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Terror and Television

The speed at which popular culture now dramatizes actual events is extraordinary. I'm not sure whether a movie was made about Kennedy's assassination not long after the event, but it was decades before a film appeared that portrayed Kennedy's murder with real provocative detachment, Oliver Stone's tendentious JFK. Two years later Hollywood finally applied itself big-time to the Holocaust with Schindler's List. There were previous Holocaust films, obviously; but Hollywood gigantism in the treatment of the subject had to await Steven Spielberg. His expertly done movie was thoroughly formulaic, and thoroughly, if understandably, reverential before its subject; and yet it was so unthinkingly arrogant at moments—Spielberg took his imperial camera all the way into the showers themselves—that it could only have been made after nearly two post-Holocaust generations had come and gone.

Indeed, the commercial representation, on the big or small screen, of the Holocaust—of any unspeakable historical tragedy—entails a paradoxical requirement with regard to its intended audience. For the sake of financial success, the film must not primarily address itself to the people who have survived the real historical catastrophe that the film is attempting to depict. Few of them would accept the reflection of their experience through commerce-warped formulas. Hotel Rwanda is an American product, not a Rwandan one, made primarily for American audiences. Schindler's List was not made for the Jews who had survived the death camps, and The Killing Fields was not made for the Cambodians who had lived through the genocide organized by the Khmer Rouge, and the several films about the genocide in Bosnia—Welcome to Sarajevo, Harrison's Flowers, Behind Enemy Lines—did not have in mind an audience of Bosnians. Whatever their emotional or intellectual strengths, those movies could not be profitable unless they hewed to certain movie conventions that refine horror into bearable, even comfortable sadness, and unless they end on some kind of improving, affirmative note.

In doing so, however, they end up harrowing the memories of the people who were there, and violating the reality of the people who have been violated. The Killing Fields was about a brave American journalist who returned home alive to tell the world his horrible tale. A Cambodian film about the genocide would not finish like that, nor would a Bosnian film or a Rwandan film conclude with the image of a foreigner who survived, who will go on with his life. No matter how sensitively done they are, no matter how committed to truth and justice, the only justification of these movies that appear while their subjects—the ones who survived or escaped—are still living is that they are made for people who had no connection to the historical tragedies that they portray. This is because such movies are entertainments—deepish entertainments. They are sermons by strangers.

Three years after September 11, 2001, the representations of that day and its consequences in the new world that we now inhabit are starting to appear, and as movies they raise interesting questions. Unlike Hotel Rwanda and the rest, they are not about historical tragedies that have taken hundreds of thousands or millions of lives, and whose survivors are still living, in many cases their agony fresh in their minds. The September 11 films do not, therefore, fall helplessly into that unwitting erasure of experience, into that marginalization of the dead and the near-dead of the other movies. On the contrary, the audience they want to reach is made up of potential victims and survivors, people whose very lives depend upon the outcome of the circumstances that the movies depict—in a word, us. And we have too much of a stake in the subject to be merely entertained. Yet can such movies be anything more than entertainments when they have to follow the formulas and conventions of any movie produced for a mass audience? And what kind of entertainments can they decently be?

TWO FILMS THAT premiered on HBO in January deal with the attacks of September 11 and the radically new situation left in their wake, and they seem like impossible undertakings, each one beset by its special impossibility. The Hamburg Cell, based on "known facts and actual events," as the movie tells us, portrays the hijackers and their accomplices in the years and months leading up to September 11. Dirty War, on the other hand, is wholly fictional, though also a fact-based scenario of what might happen if a so-called dirty bomb—low-grade radioactive material dispersed by an explosive—went off in the middle of a workday in the center of London.

One way these movies might have eluded the compromising neutrality of entertainments would have been for their makers to take a crude ideological turn. Such crudeness might have been, at least, a saving authenticity. The Hamburg Cell, in particular, must have been vulnerable to that temptation. It could have denied the Al Qaeda members human dimensions and portrayed them as cardboard villains, the way the Germans and the Japanese were depicted in American and British films during World War II. Yet the Final Solution, and the Nazis' treatment of their conquered populations, and the Japanese atrocities in Manchuria, made the one-dimensional representation of German and Japanese soldiers an ironically full disclosure of their humanity. Crude and flat was what the killers had become as people. (This didn't mean that fuller, more empathetic portraits were not possible; but they started to appear once the conflict with Germany and Japan had settled back beyond the horizon, into history.) And we were at war, a concrete war with known enemies, whose intentions and capabilities were also known.

