Sunday, July 10, 2005


The London bombings make the numerous 9/11 references in the new War of the Worlds seem even odder and more callous than before.

For one thing: When Dakota Fanning asks "Is it the terrorists?" as the aliens tear up New Jersey, the audience is supposed to cluck knowingly at the silly little girl and her quaint notions. Today, the little girl doesn't look so silly.

For another: I hadn't seen anyone else pick up on this, but I found another 9/11 reference in the alien death ray that incinerates people but leaves their clothes fluttering in the air. Such an odd--to say nothing of ridiculously unscientific--weapon serves no logical purpose at all for the story. If, as later established, the aliens want to drain blood from people, why would they use a ray that disintegrates the entire body no matter where the ray hits it? A simple laser would leave lots of tasty, blood-filled body parts around. It doesn't make any sense--unless the device is only intended to supply a visual reminding us of the papers and office debris fluttering from the World Trade Center on 9/11. It's a visual that the movie really didn't need, and it feels cheap and superfluous.

And the worst is the scene where Spielberg shows us a wall filled with anguished "HAVE YOU SEEN" pictures of missing relatives. When I saw the film I thought the scene blithely trivialized the horrific experience of the 9/11 families, and, only weeks later, the scene feels only more so now that people are again putting up real pictures of real people on walls. Now, instead of being merely inappropriate, the scene feels truly shamelessly exploitive.

I think that the references are a vague attempt to deal with a specific problem. Whereas, in Schindler's List, he faced Nazi evil without flinching, here he's coy and allusive. And why is that?

It's because we can't speak the truth.

The culture can't talk about Muslim terrorism honestly. It can't even begin to. The most common response is simply to lie. To change the nuclear terrorists in Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears from Muslims to "Russian Nazis" is a lie. To invent an apparent Muslim nuclear terrorist plot that turns out to be the machinations of evil American politicians (Season 2 of 24) is a lie. The culture today feels almost like Russian literature in the Soviet period as described by Solzhenitsyn: The lie pervades and corrodes all.

The problem is fully, painfully on display in the BBC's silly spy show Spooks: It's supposed to be about the work of MI5 agents protecting Britain from terrorists, but the show never, ever deals with anything resembling real terrorists. One hears the premise of the very first episode--a London bombing campaign--and imagines the show's writers as prescient--until you understand that the episode in fact dealt with a bombing campaign by pro-lifers. I hadn't realized that abortion clinic bombing was such an enormous problem in the UK, possibly because I knew there had never been any. But there you have it. Ensuing episodes were about "connections between racist ring-leaders, politicians and mass killings of immigrants," a "Serbian terrorist ring," "Columbian terrorists," and so on. After a while you almost have to laugh at the grotesque contortions that the writers perform in order to avoid speaking the truth.

The only Spooks episode to deal straight-on with Muslim terrorism is the second episode of the second season, which features a suicide bomber who, in a crowd of people, reveals himself as a suicide bomber. And then he detonates the bomb only after all the people around have run away, killing only the Good Muslim who nearly talks him out of it. Of course, no suicide bomber would ever, ever act like this, since the purpose of the act is to kill and terrorize, and any suicide bomber who ever let infidels off the hook would be considered a failure.

The episode presents another liberal fantasy figure: The Good Muslim whose common sense nearly prevents a tragedy. At one dramatic point, the Good Muslim brings the suicide bomber to tears by talking about football--Bend It Like Bin Laden?--and dies heroically.

The problem I have is that I just don't see Muslims in the West acting like this. The first reaction after every atrocity is an almost reflexive self-pity, as here:

'When the twin towers got bombed they started on Iraq,' said Goshah, also 16. 'Now they will start on another Muslim country. And they will kick us out of this country as well.' Goshah flung his arm towards a woman standing nearby. 'You're lucky because you are white,' he said. 'Yeah, white people will be more racist now. They call us Pakis already, but it is going to get worse,' said Jakir. He was becoming agitated.

Fara Khan, 31, emerged from the mosque wearing a green headscarf. 'I am worried,' she said. 'I have been wearing a headscarf for two years and I used to get funny looks all the time. It got worse after Madrid and Bali, but it had got better. Now it will start all over again.'

I just hope in a civilised nation the backlash will not be too bad.'

Combined with the self-pity we have the standard Arab conspiracy theories:

'They are blaming Muslims for yesterday,' replied 20-year-old Saira Bin Bashir.

'I can't believe they are already blaming al-Qaeda,' said Jakir, 16. 'They have no evidence,' he said to nods from his friends.

'It is that Tony Blair,' he yelled. 'I bet he did it so people hate us more.'

'Don't point the finger too fast or the real culprit will get away,' said one.

A woman at the East London mosque said: 'I think it was other people wanting to make people dislike Muslims.'

'Maybe I am just being paranoid.' Everywhere there is similar sentiment: why would Muslims do something that would cause such pain to other Muslims?'

Or even worse, they openly cheer the murderers, as with this genuinely prescient story from 2004:

Four young British Muslims in their twenties - a social worker, an IT specialist, a security guard and a financial adviser - occupy a table at a fast-food chicken restaurant in Luton. Perched on their plastic chairs, wolfing down their dinner, they seem just ordinary young men. Yet out of their mouths pour heated words of revolution.

"As far as I'm concerned, when they bomb London, the bigger the better," says Abdul Haq, the social worker. "I know it's going to happen because Sheikh bin Laden said so. Like Bali, like Turkey, like Madrid - I pray for it, I look forward to the day."

"Pass the brown sauce, brother," says Abu Malaahim, the IT specialist, devouring his chicken and chips.

However, I do see Good Muslims in--ahem--Iraq, where every day locals tip off the authorities about arms caches and bomb factories. There are, of course, reasons why Iraq is producing such people while the West is full of sullen, resentful whiners. But that's another story.

And if the truth, as above, is so ugly that we can't speak it--that we are only permitted to lie--then the only alternative for the artist with even an ounce of integrity is to speak in riddles and metaphors. (We've seen this before in many literatures). If you don't want to lie, you need to transmogrify the truth somehow. And that's the impulse that, I think, gave us the 9/11 references in War of the Worlds. I got the impression that Spielberg was horrified by the evil of 9/11, and wanted somehow to address it. But, sadly, he wasn't horrified enough to deal honestly with its implications. The bottom line is that for the modern liberal, nothing, not even annihilation by terrorists, is more terrifying than being considered "intolerant."

Which position liberals hold at their peril. They want so desperately to find evil in Bush, in Rumsfeld, in the "neocons," in the "religious right" that they ignore every exemplar of what real evil is.

If I can reimagine a famous Orwell image,

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever.

I have, instead, an image of the future of the Western liberal, croaking out with his last breath, "Bush lied! Stop the Christian Right" while a jihadist, laughing uncontrollably, slices his head off.

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