War on Terror and American Pop Culture

                                        “Terrorism is theatre.” – Brian Jenkins 

Pope John Paul II referred to the dreadful terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the United States of America as an “unspeakable horror” and that is precisely how the events of 9/11 and thereafter have been immortalized in human history. The attacks penetrated the blanket of security that the world seemed to be in since the end of the Second War World in 1945 in spite of violence in various forms occurring in different parts of the world all along. Seen as an act of unprovoked ‘war’ against the very idea of civil society, the attacks marked unconventional changes in the fields of International Relations and Global Politics and sharply altered the nature of discourse around security and defense.

Post 9/11 we saw the entry of terrorism into the everyday vernacular, making it a part of both political and popular dialogue. One is left wondering what was so unconventional about these attacks that can possibly explain the extent of its impact. With a symbolic destruction of the twin towers which stood for the might of not just the USA but the entire ‘west’ in the era of capitalism and globalisation, a non-state actor such as the al-Qaeda, previously on the side lines in the global political scenario, made its presence felt. The ‘geography of war’ changed, as explained by Dalby, along with the assumption that America, the ‘world leader’, itself was relatively immune to terrorism.

What followed in the USA post the attacks was to determine events worldwide for a long time to come. The attacks shook the conscience of every American and the political leadership used these very feelings of shock and grief to unite the nation in a ‘war’ against the terrorists. President George W. Bush had a powerful message to deliver post the attacks and history is proof that his iconic address to the nation on September 11 efficaciously reassured the American spirit and garnered uncritical and unconditional support for the US Military in their proposed course of action thereafter. The declared ‘war’ was unprecedented and created a strong ‘us’ versus them’. This ‘war’ against terror came across as a global effort, being provided direction and momentum by the USA, pitting a decentralized network of terrorists against an abstracted ‘west’, making it all the more asymmetrical in nature.

The USA engineered an international coalition for war on terror, as the policy would be referred to since, and, ironical as it might be, went ahead to include in it Syria and Iran, identified to be terror sponsoring regimes. In this context, it might be stimulating to quote George Bush’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly wherein he attempted to bring home the point that this coalition is against terrorism as such and not only against those who actually undertook the 9/11,

“We must unite in opposing all terrorists, not just some of them. In this world, there are good causes and bad causes, and we may disagree on where that line is drawn. Yet there is no such thing as a good terrorist. No national aspiration, no remembered wrong can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent. Any government that rejects this principle, trying to pick and choose its terrorist friends, will know the consequences.”

The American foreign policy got a makeover, shifting from the defensive to the offensive, and destroying leadership and organizations which threatened the integrity and freedom of the USA became the emphasis. As The Guardian reported on the tenth anniversary of the attacks, “It turned an administration with quasi-isolationist tendencies into one committed to robust intervention overseas.” The ‘Bush Doctrine’ expanded the use of American military force to allow for a unilateral preventative war when need be to thwart the potential of another significant attack on the nation.

Ever since its declaration, war on terror continues to occupy the center stage and more so in the light of rise of the ISIL. It became the most politically powerful phrase of the twenty first century and a political rhetoric so commonplace yet demanding sensitivity while usage. It is said to be the most important ‘frame’ in recent history, an organizing principle that was socially shared and was persistent over time and that worked symbolically to meaningfully structure the world around and create a favorable political climate. National anxiety and a widespread pro-Bush fervor amongst the Americans contributed to war on terror growing beyond its original policy usage and ‘taking a life of its own’. War on terror has been explained as a ‘macro level cultural structure’ that functions in its scope as an ‘ideological expression’. 

In the period soon after its launch, the policy was received predominantly in two ways. First, there was criticism of the policy based on anti-colonial and anti-imperial grounds as it was seen as a revived attempt to extend an imperialist agenda. However, this criticism of the policy as an imperialistic project did not resonate among the masses, nor was it found across the political spectrum. This view came from the circle of scholars and academicians around the world, small in proportion and smaller within America. Scholars traced the use of American power in military adventures aboard under the project of war of terror and suggest how the pattern of violence might best be explained as ‘imperial wars’. War on terror, in this sense, does not come across as a new type of war but instead as ‘counter-insurgency warfare at the fringes of imperial control’ which has been witnessed several times in the history of several nation states.  It was argued that all events that dominated the global political scenario post the events of September 2001 needed to be explained using an alternative geopolitical narrative, a narrative in terms of ‘empire’. This ‘empire’ has been best described in the following words,

“It is an empire without a consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad. But that does not make it any less of an empire, with a conviction that it alone, in Herman Melville’s words, bears ‘the ark of liberties of the world’.” 