Or The Hamburg Cell could have shown the hijackers as tortured and misguided, manipulated by their environment and by Western exploitation and neglect; and it could have represented their Western targets as being driven by all the corruption and the evil that the West attributes to Islamic militants. The Germans and the Japanese were sometimes depicted in this way long after World War II in American films such as The Young Lions, which were sentimental attempts at expanding common human sympathies that the war had contracted. In the current context, such moral equivalences would be the sharpest kind of anti- war propaganda. But The Hamburg Cell is neither anti-war nor pro-war. Its attempt at ethical sobriety and narrative poise is proof of the absolute strangeness and tension of this moment in history.

We are at war; and yet you can hardly imagine a movie during World War II depicting a German soldier as anything but one-dimensionally evil. It is proof of the profound ambivalence attending our current conflict that The Hamburg Cell—a mostly British production, bought by HBO, an American company—presents the hijackers and their cohorts in a full human light. It is certainly proof of the opaque, somewhat confused nature of the war against terrorism. At the same time—and this is sort of remarkable—the film's terrorists are fully, and humanly, despicable. They are human, but they are monsters. And the cause they slaughter for, their immensely destructive and self-destructive jihad, is depicted with a steady, penetrating, analytical eye as a fundamental—and fundamentalist—deformation of humanity.

In a sense, The Hamburg Cell has something of the calm balance of the better World War II films made many years after the war, in which Nazism is not presented as a supernatural force, or as an evil latent in human nature, but as a very particular evil rooted in particular individuals. Watching this film, you realize that what is unique about the war against terrorism is that the terrorists' campaign against the United States consists, in the public mind, of a single assault. The attacks on September 11 have been so often memorialized and commemorated that their singularity has been hallowed; they are often made to seem like flukes of history rather than, as we are constantly being warned— or assured—the first tragedy in a long onslaught against us.

And so there exists alongside all the calls for a resolved and relentless war against the jihadists a popular feeling that the wrenching emotional loss of war is over. Nothing we hear now about the fight against the insurgents in Iraq rises to the moral clarity that seemed to be produced by the events on September 11. This is why we will see more and more non-ideological artistic representations of September 11 and its aftermath, such as The Hamburg Cell. Though not committed to a political position, these works will probably infuriate people who believe that the war against terrorism is America's most urgent task. Certainly, both movies refuse to endorse the idea of an endless, permanent offensive against an all-pervasive enemy, and so you could say that they represent a skeptical position with regard to the war. But they are also so clear about the malevolence and the fanaticism that drive the Islamic militants, and about what calamities such emotions might lead to, that they will also disappoint anyone hoping for an anti-war statement.

THE MOST PECULIAR quality of these movies about a warlike situation is that they have the detachment of peaceful times. Dirty War, a simple, literal, strenuously researched scenario of disaster, seems like the chronicle of a horrific event rather than the prediction of one. Its strongest note is ruefulness. It begins with a drill involving firefighters rushing to save lives in the wake of a dirty bomb attack, and then tells the parallel stories of the terrorists' organization of such an assault, the explosion itself, and the attempts to deal with the aftermath while catching the terrorists, who are still at large and planning more attacks. Yet the movie is profoundly low-keyed, and sparing in its central human dramas, among them the poignant portrayal of a fire-department officer and his wife. Its thrust is a documentary-like conscientiousness about the facts, as if it were not a drama at all, but a clarifying supplement to confused, panic-inciting news reports. Dirty War is so intent on depicting techniques of bioterror containment and control, so detailed in its enactment of the terrorists' apprehension or destruction, that it has the soothing effect of making you feel that the worst is over. PBS's rebroadcast of the film scheduled for late February, accompanied by a panel of experts on bioterrorism, will doubtlessly reinforce the feeling that Dirty War represented a real event, now safely past. Given the hysteria that the Bush administration likes to provoke with its politically timed terror alerts, all this reassurance is hardly a complacency. It is something of a public service.

The term "therapeutic," as applied to any organized experience that is not actually therapy, immediately makes that experience suspect. With regard to a work of art, whether popular or serious, "therapeutic" falls upon it like a doom. But television has always straddled the boundary between popular art and therapeutic consolation. You watch it at home, in your familiar, intimate surroundings; maybe you are not even fully dressed; maybe you are not dressed at all. You could be eating dinner, or relieving yourself, or getting drunk. Until the advent of television, there never was a mass medium for entertainment or information that had such intimacy.

