Terrorism and Counter-terrorism in Popular Culture in the Post-9/11 Context
Abstract and Keywords
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.
Keywords: commodification of violence, critical terrorism studies, cultural criminology, culture industries, entertainment, exceptionality, militainment, social construction of danger, terror-TV, terrorism/counter-terrorism
One of the most significant and potentially illuminating areas of sociological inquiry is analysis of mass media and popular culture. As privileged residents of a highly globalized world, we are the major consumers of the mass media’s storytelling through an array of popular culture products such as blockbuster films, New York Times best sellers, advertisements, music, professional sports, prime-time dramas, reality TV, video games, and talk radio. These mediated narratives are tremendously influential in the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. These messages impact upon not only our own sense of who and what we are but also influence our opinions of, and relationships with, other people and social institutions (as well as our stance on social issues and our overall political views). The foci of these influences run a wide gamut, from the trivial through the sacrosanct: the most affable contestant, the best food to serve at a dinner party, and where to get the best value for your vacation dollar through fear of crime, environmental sustainability, and changes to immigration policy.
Since al-Qaeda’s horrific attacks on the United States on the morning of September 11, 2001, the portrayal of terrorism and the War on Terror, both real and fictionalized, has become a central theme in popular culture, including what we consume through television programs, feature films, PC/video games, advertisements, popular music, and of course, the news. At the first level of approximation, these mediated texts constitute the social reality of terrorism and counter-terrorism; in essence, they are stories that US society tells itself about terrorism and the state’s attempts to fight it (Muzzatti & Featherstone, 2007). Reporters, editors, producers, scriptwriters, development teams, and other personnel in the culture industries draw the attention of television viewers, theater-goers, videogamers, radio listeners, Internet browsers, newspaper readers, and other audiences with their crafted images of terrorism and counter-terrorism.
In studying the news media’s criminalization of (primarily) youth-oriented popular culture forms such as gangsta rap and heavy metal in the early 1990s, sociologist Jeff Ferrell wrote that that images of crime and control are now as “real” as crime and criminal justice itself (Ferrell et al., 2004). Now a well-established maxim of cultural criminology, Ferrell’s original pronouncement neatly encapsulated his idea that the reality of crime was not to be found exclusively, or even primarily, in the empirical reality of arrest reports, national crime statistics, and victimization surveys but in a complex interplay of officialdom’s pronouncements, the culture industries’ storytelling enterprises, and audiences’ responses.
Hundreds of thousands of people in New York City; Arlington County, Virginia; and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, experienced terrorism firsthand that Tuesday morning in 2001. In the nearly two decades since al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks hundreds of millions have experienced terrorism as mass-produced popular culture product. Informed by the insights of critical and cultural criminology, media studies and critical terrorism studies, this essay will seek to uncover the social reality of terrorism and counter-terrorism as constructed by the culture industries. It will pay particular attention to Hollywood films, television programs, and video games, while fully cognizant of the fact that as such, it is neither a comprehensive enumeration nor perhaps even a representative sample of popular culture’s extensive and ever-growing menu of artifacts and practices.
Violence as Entertainment
While most Americans would agree that terrorism is the quintessential form of political violence, many fail to recognize that, likewise, counter-terrorism—whether retaliatory or preemptive, large scale (such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) or “low grade” (such as extraordinary renditions, targeted assassinations, or drone strikes)—is also a form of violence. It is state violence. Indeed, some scholars contend that violence is the primary activity of the state, perhaps no more so at any time in the modern era than in the post-9/11 years. The instrumentality of violence as a legitimate form of power is so ingrained in the American consciousness that state violence is publicly denied, often quite vociferously (Colaguori, 2012). As Rothe and Collins (2015) rightly assert, the American public’s fetishistic disavowal notwithstanding, state violence is not a new subject of academic inquiry, as critical criminologists, particularly those specializing in state crime and crimes of globalization, along with related scholars in the fields of sociology and political science, have studied it for almost thirty years.
Among this research there has been some work on the role of the corporate news media in serving state hegemony. Most studies have been revealing insofar as they point to the news media’s failure to fulfill their role as guardians of the public good and government watchdog. In theory at least, the government, under the rigorous scrutiny of the “free press,” must provide the people with incontrovertible evidence that an enemy exists, threatens the safety and well-being of the people, and that all other avenues of resolving the conflict have been exhausted—leaving state violence (i.e., war) as the last resort. Unfortunately, a litany of research serves as an indictment of the corporate-owned news media more as a lapdog than a watchdog. Consent for war is solicited through the promotion of neo-imperialist ideology that presents the horrors of violence as something that originated with the enemy. In so doing, the news media fosters public enthusiasm, driving a campaign of glory: the end result of which is the indisputable necessity of war (Colaguori, 2012). When one considers the numerous US “wars,” both against external enemies (sovereign nation-states such as Panama, Iraq [twice], Somalia, Afghanistan, etc., as well as the War on Terror) and domestic enemies (drugs, crime, school violence, and a host of other constructions defined as a potential threat to public order) it is clear why most state crime researchers conclude that war has become a permanent condition adopted by the state (Kramer & Michalowski, 2005).
Unlike in the case of dictatorships or other totalitarian forms of rule, in modern liberal democracies the state’s use of violence requires the consent of the people. Despite an abundance of case studies and an extensive body of theory on the condition of “perpetual war,” there has been relatively little work that examines the ways in which the popular support for this state violence is fomented through that which is more conventionally understood as the entertainment media.
In contrast, since the start of the new millennium, cultural criminologists have devoted considerable attention to the processes and products associated with what they describe as the “commodification of violence” as a popular culture artifact by the entertainment media (e.g., Presdee, 2000; Ferrell, Hayward, & Young, 2015). However, with a few exceptions, they have not examined state crimes but have instead focused primarily on the connections between late capitalist culture and traditional street crime and associated forms of transgressive behavior. They contend that the visual representation of crime and transgression is not only central to the production of news but is now also a vital component of the entertainment media—gripping the collective imagination of television viewers, moviegoers, comic-book readers, YouTube browsers, videogamers, and other audiences. To a certain extent, there is nothing intrinsically new about the use of this type of imagery—certainly violence has been used to sell cinema passes, video games, and music for decades. However, what is new, as Ferrell, Hayward, and Young (2015) illustrate, is the force and range of these “illicit” messages.