Secondly, and the rhetoric more relevant for thesis undertaken, there were the proud Americans who after the declaration of the doctrine assumed that by taking up the onus of dealing with terrorism on itself, the USA had now acquired a moral supremacy over other countries. The USA pitched its aggressive military strategy of war on terror to the masses as a fight of the ‘good against evil’, ‘civilization against barbarism’ or ‘democracy against tyranny’. The world was showcased as an ‘Hobbesian chaos’, in need of a ‘good war’ on the basis of patriotic ideals against those who threaten the freedom of common man. “US saw itself as the embodiment of a new and higher kind of civilization, a trend observed in the colonial history as well, with a mission of holding back the barbarians, or in this case the terrorists.” 

Despite this, several personalities from research and news as well explained the political statements on ‘war on terror’ by referring to Joseph Goebbels’s statement on the Nazi Germany which sums up the minor anti-war on terror group’s position well, “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the state can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. The truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the state.”

The absence of critical reception of the war on terror by the masses is credited to the construction of this particular narrative which conceals the ‘lie’ and led to popular acceptance of an ‘option’ as the only ‘solution’. It is often said that owing to the ‘image making’ by the state, Americans failed to grasp the horrific magnitude of the policy of war on terror, neither did they realize its staggering human toll. They were captivated by a powerful narrative constructed by the state and consumed by a patriotic fervor. This ‘success’ of state agenda is almost entirely credited to the nature of cultural reproduction of the doctrine.

In the couple of years immediately after 9/11, the audience did not accept films that were critical of the military and its services abroad. The fact that during the first months after 9/11 films like Die Hard and True Lies were rented by Americans three times more safely reads out the political mood of the public at large. The masses wanted to cure their anxieties and insecurities as well as deal with the post attack trauma by indulging in films that re-affirmed their faith in the might of their country and its service men. Reflecting upon such a public temper, US box office charts were topped by war movies like Black Hawk Down (2001), Behind Enemy Lines (2001), and We Were Soldiers (2002). “There’s a greater understanding now of how you would feel if your country was under attack,” a director commented on the reasons for this trend. 

The policy of war on terror was more than a policy label, it was a powerful organizing principle and played a crucial role in structuring the world. In the period that immediately followed 9/11, the policy of war on terror was quickly accepted by the masses as well as by those in power across the political spectrum. Popular culture played an important role in furthering the internalization of policy as hoped for by the state. Such an internalization and naturalization of the policy allowed little or no space for public debates and scrutiny. The initial cultural reproductions of the policy also created a favorable climate for military action in Iraq.
With the deconstruction of the policy of war on terror and all its underlying assumptions, the policy become politically controversial with strong criticism emerging from all quarters. The consensus over war on terror that the state managed to build amongst the masses has in the recent past eroded with the public questioning several assumptions which previously sustained their support to the policy.

All representations of war on terror since have been more careful and critical, adjusting to the new tone of discussions of the policy among the public. The representations of the policy in popular culture now took into account the critical awareness of the masses of the administration’s interest in propagating only a particular nature of discourse around war on terror. The connotations of ‘propaganda’, ‘amorphous’, ‘vague’, ‘too broad’, and ‘problematic’ came to be used frequently in reference to war on terror.

This uncritical acceptance was challenged only after its credibility tarnished post the events in Iraq. The public could not accept the military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq under the policy usage of war on terror. Iraq remained a crucial component of the policy execution and the happenings in Iraq made the earlier criticism proof policy of the USA vulnerable. As summed up by Stephen D. Reese and Seth C. Lewis,
“The policy frame of war on terror was acceptable or neutral but the faulty ‘execution’ in Iraq brought into disrepute the frame that made Iraq possible in the first place.”


NOTE: The above is only an extract from dissertation submitted by me for partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of the POST GRADUATE DIPLOMA in CONFLICT TRANSFORMATION AND PEACE BUILDING, Aung San Suu Kyi Centre for Peace, New Delhi.  

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