It became inevitable that television would address life's mundane problems because television itself is so mundane, part of the ordinary flow of time the way those problems are. Television has to reflect back to you your own sense of security. It also has to mirror your sense of your own decency and your own limitations. It can't leave you ready for bed with your adrenaline racing, or your thirst for justice unslaked. You cannot be unsettled, shattered, in your own home. Perhaps, very slowly, DVDs—not to mention HBO's raw pioneering dramas—are changing all of that, and creating a new type of nervous system that goes to bed excited and wakes up agitated. For the most part, however, television is a patronizing narcotic, and for all the junk a most respectful medium.

The terrorist threat is so cloudy, faceless, and vague, so manipulable by political purposes, so definitely present but indefinitely manifested, that it sometimes feels interchangeable with everyday dread itself. In other words, the terrorist threat operates on the most intimate level imaginable. The aspect of it that makes the mind complicit with unseen dangers is what makes it so hard to prove, so hard to refute, and so serviceable to so many interests. Its battlefield is, in fact, our familiar surroundings.

The attacks on September 11, after all, destroyed people in their safe, habitual, everyday environments—the heartbreakingly ordinary office papers that floated above Manhattan for days afterward were like an image of terror's apparently enveloping presence and intimate battleground. What better medium, then, exists for the clarification of terror, and for the consolation about terror, than television? Tom Clancy's irresponsible and demented The Sum of All Fears, in which a nuclear device is exploded on American soil—not a dirty bomb, a nuclear bomb, which is extremely unlikely—could not have been made for television. The movie would have violated and then burst its medium.

AT THE HEART of both The Hamburg Cell and, to a much lesser extent, Dirty War is the relationship between two people, a man and a woman. This time-tested Hollywood convention of reducing every type of conflict, even actual historical conflict, to a romantic relationship is often the worst kind of cop-out. (It would make more sense to reduce romantic relationships to historical conflicts.) But given the intimate nature of the terrorist threat, the decision of The Hamburg Cell's creators to center their true story on the courtship and marriage of Ziad Jarrar, the Lebanese dental student who hijacked one of the planes headed for Washington, to Aysel, a Muslim Turkish student he met while studying in Germany, makes sense. It puts a human face on all the talk of the war on terrorism, which sometimes rises to the level of the supernatural, or occult, or begins to echo dialectical materialism's absolute certainty of final, resolving, historical conflict.

The Hamburg Cell begins and ends with Ziad standing in the terminal of Newark Airport, where he is about to board his final flight in this life. We see him on a pay phone talking with Aysel, his wife, to whom he has lied for month after month, promising her that he will cut off the murderous nutcases who are sinking into hell with him, that they will have a quiet, peaceful life, with children, in a good place, in a nice house. His almost astonishing deceitfulness runs parallel, throughout the movie, to his gradual transformation into a suicide-killer, and to his fellow jihadists' evolving plans for their attacks on the United States. He stands with the phone to his ear, refusing to answer Aysel's nervous questions about where he is and what he is doing—she has no idea—responding to her only by repeating, over and over again, the words "I love you."

For the entire movie, as Ziad has become twisted into a murderer, his sole response to Aysel's recriminations and desperate pleas has been this simple timeless phrase. "I love you." What he really means is "I hate you." But he has so completely identified his ideals with his motives, and his motives with the reality outside him, that his feeling about another human being thoroughly absorbs that person's reality. He is too vain to nakedly hate Aysel. He has to flatter his ego by "loving" her as he is destroying her. "Do not cause the discomfort of those you are killing," one of the hijackers' handlers commands them, with outrageously self-deluded sanctimony, as he quickly teaches them some incapacitating martial-arts techniques in a hotel room a few hours before the attacks. In Dirty War, the chief terrorist savors his own virtue by giving his wife detailed instructions for the care, after his death, of their son.

I have no idea whether Ziad's conversation at the airport is what actually transpired, or whether it is one of this movie's modest embellishments. But it has the perfect effect. War-against-terrorism purists might fear the soft-seeming quality of such stuff. To my mind, though, it does the right kind of work. It gives evil the demystified face of (as Americans like to say) an asshole. It gives a comprehensible correlative to the self-deceit that fanaticism cultivates and thrives on. And it implies that just as "love" can be a war cry, and a free pass, to the indulgence of some deep-hidden enmity, so evil can be—perhaps is, in its essence—the putrid excess of self-conscious and self-justifying goodness.

This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.