Presdee is particularly attentive to the commodification of violence. He likens mediated transgression to the board game Monopoly, examining the way in which crime, like monopoly capitalism, is dehistoricized, whitewashed, and transmogrified into mass-marketed pleasure. Violence, he says, is simplified, trivialized, and stripped of meaning, thereby becoming a product to be consumed and enjoyed as one would eat a cookie (2000). When most of us eat a cookie, we give little to no thought to it as a mass-produced product; the ingredients used and where they came from, the labor conditions where the ingredients were cultivated or in the factory where the cookies were baked and packaged, how the finished cookie got to the grocery store where we bought it, the consequences of eating it, and so on. We simply consume it, enjoy the fleeting pleasure of doing so, and then reach for another. Likewise, the presentation of terrorism and counter-terrorism as a popular culture product is rarely interrogated. There is virtually no discussion of the history of colonialism and neocolonialism, globalization, international relations, global inequality, and economic forces—to say nothing of humiliation, human suffering, and death. The following sections of this essay will examine the myth of exceptionality, and the role of the culture industries in reproducing that myth. It will then address the narratives of terrorism and counter-terrorism as a product of the culture industries with particular attention to the ways in which the themes of ubiquity, immediacy, and exceptionality of a foreign threat (see Agamben, 2005), serve the interests of the state and are embedded in the entertainment industry’s offerings.
Exceptionality, the Culture Industries, and State Hegemony
A host of political theorists, most notably the Italian philosopher Agamben (see Agamben, 2005) have examined the ways in which the state extends its power. While there are a variety of techniques that can and have been utilized, a frequent and highly successful strategy is the claim of “exceptional circumstances.” For example, as a result of exceptional circumstances, such as a natural disaster, invasion by a foreign power, coup d’état, or outbreak of civil war, the state’s repressive functions are unmasked and its power extended. This may involve the abridgement, suspension, or revocation of the civil/constitutional rights that are hallmarks of democracies. This could also include extra-legal action by the state or its proxies, and possibly entail the use of violence by the state itself.
Conventionally assumed to be provisional measures enacted during a time of emergency, Agamben (2005) theorizes that over the course of the latter part of the 20th century this “state of exception” has become the normal paradigm of governance. Put another way, the late 20th century marked the creation of a permanent state of emergency by governments of all political stripes. US media narratives from both the news and entertainment industries served a hegemonic agenda setting function by transmitting the message of those in power. Audiences were told that the state’s transcendence of law was necessary for the protection of life and property. The allegedly apocalyptic threats, whether originating in the natural environment (HIV/AIDS, killer bees, the Ebola virus, flesh-eating bacteria, West Nile virus, etc.) or the sociopolitical (crack babies, militia groups, street gangs, illegal immigrants, WTO protestors, Y2K, etc.) became frequent and routinized elements of media narratives, and hence, the everyday experience of ordinary people (Muzzatti, 2015). As will be addressed in subsequent sections, this trend grew exponentially in the months following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, more than a decade and a half later, the trajectory continues unabated, albeit more incrementally.
In the mid-1940s theorists from the Frankfurt School such as Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno began some of the earliest systematic analyses of the influence of popular culture on society. According to these scholars, the mass media, whether in the form of news or entertainment, is a “culture industry” whose role is the transmission of information to a receptive and eager audience (Horkheimer & Adorno, 1972). This model of a unified and increasingly powerful media further suggests that consumerist messages work together with political ideology to advance the hegemonic designs of those in power. While Horkheimer and Adorno somewhat underestimated the agency of the audience, specifically the ability to apply resistant or oppositional readings to popular-culture narratives, their overall framework for understanding the loose alliances between the conservative interests of the state and the culture industries is perhaps even more applicable today in an age of tremendously concentrated media ownership than it was when in was first authored.
There is a long history of cooperation between the state (particularly its repressive apparatuses—the criminal justice system and the military) and the entertainment industry in the production of popular culture products. The military, spies, the police, and other forces of law and order such as private detectives, secret agents, and government investigators were often the subject of early radio dramas, Hollywood films, pulp fiction, comic books, and eventually television programs and video games. While much of this cooperation occurred at arm’s length, with many of the culture industries’ products indirectly promoting the interests of the state by portraying its agents in a flattering light, occasionally the state played a more direct role in shaping the narrative to serve its interests. For example, the 1930s saw the birth of radio crime dramas featuring programs such as Crime Doesn’t Pay and Police Headquarters. These and other similar dramas were explicitly and unapologetically pro–law and order, presenting entertaining, though simplistically one-dimensional images of wicked criminals and noble law enforcement personnel. The 1950s and 1960s saw a marked increase in these types of narratives, as well as more direct involvement by the state in crafting them, first through Hollywood films, and later in the form of television programs. Indeed, both The Man from U.N.C.L.E (1964–1968) and a similar program that debuted the following year, The FBI (1965–1974), were TV shows produced with the support and endorsement of the real Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (Van Veeren, 2009). For Hoover, who aspired to make the FBI America’s premier law enforcement agency, this was part of an organized media campaign designed to generate public support in part by strategically portraying agents as crime fighters and the suspects as hardened criminals who were not only dangerous but extremely difficult to apprehend. Hoover personally served as a consultant on the series until his death, and though he never appeared on camera, many episodes ended with a segment profiling an actual fugitive from the FBI’s Most Wanted list. (This was perhaps one of the earliest examples of intertextual storytelling—the comingling of the real and the fictional in the fashioning of entertaining popular culture narratives about the work of the state.)
