The themes of terrorism and counter-terrorism have infused the America media’s cultural production for several decades. These popular culture products were designed first for consumption by domestic audiences but also for export to audiences throughout the world, quickly assuming a role in US cultural imperialism. Much of this production took the form of news reports about political turmoil, sectarian violence and liberation, independence or nationalist movements—almost always occurring “somewhere else” in the world. Still others appeared as fictional narratives embedded within diverse entertainment genres such as political thrillers, war, sci-fi, romance and suspense, sometimes in a lifeworld that paralleled that of the domestic audience. But more often than not this production took the form of lifeworlds mimicking foreign lands, mythical pasts, or dystopian futures. Popular culture’s tales of terrorism and counter-terrorism maintained this relatively stable pattern for much of the last quarter of the 20th century. Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September 2001 considerably impacted that narrative pattern, and while not fundamentally changing the script, this attack resulted in significant rewrites. To begin, the portrayal of terrorism and the War on Terror, both real and fictionalized, became the central theme in a great deal of popular culture, including television programs, feature films, PC/video games, YouTube videos, advertisements, popular music, and of course, the news. These mediated texts—in essence, stories that the US cultural industries tell about terrorism and the state’s attempts to fight it—reconstituted the social reality of terrorism and counter-terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attacks, the American cultural industries increasingly served as a conduit for US hegemony, both at home and abroad. While there is a long history of arm’s-length cooperation between the state and the entertainment industry in the production of popular culture products that can be traced back to the early 1930s, the immediate post-9/11 period heralded an era of not only more terrorism and counter-terrorism narratives but also narratives whose content changed incrementally (but ultimately markedly) largely as a result of the state’s direct involvement in crafting them.
Chief among the changes was the streamlining of a narrative that emphasized the growing ubiquity of terrorist threats to the American people on US soil. Indeed, in the lifeworlds created by post-9/11 popular culture, terrorism and counter-terrorism are no longer things that happen primarily or exclusively elsewhere. America’s business interests abroad, its embassies and military installations, are no longer the only likely targets of terrorist activity. These traditional targets have been augmented by many others, including iconic buildings in major cities, national monuments, and critical infrastructure—as well as by more mundane parts of the US landscape, such as schools, sports stadiums, amusement parks, and shopping malls. Like that espoused by the state, the culture industries’ narrative is clear; no one is safe from terrorism.
Predictably, the narrative shift that amplified the danger, barbarism, and proliferation of the terrorist threat was complimented by one which aggrandized the counter-terrorist efforts of the United States. In popular culture’s various lifeworlds counter-terrorism strategies, no matter how extreme, are understood as reasonable and legitimate. The narratives, comprised almost wholly of fetishized presentations of military, national security, and law enforcement agents with state- of-the-art weaponry dispatching terrorists with deadly force, provide virtually no political or socio-historical context and offer no alternative to resolving conflicts other than the unfettered use of state violence.
As such, popular culture’s presentation of terrorism and counter-terrorism serves to provide the resolution that the real-world War on Terror promised but did not deliver, while at the same time contributing to a narrative that demands its continuation.