Fear has long provided entertainment and fiction with a source of inspiration. Its nature makes it a much more immediate sensation than any other emotion people can experience.
Mass entertainment and popular culture also have a tendency to reflect and even reaffirm existing social anxieties. By feeding upon mass fear and repackaging and (more often than not) distorting the said fear into popular entertainment, the entertainment industry tends to create a perpetuating cycle of stereotypes often mistaken by people to be accurate portrayals.
In 1993, the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Center in New York took place, introducing Americans to Al Qaeda, Islamic terrorism and by association, Osama bin Laden — figures that were going to shape not just American, but the world’s popular culture for the next two decades.
Hollywood was quick to use this phenomenon of Islamic terrorism and a twisted notion of jihad as an inspiration for its productions. Although terrorism in itself was nothing new to Hollywood since the 1970s, it had provided a common theme for action films. What was common among the previous brand of terrorist-villains in film, was the fact that they all had tangible objectives (either a massive ransom or the liberation of a region, prisoners, etc.) and hence were somewhat ‘reasonable’. With the advent of Islamic terrorism or jihadi terrorism, Hollywood found a rather more sinister nemesis — one that wanted nothing more than pure destruction, a nemesis that could be neither reasoned nor fought with traditional means. Hollywood had found the archetype of the Big Bad Arab and later on the Big Bad Muslim.
Osama bin Laden was the prototypical Big Bad Arab. Though even Arab terrorists had been explored before in Hollywood, in the form of Palestinians, Iranians, etc., their motives were rather more nationalistic. Their acts were geared to accomplish tangible goals such as the liberation of captured comrades. The Osama bin Laden inspired terrorists, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to strike terror and fear in their enemies, at least according to Hollywood (of course, one can’t expect a more complex and informed perspective of such a complex phenomenon from Hollywood). A string of films released, in the 1990s, dealt with this new arch villain in films such as True Lies (1994) and Executive Decision (1996). Films in the 1990s, in particular, portrayed Muslim terrorists as mindless mass murderers who need to be fought using any means necessary. Films like these also echoed anxieties regarding what might happen if such a form of terrorist found some weapon of mass destruction in his hands.
Fear of a new brand of holocaust had then entered popular culture — one remarkably different from its Cold War counterpart. This new holocaust was more decentralised and as such more unpredictable. What made it even more terrifying was the notion that the enemy responsible would be invisible. It would seemingly be a holocaust no one would ever see coming. True Lies featured a group calling itself the Crimson Jihad, possessing nuclear devices and intentions to detonate them on American soil. A rather toned-down motive was present in Executive Decision, in which terrorists wanted to detonate a civilian airliner carrying nerve agents over Washington. These themes are in marked contrast to the Cold War themes of Mutually Assured Destruction. The Cold War themes explored ways in which deterrents could possibly backfire. In the 1990s there would be no deterrent. This somehow made for a scarier premise.
There is a key difference in pre 9/11 and post 9/11 portrayals of terrorism in film. While pre 9/11 films took place largely on ‘home soil’, post 9/11 shifted this reality dramatically. The notion of pre-emptive attacks was ingested by Hollywood as well. Hollywood now had its ‘heroes’ go after America’s enemies on their own turf. Although terrorism as a theme was avoided in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, its resurgence featured a key change in how Hollywood now believed it needed to be fought. In an echo of the doctrine of containment from the Cold War, Hollywood too would rather keep all its fights away from America. Examples of such films include The Kingdom (2007) and Body of Lies (2008). Films like these could be seen as echoing sentiments for revenge as well, a sort of allegory to the real life hunt for Osama bin Laden. One might even see them as prophetic in retrospect, now that Laden has been killed in a plot that seems straight out of one of these films. The question is, what might Laden’s death mean to Hollywood?
With Laden dead, Holly-wood has lost its prototype for the arch villain it’s been obsessed with. But this does not necessarily mean the end of its obsession with this arch villain. The world still faces perhaps even ‘bigger, badder Muslim terrorists’. While Laden’s death does bring a sort of closure to the real life narrative of the War on Terror, much in the same vein as any major Hollywood blockbuster, it has left massive space for sequels to come. Even with Laden dead, the spectre of terrorism remains and as long as it exists, so will Hollywood’s obsession with its Big Bad Terrorists.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2011.