Similarly, a host of Hollywood films from this period through the 1990s such as Animal Farm (1954), The Longest Day (1961), Top Gun (1986), and Independence Day (1996) were produced with the help of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense (Dodds, 2008). Likewise, the videogame series Kuma\War (2004–2013), which uses the tagline “Real War News. Real War Games” on its website, released many downloads (which it termed “missions”) based on actual and often ongoing military conflicts. Each of the downloads included a brief synopsis of approximately 150–200 words taken from US news sources and Department of Defense documents that players were encouraged to read before downloading the game mission. In addition to the game, many of the downloads included video clips featuring commentaries from military analysts and soldiers. Beginning with the game, Uday and Qusay’s Last Stand, and including such titles as Abu Ghraib Prison, Payback in Iraq, Korea: The Enemy Within, and Mexican Border Battle, the company released over one hundred downloads. The last downloads, The Death of Osama Bin Laden and The Fall of Sirte: Gaddafi’s Last Stand were made available in 2011, only shortly after the actual events they are based on took place.
In perhaps one of the most overt, and controversial example of the fusion between repressive state apparatuses and entertainment, the US Army literally began using computer gaming as a recruitment tool. First released as a free downloadable first-person shooter game less than a year after al-Qaeda’s 2001 terrorist attacks, America’s Army (2002–2015) was designed by a professor at the United States Military Academy to allow young players to virtually explore soldiering and warfare based upon actual US Army training exercises and combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ideally to sufficiently motivate them to volunteer for the real US Army (Schulzke, 2013a; Sisler, 2008; Wild, 2014).
Before moving on it is worth noting that by contrast, terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State, have used a surreal combination of the corporate news media, independent filmmaking, and social media to advance their cause and attract new members. Eid (2014) tried to capture this interconnected nature between terrorist acts and media coverage through a term he coined, “terroredia.” Eid (2014) argues that there is a reciprocal relationship between a news media designed to thrive on constant titillating information and a dangerous group that becomes more successful with the increased media attention they receive. So there is an increasingly problematic relationship being established with a news media designed to continuously draw in viewers for ratings and groups that survive on increased media attention. Not only does widespread publication and acknowledgment of a tragedy perpetrated by a single organization fulfill its role of “terrorising” a public—it also showcases the group’s strength and ability to plot successfully even in the face of the state’s counter-terrorism initiatives. The ability to demonstrate success not only comes in the form of violent acts but also in the messages and propaganda these groups regularly make use of as both a recruitment tool and a base from which to launch threats (McCants, 2015; Stern & Berger, 2015). Possibly the most innovative form of propaganda was the al-Qaeda web magazine Inspire, which consists of propagandist literature that seeks to spread both al-Qaeda’s influence and act as a recruitment tool. Using Qur’anic scripture to persuade audiences to believe what they are doing is actually just, and forming clear line of demarcation between “real Muslims” (themselves) and “the Crusaders and infidels” (the West and Muslims who support them). Through Inspire Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the most successful al-Qaeda propagandists, regularly released written statements and calls to his version of Jihad. Though he was assassinated in 2011 Awlaki’s narrative continues to be disseminated through social media.
More recently, the global audience for the ISIS web magazine Dabiq has surpassed that of al-Qaeda’s. Their vast social media undertaking resulted in a tremendously successful campaign to attract Western citizens to jihadist extremism. Some of the social media recruits traveled to ISIS-held territories or remained in their own countries plotting terrorist attacks from within (McCants, 2015; Stern & Berger, 2015).
Open Cooperation: Routinizing the State–Culture Industries Relationships
In the months immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, President Bush’s then senior advisor, and later deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, met with Jack Valenti who was at the time the President of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in order to persuade him to help harness Hollywood’s storytelling skills in fashioning narratives about the War on Terror (Van Veeren, 2009). In the wake of this meeting we have observed some high-profile and well- promoted examples of this type of cooperation, both on TV and movie screens. The political-economic convergence between the state and the culture industries is not a conspiracy, but rather a complex and evolving process (Takacs, 2012). Under the conditions of late modernity, the reality of terrorism, the US’s counter-terrorism efforts, and Hollywood’s fiction become extremely difficult to disentangle. And, as Kumar and Kundnani (2014) point out, there are genuine financial incentives for Hollywood that are attached to cooperating with the state. Specifically, in exchange for surrendering some creative control, TV and film producers are frequently granted access to locations, equipment, and technical assistance that they would never have otherwise been afforded. They point to the example of Lone Survivor (2013), a film that was eventually shot at a US Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the writer/director returned from being embedded with a US Navy SEAL team in Iraq. So, too, producers of the somewhat short-lived TV series, The Agency (2001–2003) about the CIA were given the unprecedented opportunity to film some scenes on the actual headquarters of the CIA. In fact, the CIA’s Los Angeles liaison office, although open since 1996, has seen quite a boom in activity in the years after 9/11, working closely with the producers of such TV series as JAG (1995–2005), Alias (2001–2006), 24 (2001–2009), and Homeland (2011–present) and the films Bad Company (2002) and The Recruit (2003). More recently, the TV series Covert Affairs (2010–2015) shared scripts with the CIA, as did the producers of the film Argo (2012), resulting in narratives that whitewashed the role of US intelligence services as a destabilizing force in the Middle East, among myriad other problematic elements (Kumar & Kundnani, 2014).
Ironically, perhaps the most surreal example of this Hollywood-state cooperative intertextual storytelling came not in the form of a video game, Hollywood film, or a TV program, but from a 2004 CIA recruiting video that featured Jennifer Garner, who played CIA agent Sydney Bristow on Alias. The ad, which as numerous commentators have pointed out appeared to have borrowed a great deal of visual imagery from the program 24, featured Garner because the CIA felt that the character she portrayed on TV embodied the integrity, patriotism, and intelligence that the agency was looking for in its new recruits (Erickson, 2008).
As will be illustrated in the following three sections, the state’s version of reality (about who and what constitutes danger, the appropriate response to it, among other things) eventually came to directly inform the culture industries’ production of fictional entertainment—and hence became the overwhelmingly dominant popular culture representation of terrorism and counter-terrorism. Under the conditions of late modernity, the distinction between “reality” and “fiction” has become increasingly blurred. In the post-9/11 era this means that the role of what some have termed the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network” (Der Derian, 2009) or perhaps more succinctly as “Militainment, Inc.” (Stahl, 2009) has tremendously influenced the making of intertextual meanings of terrorism and counter-terrorism by blending (admittedly highly stylized) real events with fictional ones, particularly (but not exclusively) through reality TV or with scripts that advertise themselves as “based on a true-story” or “taken from actual events.”
