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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Terror in the cinema III

Here I am, all ready to wind up my trilogy of columns on terrorism and the movies, but all I can get my head to focus on is the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast. For all the attention lavished on Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues during the past four years, we have now been delivered a powerful reminder that the most dangerous terrorist of all is, and has always has been, Mother Nature. To date no human terrorist (and God forbid such a day should arrive, although very smart people tell us that it will) has wreaked anything like the damage wrought by Katrina.

We have many years ahead of us to study what happened and learn the lessons from the experience. But, we can already see that both sides of our divided nation (and by “nation,” I actually mean “politicians,” “newspaper columnists” and “government officials”) will continue to learn only the lessons that they want to learn. The large numbers of victims of the disaster, through their harrowing experiences, have earned their right to say anything they want about any politican or government official and to be listened to.

It is entirely right and appropriate that the mass media have reported on the shortcomings of the government response, from all levels and up to the president himself. From afar, we looked in vain for a Rudy Giuliani to exhibit leadership and inspiration and, as far as we could see, none appeared anywhere. The unfortunate thing, however, about the media narrative (and attendant opinion pieces) about how everything in Katrina’s aftermath went wrong is that it obscures that bravery and hard work of hordes of people who, within hours of the storm, were risking their own lives to rescue huge numbers of stranded victims. I have spent hours listening to podcasts (ABC’s Nightline did a good job at this) from the first days after the storm telling of one act of courage after another, notably by the Coast Guard and by ordinary civilians, as well as individual acts of kindness and generosity on the part of countless individuals. It says something about the human race that, when the inevitable movies are made about Katrina, they will almost certainly focus on those stories, rather than on what went wrong with FEMA.

The size and scope of Katrina were so large and unprecedented in the memory of most living Americans that it might interesting to review movies that deal with the breakdown of civilization in the wake of a cataclysm. But that will have to wait for another time. Right now, I am intent on winding up my series on terrorism as theme in the movies.

Last time I alluded to a recent film from the Middle East that, unlike most of Hollywood’s or even Europe’s film depictions of the phenomenon of terrorism, actually gives us a unique insight. That movie, by Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, is Paradise Now. I don’t know of any other movie that attempts, as this one does, to get into the mind of a terrorist, specifically during the hours just before he is meant to blow himself up in a suicide attack. Of course, people like me are in no position to judge the authenticity of the portrayal, but the film appears to be well researched and mostly passes the verisimilitude test. This is actually a bit of surprise since the film is meant largely as a thriller, although Abu-Assad is clearly not indifferent to the situation portrayed or to the issues raised.

Now, some people might ask, why bother trying to get into the mind of terrorist anyway? Don’t try to understand them, these people would say, just stop them or, better yet, kill them before they kill anyone else. The rather awkward answer is that it makes for compelling entertainment. But also, to the extent that we consider terrorists our enemies, it certainly makes sense to understand one’s enemies, if one hopes to defeat them. And a cinematic fiction like this can possibly give us insights that we can’t get from newspapers, magazines or journals.

Paradise Now does not offer an explicit answer to the question: what makes a terrorist? But possible answers are clearly implied. A sense of national humiliation seems key. The two young men who are tapped one evening to carry out a suicide bombing the following day make several allusions to the sense of degradation caused by the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. This fits nicely with the theory of University of Chicago professor Robert A. Pape, who undertook a study of suicide attacks, cataloguing every known occurrence from 1980 through 2003. (There were 315, the largest single instigator being Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tigers.) His conclusion: the phenomenon of suicide terrorism, at its root, was not so much related to religion as it was a method deliberately chosen “to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from territory that the terrorists consider to be their homeland.” Ironically, according to this, countries like Israel, the United States and Great Britain (and, really, present-day Iraq) are more likely to be targeted precisely because they are democracies and violent acts have a potential to affect public opinion and, by extension, government policy. This tends to confirm what we really already knew. While living under an authoritarian dictatorship has its drawbacks, the silver lining is that in such a country you are less likely to be a victim of a terrorist attack. (I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I spent a year in Chile during the early years of the Pinochet regime. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself feeling much safer walking the streets there than I had, during the previous year, when I had lived in Columbus, Ohio.)

The part about suicide attacks being more prevalent in cases of foreign occupation rings true, although the example of present-day Iraq stretches the idea a bit. From what we read, the native Iraqi insurgents tend to favor roadside bombs, while it is the non-Iraqi insurgents who go for the suicide attacks. But perhaps the suicide-against-foreign-occupier idea extends the idea of homeland for Islamofascists to all Moslem lands. The concept gets stretched even further with the July 7 London bombings, as those perpetrators were all British born (of Pakistani ancestry).

We can infer other motives from Paradise Now. The very title evokes the much bruited idea that Moslem suicide bombers are promised a place in heaven with something like 50 virgins awaiting them. The film’s two young protagonists have a discussion on that very topic, which goes something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory): “Do you believe the stuff about paradise?” “What does it matter? Whatever comes after death has to be better than this.” “This” refers to a bleak existence in endless poverty that contrasts to the relative affluence of life just across the wall in Israel. Some people have suggested that poverty and hopelessness breed terrorism, but that idea is confounded by the fact that most known suicide terrorists attacking American or British targets tend to come from affluent, educated backgrounds.

In the end, the impression we are left from the film is that the two lads are carried along by peer pressure, expectations from authority figures, national pride and some sort of sense of manhood. In other words, their motivations may not be that different from what prompts young Americans to join the military. The key difference, of course, is that, when American soldiers go into battle, they hope to return alive, and most do. But, in both cases, (mostly) young men and women expose themselves to a high risk (if not certainty) of death in service of some sort of high ideal. This leads to the question of what ideal (if any) is worth drying for and/or killing for.

That is a question that each of us has to answer for himself or herself. I will merely suggest that any ideal that justifies the deliberate targeting of civilians probably isn’t a very good one.

-S.L., 8 September 2005

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