goals. Terrorist attacks against civilians, however, appear only at the beginning of soldier Rogers's transformation into Captain America. Afterwards, the film turns towards symmetrical warfare. Finally, Zero Dark Thirty is really a study in torture. It is a very controversial film but it is deeply inscribed in the discourses of the War on Terror, as it narrates the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Terrorists belong to al-Qaeda and, since we all know they are bent on destroying the United States because they hate American values and freedom, no explanation of their motives is required. As in The
Hurt Locker, no historical or political context is given beyond that of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center or the War on Terror. All of the films reviewed here have enjoyed tremendous commercial success; they all fit the descriptions given above of what popular culture is. It is interesting to note that most of them do include explanations for terrorist action, even when they might seem to be glossed over by the rest of the film, or – especially – by the reactions of the main characters. This is an important observation because “[w]hile [terrorism] is never... defensible or justifiable, we are bound to learn nothing from it if we linearize it, abject it, and consider it an arbitrary unidirectional force that comes from outside, from modernity's others, to attack us.” (Suárez 2004, 114). In those films where terrorists are shown to have real grievances, such as Munich, we can learn about their causes and we could even start thinking of solutions, or different ways to resolve them. In the rest of the films, to goals of terrorists are simply to get more and more power, to rule the world so to speak. Some men just want to watch the world burn and for some reason – fitting narratives, drama, the power of labels – the representations of these men (and women) are the ones that stand out more in the minds of audiences. Everyone remembers The Joker, but do viewers really acknowledge the goals of the PLO, even after watching Munich? I do not think that happens, and that is partly because of the general narratives that have come after 9/11, and which I have mentioned earlier: they reflect the otherness of terrorists on the one hand, and the patriotism, resilience and bravery of Americans (mainly) on the other. The image of the enemy that was constructed through the discourse of the so-called War on Terror was sustained through popular culture, including through commercial films. When politicians insisted on terrorists hating American values and freedom, films reflected this narrative through lack of context and motives or goals. Of course, as is apparent from this brief paper, this is not true of all films produced and released after 9/11. Some do strive to provide a more in-depth understanding why people might be driven towards terrorist violence. They might not always succeed, but there is an effort to change the discourse, especially in later years. In conclusion, it can be said that though most of the films insist on othering the terrorists – that is, they are defined through everything we (the audience, sympathizing with the films' main characters) are not –, ignoring historical context, or failing to explore the role of the United States in international affairs, some producers do try to overcome these obstacles and provide a better-rounded story, one that is more satisfactory. They do underline American values, especially those of courage and resilience, but there is an effort to explain terrorism; even if the explanation is as simple and shallow as Alfred Penniworth's, it is still an exploration of causes.
American popular culture has gotten a bad reputation for sustaining the narratives of the War on Terror. However, through this paper I have seen that there are indeed producers who challenge or subtly subvert them. This is particularly the case of Munich, the first and last movies of The Dark Knight trilogy, and Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Exploring popular culture to extract the narratives of the War on Terror has been an interesting exercise, especially when looking at it from the angle of terrorists' motives and goals. It certainly invites further studies, including some that do not focus on films alone, but include music, television shows, Internet websites, and the like, because if terrorism is all about sending messages, popular culture transmits and constructs messages just as well. References Bell-Metereau, R. (2004) The How-To Manual, the Prequel, and the Sequel in Post-9/11 Cinema. In Dixon,W.W. (2004) (Ed.) Film and Television After 9/11. Illinois, U.S.A.: Southern Illinois University Press. Dixon, W.W. (2004) (Ed.) Film and Television After 9/11. Illinois, U.S.A.: Southern Illinois University Press. Ip, J. (2012) The Dark Knight's War on Terrorism. Moritz College of Law. Retrieved: http://moritzlaw.osu.edu/students/groups/osjcl/files/2012/05/Ip.pdf Landy, M. (2004) “America Under Attack”: Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and History in the Media. In Dixon,W.W. (2004) (Ed.) Film and Television After 9/11. Illinois, U.S.A.: Southern Illinois University Press. Markovitz, J. (2004) Reel Terror Post 9/11. In Dixon,W.W. (2004) (Ed.) Film and Television After 9/11. Illinois, U.S.A.: Southern Illinois University Press. Nolan, C. (2008) (Producer/Director) The Dark Knight. U.S.A.: Warner Bros. Pictures. Storey, J. (2009) Cultural theory and popular culture: an Introduction. 5th ed. Essex, England: Pearson Education. Suárez, J.A. (2004) City Films, Modern Spatiality, and the End of the World Trade Center. In Dixon,W.W. (2004) (Ed.) Film and Television After 9/11. Illinois, U.S.A.: Southern Illinois University Press.
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