Discussion of the Literature: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism as Entertainment
The Hollywood film industry is a significant contributor to the US economy and has an enormous global influence. In 2013 it generated $130 billion in sales and consistently produces a positive trade balance in most of the countries it does business with (MPAA, 2015a). Though these almost unfathomable dollar values are new, the phenomenon that they represent is not. By the end of the Second World War, Hollywood was supplying 65% of all the films watched throughout the world. Today, even with competition from other countries’ film industries, not the least of which are India’s “Bollywood” and Nigeria’s “Nollywood,” American-made films continue to generate over two-thirds of global box-office receipts (MPAA, 2015b). In many English speaking countries, such as Canada, Hollywood films account for over 95% of box-office receipts (CMPDA, 2009). Television viewing, whether through traditional cable or satellite channels—or increasingly online through subscription or pirated websites—is one of the most common recreational activities in the United States, with the average person watching twenty-eight hours of TV per week. Likewise, international interest in US popular culture is particularly pronounced in television. In many countries, American television programs, once rare, are now regular primetime fixtures (Arango, 2008). Over the past decade American TV programs such as NCIS, Modern Family, Oprah Winfrey, Inside Edition, and various incarnations of CSI have consistently rated as the most watched programs in the world (Andreeva, 2014). Gaming, which was perhaps at one time the mainstay of children, teens, and underemployed twenty-something males living with parents, is now almost gender balanced: women comprise 48% of gamers and men 52%, and gaming is fairly evenly spread among age groups with those under 18 years of age, the 18–35 group, and those aged 36+ comprising similarly sized segments of the gaming populace (Wild, 2014).
These popular culture products are some of the few areas left that explicitly connect the world of politics with the personal and social lives of people. As such, they play a major part in shaping cultural narratives about terrorism and counter-terrorism, both for American as well as international audiences (Dodds, 2008). The narratives not only tell stories about the world but also organize, categorize, and evaluate it. While there are exceptions, most of the entertainment media’s fictionalized terrorism and counter-terrorism offerings focus on action, suspense, and explosive thrills to the detriment of historical and political context. Such decontextualized images of dangerous terrorists and heroic counter-terrorist operatives (be they regular military personnel, private military contractors, or members of any number of real or fictional national security agencies) resonate so heavily with audiences in part because they are derived from commonsensical knowledge. In other words, they fit neatly into a broader discourse of terrorism that the US state and culture industries have fashioned for decades—and quite acutely, since 2001. According to MacFarlane (2014), these mediated presentations are essentially stories about political violence, but they are also stories that ignore the political in favor of a focus on the violence.
As noted above, these overly simplified but significant representations of an existential (and sometimes even a metaphysical) binary between the forces of evil and the forces of good are in no way solely a product of the post -9/11 culture industries. In other words, terrorism is not a new trope in Hollywood. However, the role that terrorism plays in these mediated narratives culture has changed over the years. In many pre-9/11 films terrorism was used primarily as a driver for espionage-action films or political thrillers, whereas in the post-9/11 period terrorism (and counter-terrorism) has frequently become a film’s raison d’être (MacFarlane, 2014). For example, Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, Saboteur (1942), about American Nazi fifth columnists, as well as many of the early James Bond films such as Dr. No (1962) and Goldfinger (1964), presented terrorism as the work of cold, politically calculating evil geniuses. Whether cast as the work of mad scientists, ex-military officers, disgruntled government officials—or indeed, Nazis, Russians, East Germans, North Koreans (or other generic Communists), or that of Palestinians, Libyans, or other unspecified Arabs/Muslims—terrorism was presented as deplorable but utilitarian behavior. A host of films, extending well into the late 1990s such as the first three Die Hard films (1988, 1990, and 1995, respectively), Patriot Games (1992), True Lies (1994), The Rock (1995), and The Siege (1998) scripted terrorism as the work of rational political actors—sometimes motivated by political ideology, at other times by financial avarice, and occasionally by both (Boggs & Pollard, 2006).
In contrast, many post-9/11 terrorism films are a priori films about the terroristic violence of essentialized “Others.” While the overall Orientalizing of the of the terrorists as Others is no more pronounced in post-9/11 popular culture than in pre-9/11 culture (in fact, there may be less offensive caricaturing now, particularly of Arabs and/or Muslims), the presentation of the terrorists’ motivation rests heavily—and in certain instances, exclusively—upon the visceral and expressive use of violence. Somewhat ironically, in film at least, most post-9/11 terrorist characters lack not only political consciousness but rationality as well. On the surface many of these post-9/11 popular culture products appear more sophisticated and nuanced, due in no small measure to locations, sets, technical expertise, and information provided by such national security apparatuses as the Department of Homeland Security and various branches of the military. Most of these are lowbrow narratives of fear and revenge. In addition to the ahistorical representation of Western colonial adventures (primarily those of the United States and the UK) and state violence, most of this popular culture storytelling relies almost entirely on the tenets of the American exceptionality monomyth.
Terrorists: Danger is Everywhere
The theme of a ubiquitous terrorist threat is likely the most widespread and well-established maxim of popular culture’s narratives. Both pre and post-9/11 films, television programs and games relied heavily upon the notion that terrorist attacks can and will happen anywhere. However, given al-Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the United States, post -9/11 fictional portrayals require considerably less of a commitment to the suspension of disbelief on the part of audiences than those that were made before 2001. In cruel irony, many commentators have pointed to the 1998 film The Siege, which portrays terrorist cells attacking several locations in New York City, including a Manhattan theater and the FBI’s field office, as a dark foreshadowing of 11 September 2001. Likewise, a number of popular culture’s terrorism and counter-terrorism offerings straddle the pre- and post-9/11 divide. For example, the aptly named The Sum of All Fears, which features the explosion of a nuclear bomb in Baltimore (by neo-Nazi terrorists) was completed prior to 9/11, but not released until the summer of 2002. Similarly, the television series 24’s first episodes were completed before 9/11 but were not televised until November of that year. Clearly the events of 9/11 shaped the script beginning in the second season and for the next several. By contrast, the development of the first of the multiple versions of Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell video game occurred immediately post-9/11 and was released in a little over a year, in November 2002.
In the lifeworlds created by post-9/11 popular culture, terrorist and counter-terrorist activities are no longer things that happen primarily or exclusively elsewhere (Boggs & Pollard, 2006). America’s business interests abroad or its military installations, embassies, and consulates in other countries (and borrowing from the themes of Cold War cinema, those of its allies—frequently the British or the French) are no longer the only viable or likely targets of terrorist activity. While still a staple, these traditional targets have been augmented by a host of others, often on the US mainland. These include major urban centers such as New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, as well as fictional ones such as Gotham City. As such, it is not surprising that iconic buildings and national monuments feature prominently, along with municipal water reservoirs, natural gas supply lines, electrical towers, power transfer stations, and nuclear reactors. But the same is true with a number of far more mundane though no less significant parts of the urban landscape: schools, sports stadiums, shopping malls, among other venues. Echoing the discourse on terrorist threats employed by the Bush and subsequent Obama administrations, the culture industries’ narrative is clear; no place and no one is safe. Perhaps even more so in video games than in the lifeworlds of film or TV, there are literally no spaces immune to conflict (Young, 2015). In other words, all spaces are battlefields. An attack may be prevented, repelled, or countered anywhere at any time. The terrorists and counter-terrorists are waging the perpetual war on all fronts.
Hollywood’s terroristic violence takes many forms. In addition to the much feared “suitcase nuke,” denizens face threats ranging from hijacking and hostage taking to cyber attacks and the use of chemical and biological agents such as anthrax and nerve gas. Programs such as Third Watch (1999–2005), and The West Wing (1999–2006), while not shows primarily about terrorism or counter-terrorism, still presented particularly powerful scenes of innocent American victims disturbingly reminiscent of those that audiences first saw in the news coverage of the actual 9/11 attacks.
Terrorists are the consummate objects of fear and hatred in 21st-century America. They have far surpassed their domestic or foreign predecessors from the previous century (e.g., serial murderers, the Axis powers, Satanic cultists, organized crime syndicates, Communists, illegal immigrants, street gangs, among others). They perfectly fit the mold of what sociologist Stanley Cohn first termed “folk devils” (Rothe & Muzzatti, 2004). Unlike normal deviants or criminals, folk devils are “unambiguously unfavourable symbols”—the embodiment of evil (Cohen, 1972). While the concept was originally conceived of in relation to the way the news media presented members of youth subcultures (first British Mods and Rockers, but later American zoot-suiters, hippies, skinheads, goths, etc.) the label has since expanded considerably. As the work of many scholars illustrate, folk devils are highly stylized images of despised and reviled groups of people. Indeed, if the Los Angeles terrorists of 24 (2001–2014) are any indication, the terrorist repertoire includes assassinations, car and train bombings, and chemical and radiological attacks. While by definition screen villains must be larger than life, these terrorist characters have reached levels approaching super-villainy. Of course, this is not surprising given that their activities pose such an unprecedented threat, fully in keeping with the theme of exceptionalism. However, the presentations vacillate wildly. While the presentation of terrorists as extraordinarily evil is quite consistent across media (including the strictly nonfictional media, such as news coverage, documentaries, and some reality-based programming) their competency and agency varies across and within forms. Designed to be frightening and reprehensible and always numerically significant (not to mention ubiquitous), terrorists are sometimes highly competent, exceptionally intelligent, and unrelentingly devious adversaries, while at other times they teeter on the brink of being subhuman caricatures—frenetic in their movement and barely intelligible in their guttural speech.
Given that the 21st century has been marked by heightened anxieties about Islam, Muslims and Arab peoples (or those mistakenly identified as such) first in the United States but increasingly in certain western and southern European nations, it stands to reason that the overwhelming majority of terrorists in Hollywood films, TV programs, video games, comics, and other entertainment media are Arab/Muslim (Shaheen, 2014). However, again, this is not solely a product of America’s post-9/11 cultural production. As Shaheen’s comprehensive historical analysis of the entertainment media’s construction of Arab peoples illustrates, from children’s cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny as a French Legionnaire (Sahara Hare, 1955) through musical theater such as Aladdin (1958), and films such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), they are frequently cast as a threatening cultural Other inhabiting a hostile mythical land of deserts, oil wells, and Bedouin camps. Beginning in the late 1970s, as tensions in the Middle East reached a boiling point, especially with the Islamic revolution in Iran, terrorist training camps started to replace Bedouin camps in popular culture’s storytelling. By the 1980s the figure of the generic Arab as terrorist was firmly established in popular culture and featured prominently in a host of action, war, spy, and mystery-thriller films such as Chain of Command (1983), Iron Eagle (1986), the Delta Force series (1986–1991), Frantic (1988), Navy Seals (1990), and True Lies (1994). During this period Arab terrorist characters even appeared in films far removed from the aforementioned genres, such as the sci-fi comedy Back to the Future (1985) where a defrauded Libyan terrorist firing an AK-47 from atop a dilapidated Volkswagen bus precipitates main character Marty McFly’s escape to the 1950s in the DeLorean time machine.
For a period of time in the 1990s, due in large measure to the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR) and the related Balkanization in eastern Europe, while not disappearing completely, the traditional Middle Eastern/North African Arab as terrorist was temporarily supplanted by a slightly more culturally diverse array of foreign-born popular culture villains including Russians, Kazakhs, Serbians, as well as some neo-Nazis, militant animal rights activists, survivalists, and militia group members who were born and raised in America.
Such “non-traditional terrorists” differ from the Arab as terrorist characters in more ways than simply nationality, ethnicity, and presumed religious affiliation. Whilst both are designed as objects of fear and loathing, the non-traditional terrorists are afforded far greater agency than their racialized counterparts, particularly if they are of white European descent. This is even true, though slightly less so, of those ambiguously coded as being of Balkan or Slavic origin. For example, we can look at two main terrorist characters from the Call of Duty Modern Warfare videogame series (2007–2016) as an interesting comparison. The Georgian terrorist leader, Kombayn Nikoladze is presented as extremely capable and powerful adversary, while his Arab counterpart, Khaled Al-Asad (leader of a coup d’état in an unnamed Middle Eastern country) is presented as a ruthless extremist. Likewise, Anarchy 99, a terrorist group depicted in the film xXx (2002) and comprising former Russian soldiers and mercenaries, are politically calculating, highly organized, and prove to be quite a match for the agents of the US National Security Agency. In the rare instances where a group of traditional Middle Eastern/North African Arab terrorists are presented as a highly sophisticated, instrumentally oriented organization who are capable of successfully intercepting shipments of military weapons and carrying out a high- profile kidnapping of a wealthy US industrialist, as was the case of The Ten Rings terrorist network, it later comes to light that they were little more than foot soldiers doing the bidding of corrupt American businessman, Obadiah Stane (in the Iron Man  Hollywood film) or the Machiavellian global crime syndicate, The Maggia (in the coordinated release of the Iron Man  video game).
On the rare occasions that members of white, non-eastern European ethnic groups are shown employing terroristic violence in popular culture presentations, they are typically scripted as instrumental, sometimes heroic or noble (if perhaps slightly misguided)—and almost never as terrorists. Unlike so many of the settings for (Jihadist or Communist or ex-Communist or neo-Nazi, etc.) terrorism produced by the culture industries, the popular-culture lifeworlds where white, English as a first (and only) language Anglo-Americans engage in terrorism are neither contemporary nor realistic. Instead, they are frequently set in the distant past, a parallel world, or a dystopian future and take the form of big-budget historical films, period pieces, or sci-fi action adventures—not terrorist films or even films about terrorism. In his examination of the way Hollywood scripts danger, Dodds (2008) points to The Patriot (2000), a film about a retired soldier leading a militia group against the British Army in the southern US during the American Revolutionary War, and The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006), a film about the IRA during the Anglo-Irish War and the subsequent Irish Civil War. To those we can add a number of other films, including Braveheart (1995) about William Wallace leading the First Scottish War of Independence; Children of Men (2006), about a militant immigrants’ rights group known as the Fishes; and a strange assortment of allies struggling against a futuristic British police-state, V for Vendetta (2006) wherein V and his reluctant sidekick Evey Hammond attempt to incite a revolution against the UK’s neo-fascist ruling party. There was also the The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) and Mockingjay Part 2 (2015), featuring warrior/celebrity-cum-public enemy, Katniss Everdeen leading the disenfranchised outer districts in a rebellion against The Capitol on the continent-nation of Panem.
As was briefly alluded to in the section on “Violence as Entertainment” and will be addressed more fully in the subsequent section of this essay, it is also worth noting that popular culture narratives almost never script the violence of the favorite state (the United States, Britain, or its allies) or its proxies as state-sponsored terrorism. Indeed, as was previously illustrated, it rarely even acknowledges it as violence. Instead, it is presented as counter-terrorism—astutely preventative or righteously retributive. According to the culture industries’ storytelling endeavors, state-sponsored terrorism is the sole purview of totalitarian dictatorships, failed states and/or rogue nations that are customarily located in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and north Africa.
In the post-9/11 era, the terrorism (and counterterrorism) genre has grown exponentially. In other words, there are far more representations of terrorism among popular-culture products than ever before. Terrorism is featuring more frequently in “traditional” venues such as war movies, TV programs about espionage and procedural police dramas, as well as appearing in places that it rarely, if ever had before, such as superhero comics, video games, reality TV, graphic novels, and disparate musical genres ranging from hip-hop to country. The terrorists of these lifeworlds, whether fictionalized representations of actual historic or contemporary groups such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization as presented in the film Munich (2006) or Al-Shabaab in Kenya as seen in the film Eye in the Sky (2015) or wholly the product of a culture industry’s collective imagination, such as Crimson Jihad in Switzerland from the film True Lies (1994) or The Engineers in Iran, Libya, Bangladesh, and India in the video game Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013), are disproportionately presented as undifferentiated Arabs.
Hence, while proportionally there may be greater ethnic diversity in those cast as terrorists in these varied popular culture forms, because there are so many terrorists populating the entertainment media’s varied lifeworlds, the Arab terrorist is simply legion and cannot be avoided. In fact, the almost two dozen countries and numerous religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups that constitute “the Arab world” have been flattened out and fashioned in such a way as to reify popular narratives and fit them into the narrow grooves of institutional meaning (Muzzatti & Featherstone, 2007; Sisler, 2008). Preeminent within the preferred meanings are those of hostility and terrorism to such a degree that it creates a situation wherein virtually the only Arab voices that popular culture’s audiences hear are those of Arab terrorists (Erickson, 2008). And these voices, both literally and metaphorically, consist of limited dialogue—primarily distorted yelling and language sound effects punctuated by shouts of “Allah Akbar!”
In popular culture both the dramatized but reality-based Arab terrorists and their wholly fictionalized counterparts are typically constructed as premodern, uncivilized, and highly irrational. The presentation of them is largely absent any historical or geopolitical context. The unifying message is quite clear; these terrorists are unredeemable, barbaric savages, and their use of violence against innocent non-combatants is visceral and fueled by hatred. Despite the ample opportunities afforded to popular culture’s hegemonic agenda setters, the elaborate scripts that they produce almost universally omit any discussion of terrorist ideologies or their reasons for fighting (Schulzke, 2013b). The terrorists’ grievances may be alluded to, but they are never truly explored. Stark but telling is the example of the White Masks terrorist organization from the video game Rainbow 6 Siege (2015): this group has no known goals other than causing global chaos. Given the proclivity of the corporate news media to shield the American public from knowledge of their own country’s global economic and military activities, it is little wonder that the entertainment media’s narratives so seamlessly deny the terrorists’ their subjectivity, instead presenting them as sinister, faceless, unrelenting Others (Boggs & Pollard, 2006).
Predictably, these popular culture narratives about terrorist threats to America emerging from nowhere carry considerable currency with an audience whose worldview is so insular that it appears to them as though social, political, and economic forces do not exist. It is no coincidence that the reductionist explanation for terrorism, “They hate our [the American] way of life,” which was so frequently parroted in news and public affairs programming in the weeks and months following the 9/11 attacks is reproduced in the construction of Arab terrorism in the entertainment media. So, too, as will be addressed in the next section, this construct of the terrorists as less-than-human plays a significant part in the counter-terrorism strategies employed by popular culture’s righteous heroes.
Counter-terrorists: Protecting Freedom by any Means Necessary
Given popular culture’s narrative of the ubiquitous and relentless terrorist threat to the United States it is not surprising that counter-terrorist operatives have become some of the most popular and widely recognized heroes on movie, television, and computer gaming screens since 9/11. Like their terrorist adversaries, these defenders of America are not solely a product of the post-9/11 culture industries, but their presence in popular culture narratives have increased exponentially since the onset of the War on Terror. And like the construction of the terrorists in the pre- and post-9/11 periods, there have been some interesting changes in the ways in which the culture industries have scripted counter-terrorists over the years, as well as a number of constants. This penultimate section of the essay will address some of those similarities and differences and pay particular attention to the characterization of the counter-terrorist and the practices of counter-terrorism in the entertainment media’s post-9/11 lifeworlds.
Violence and its consequences, while certainly a part of the human condition, is undeniably distasteful and ugly. Because violence, particularly large-scale violence such as that employed by the state in times of war, is so horrific that it is necessary to neutralize the revulsion that viewing it would typically elicit. While the suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers, players, and other audiences is a precondition of consuming fictionalized entertainment, consuming violence (and more actively participating in it, the way one would in a video game) requires more than this tacit agreement between popular culture producers and consumers. Different genres require varying narratives to make violence not only palatable but enjoyable and something to be desired. The tenets of the terrorism/counter-terrorism genre differ considerably from those of other genres that are built upon, or heavily rely on violence such as horror films, TV police procedurals, or role-playing video games (RPGs).
The denial of violence is an absolute requirement of popular culture’s counter-terrorism (Nikolaidis, 2011). As addressed in the “Violence as Entertainment” section of this essay, the failure to recognize the favorite state’s violence (or that of its proxies) as violence is a well- established trope of the news media. Hence, its extension into the fantasy worlds of fictionalized and/or carefully scripted reality-based entertainment media is both a logical and relatively easily employed strategy. The denial of counter-terrorism as violence occurs in a variety of interconnected ways. Chief among them is the presentation of counter-terrorist agents as forces for good. Because they serve the United States and/or its allies against the Axis of Evil, they are by definition beneficent. Like the hard-drinking, womanizing, violent cowboys (or detectives, mercenaries, etc.) of other genres, the counter-terrorist may behave indecorously, but is at heart good. Regardless of how flawed the counter-terrorist, s/he is easily constructed as righteous and upstanding compared to the foil of the terrorist. Contrary to the real world of government intelligence work wherein having an abrasive countenance, such as Agent Gust Avrakotos in the film Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) or struggling with mental illness, like Agent Carrie Mathison in the series Homeland (2011 to present) would be considered a character flaw or a liability, in the lifeworld of popular culture’s CIA, they are strengths and testaments to counter-terrorists’ humanity. The Counter Terrorism Unit’s Jack Bauer (24) is immoral, violent, and regularly violates the US Constitution, international law, and the protocols of his own agency, yet works for the forces of good and as such is the consummate hero of popular culture’s counter-terrorism. His shameful actions ranging from insubordination through to human rights abuses are not recognized as such in the lifeworld and certainly never punished. By reproducing accessible and time tested binaries of good versus evil, civilization versus barbarism, “their” unprovoked violence against civilians versus “our” necessary actions against their terrorists and/or military in its fictional lifeworlds, the culture industries’ presentations of counter-terrorism obfuscates the complexities of real-world global relations that contribute to actual terrorist and counter-terrorist activities. While the popular culture consumers of the post-9/11 era are more sophisticated (some might argue, more cynical) than those of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the construction of the hero narratives, whether those of Dan Briggs and Jim Phelps (from Mission Impossible, [1966–1973]) or Annie Walker and Auggie Anderson (from Covert Affairs [2010–2014]) are relatively standardized. As heroes, their use of violence is not in fact violence but something else, such as justice.
There is a strange fusion of what Nikolaidis (2011) terms “literal denial” and “implicatory denial” in popular culture’s presentation of counter-terrorist violence. Normally understood to operate independent of one another, the concept of literal denial suggests that violence did not occur, while the concept of implicatory denial acknowledges that violence occurred but suggests that it was deserved. In reality, the two are mutually exclusive—violence was either employed or it was not. If it was employed, it was because the target deserved it. However, in the lifeworlds of counter-terrorism constituted by the entertainment media, these two types of denial are not only able to coexist but in fact enjoy a symbiotic relationship. As consumers of popular culture we are simultaneously enthralled by counter-terrorists’ violence (which we are told the terrorists deserve) yet we really do not see the violence because we are told that it is justice, not violence. Hence, we both saw and did not see violence. Of tantamount importance to this hyper-real process is the fact that what we consume as viewers and players is a form of what Der Derian (2009) refers to as a bloodless, almost hygienic warfare. Despite claims to (or perhaps more appropriately) warnings of “graphic content” or “gratuitous violence,” the simulated violence of popular culture’s counter-terrorism efforts truly sanitizes the injuries and fatalities resulting from violence. There is rarely any depiction of the consequences of employing violence for the counter-terrorist in his or her lifeworld. S/he suffers neither emotionally-existentially (with feelings of guilt or angst) nor physically-psychologically (with nausea, permanent physical injury or post-traumatic stress). The terrorists who are the (rightful) recipients of the violence are rarely presented as suffering the true indignities that inevitably accompany serious or fatal injuries. They are briefly part of an antiseptic spectacle of a precipitous fall, gunshot, explosion, or similar dramatized demise and then are gone. In this regard, the cinematic representations of counter-terrorism from the Cold War era and that of the post-9/11 period are more similar than they may at first appear. While earlier representations relied more heavily on implied interpersonal violence, more contemporary ones utilize special and visual effects, neither come close to capturing even a fraction of the true suffering, horror, and degradation of violence, to say nothing of that which is left in its wake. Also because of assumption about the audiences/consumers, there are some differences across mediums, with Hollywood films and video games depicting violence more elaborately (i.e., with more visual or special effects gore) than do TV programs comics and graphic novels. And while all of these mediums devote more effort, attention, and resources to visually presenting violence than they did even a generation ago, to suggest that it is a “realistic” presentation is no more correct than suggesting that the presentation of Arabs in the this genre is realistic.
And like Presdee’s cookie eating, as consumers of the entertainment media’s counterterrorism we experience momentary elation, the dark pleasure of retribution meted out—and little else, save perhaps the anticipation of the next encounter between the forces of good and evil in this lifeworld or the next one in which we immerse ourselves.
In the various lifeworlds of movies, TV, and games counter-terrorism strategies, no matter how extreme, are understood as reasonable and legitimate because of amplified and immediate threats (Rothe & Collins, 2015). In the first instance, because terrorism is so pervasive and deadly the only logical response is the unfettered use of repressive state apparatuses. This includes representations of both real security and intelligence agencies such as the CIA, FBI, NSA, and US Secret Service and fictionalized ones such as “Section D” and “B613” of TV’s MI-5 (2002–2011) and Scandal (2012–present), respectively, and those of video games such as “Task Force 141” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009), and “The Fourth Echelon” from Splinter Cell: Blacklist (2013). It also includes the US regular military and its allies, as well as specialized units. For example, the video game Rainbow 6 Siege (2015) features gameplay options that include Britain’s SAS, Canada’s Joint Task Force 2, France’s GIGN, and Germany’s GSG-9 in addition to US Navy SEALs.
In these popular culture products, military personnel and federal agents are often presented working alongside local law enforcement ranging from patrol-level officers through SWAT personnel and detectives domestically, as well as resistance fighters, mercenaries, US-friendly rebels and other freedom-loving heroes internationally, to neutralize terrorist threats.
While this obviously entails large-scale operations involving tens of thousands of troops invading and occupying foreign countries, such as those represented in the films Stop-Loss (2008) or American Sniper (2014) it also includes the work of small specialized units, small rapid-deployment teams and covert/black operatives such as those from the lifeworlds of the film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) or Call of Duty videogame series (2003–2015) and encompasses the routine daily policing of major US cities to protect their denizens and critical infrastructure as in the program 24. Particularly the latter two examples signify a fluidity among policing, national security/intelligence, and warfare functions that was not present to any great degree in popular culture’s presentation of counter-terrorism prior to 9/11. With some notable exceptions, such as police detective John McClane in the first three Die Hard films, the was little genre-bending pre-9/11; cops were responsible for criminals, secret agents for foreign spies, the US military for enemy forces, etc. The genre fusion that occurred in post-9/11 popular culture in many ways mirrors the blurring of external and internal security functions that have taken place in the real world of geopolitics. Several theorists have observed that as the Bush administration’s “shock and awe” counter-terrorism was replaced by the Obama administration’s “smart power,” the entertainment media’s presentation of counter-terrorism changed (Kumar & Kundnani, 2014; Young, 2015). True, some changes have indeed occurred: the Jack Bauers (24) and Adam Carters (MI-5) of the lifeworlds have been replaced; big-screen predator drone strikes are not ordered without at least a ten-minute moral dilemma; and torture, though still present, is less prevalent on TV and has been relegated from active gameplay to the cut scenes of video games. But beneath the surface, much remains the same. For example, there is no question that warfare, rather than political diplomacy, and changes to foreign and economic policy are the most effective means of addressing terrorism (Schulzke, 2013a; Wild, 2014). Specifically, no weapon is too powerful or costly, no likelihood of civilian deaths too great, no interrogation technique unwarranted, and no constant, low-grade warfare too prolonged.
In the years since al- Qaeda’s 11 September terrorist attacks the culture industries have presented narratives of not only an unyielding but also a growing terrorist threat. Normalizing a constant and ongoing state of emergency promotes the normalcy of techniques that under other circumstances might be considered unconscionable. In short, the entertainment media has presented a picture in which war strategies not only constitute gross civil and human rights violations but are often actually war crimes. Examples include the surveillance of ordinary Americans, the extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention and torture of foreign nationals, and the extrajudicial killing of suspected terrorists, both on US soil and in other countries. These actions are depicted as not only perfectly reasonable but as a normal part of an ordinary day’s work for the counter-terrorist agents of popular culture.
The Ongoing Media Loop
Terrorism and counter-terrorism have come to dominate US political discourse and popular culture since September 11, 2001, and will no doubt continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The horror of al-Qaeda’s terrorist violence was made real for US people on that Tuesday morning and for popular culture consumers throughout the world in the months and years that followed. While they are not identical, the narratives put forth by the state and the culture industries about terrorism and counter-terrorism in the post-9/11 era share a great deal in common, including the construction of the terrorist threat against the United States and its allies as foreign, exceptional, ubiquitous, and ongoing. Understandably, both also fetishize the comprehensive application of state violence in the form of a militarized counter-terrorism strategy as the most prudent—indeed, really the only effective—response.
By playing to fear, desperation, irrational jingoism, xenophobia, and vengeance, popular culture’s presentation of terrorism and counter-terrorism has worked to provide the resolution that the real-world War on Terror promises but by definition cannot provide. At the same time, this presentation necessitates, at the very least, its continuation and possible future escalation.
This brief essay was not designed to be comprehensive, nor to provide the definitive final word on the complex web of the state’s and popular culture’s interwoven storytelling about terrorism and counter-terrorism. Indeed, given the ongoing nature of those endeavors, it would be impossible to accomplish such a thing. Instead, it can hopefully serve as a valuable heuristic: one that a reader can employ to critically interrogate the approved narratives that constitute the nation’s official stories about terrorism and counter-terrorism, whether they emanate from Hollywood or Washington, DC.
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