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Hollywood’s latest blockbusters provide the narrative for America’s never-ending war on terror by perpetuating the irrational fear of random, anti-US terror attacks and foreign invasions. Movie plots inform policy in an era when reality and what is presented as such by the media have become increasingly dissonant.
A terror attack on the White House has been the subject of three high-profile, mainstream films in as many months. There were two in March alone. “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”, the sequel to the movie based on a cartoon based on a toy, centered on the White House being taken over by the fictional terror organization Cobra via the infiltration of a presidential doppelganger. “Olympus Has Fallen” also revolves around a foreign takeover and the destruction of the White House, this time by North Koreans (Olympus, rather serendipitously, was released the same week everyone briefly thought North Korea was going to drop nuclear bombs on the West Coast — an idea that now seems silly in retrospect). Finally, Sony Pictures’ up-coming “White House Down” revisits the subject yet again, with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum taking the White House back from generic terrorists.
Its not uncommon for the big movie studios to hop on the same trends or “borrow” ideas from each other. Whether by coincidence or not, movies like Olympus and the others are remarkably effective at reinforcing the simplified narrative that drives both American interventionism and the misguided and never-ending War on Terror; a narrative in which America is constantly in danger of being assailed by “random” attacks from “evil” enemies. There is little evidence to suggest this frightening “reality” is anything more than the product of fantastic movie plots, yet it is so widely accepted that it becomes the starting point for all rational discussions about foreign policy and national security. Consider Barack Obama’s defense of the NSA hording phone records of American citizens:
“I think it’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience. We’re going to have to make some choices as a society.”
Everyone has been drawn into the debate over how much privacy, if any, should be traded for security without ever questioning the basic conceit of the President’s argument: that terror attacks present a constant and severe threat to “100%” national security. There’s good reason to question the validity of this basic assumption. A University of Maryland study found that the U.S. is at a low risk of terror attacks, ranking 41st among 158 countries in likelihood of witnessing a terror attack within its borders (to put that in perspective, Britain is 28th, Israel 20th and Iraq 1st.) One might consider this an indication that our security agencies are doing a good job, but that wouldn’t explain why the FBI is using informants to coax Muslim Americans into terror plots. Since 9-11, the FBI has committed more than half its 8 billion dollar budget to counter-terrorism, an initiative that appears to revolve more around entrapment than preventing credible threats. From The Nation:
“Though relatively few informant-driven investigations have led to the discovery of actual “homegrown” plots, the Muslim community for years has reported instances of people being approached by informants trying to enlist them in violent jihad. At times the informants have been so aggressive they have quickly raised suspicions. At a California mosque in 2010 one FBI informant, Craig Monteilh, advocated violent jihad so vehemently that the mosque’s members sought and received a restraining order against him.”
If the threat of terror is as pervasive as assumed by the President’s argument, why is the FBI working so hard to manufacture threats just so they can take credit for stopping them? In reality, more Americans are likely to die from mass shootings this year, an issue that seems far less urgent to Congress and the President than clamping down on imaginary terror.
Despite little actual evidence that the U.S. is at a particularly high risk of foreign attacks of any kind, it remains one of the most popular subjects of summer blockbusters. While audiences understand these summer blockbusters are sensationalized works of fiction, sheer repetition of certain themes and ideas over time makes them familiar and conventional, especially when they are corroborated by elected officials and an increasingly compliant news media. In this respect, Hollywood’s big-budget features effectively become propaganda, recycling the jingoist narratives that drive U.S. foreign policy. Unfailingly in these films, American military might is depicted as an inherent good and the U.S. government’s role in the radicalization of its current enemies is ignored. Roland Emmerich, director of White House Down, may be able to take credit for inventing the modern formula for summer blockbuster propaganda. Emmerich’s box office smash “Independence Day” (1996) established the template, featuring shock-and-awe style destruction of U.S. monuments (this was the first time Emmerich blew up the White House) and an almost adolescent glorification of the U.S. military. Turning the President into an action hero protagonist is a common theme as well, used both in Independence Day, when the President suited up to lead a squadron of fighter jets against an alien air force and White House Down, in which Jamie Foxx plays an appropriately bookish Obama rip-off who puts down his reading glasses to pick up an assault rifle. Many movies have recycled these themes over the years (Michael Bay has made a career pushing them almost to the point of self-parody with movies like “Armageddon” and “Transformers”) making this sort of propaganda film a staple of summer blockbusters.
These movies don’t always limit themselves to working in broad themes, however. Roughly three months before fictional North Koreans attacked the White House in Olympus Has Fallen, they invaded America’s heartland in the 2012 “Red Dawn” remake. By late March, when the news media began to report on North Korean missile threats, there had already been two movies about the subject of a random and unprovoked North Korean invasion within the previous six months. In this case, the news media and Hollywood filmmakers work together (albeit, not necessarily in explicit collusion) to shape a fictional reality in which North Korea is an ever-present nuclear terror, similar to Cold War Russia. Or think back to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address, during which he spoke matter-of-factly about the U.S. becoming increasingly vulnerable to cyber attacks by foreign enemies:
“We know hackers steal people’s identities and infiltrate private e-mail,” he said. “We know foreign countries and companies swipe our corporate secrets. Now our enemies are also seeking the ability to sabotage our power grid, our financial institutions, and our air traffic control systems.”
Again, most of these assertions were taken as fact, with little scrutiny by the mainstream media. Which enemies are trying to sabotage our power grids? What are their motives? Are Americans really so accustomed to the idea of being the target of unprovoked attacks by foreign evildoers (a concept fostered by fantasy fiction and certainly not a history of actual exposure to such attacks) that no one bothered to question the veracity of this basic claim? Still, a lack of actual evidence did not deter politicians on both sides of the aisle from pushing draconian legislation like CISPA, using the trumped-up threat of cyber attacks as justification for blanket surveillance of web activity. Hollywood’s screenwriters do their part by popularizing the idea in blockbuster movies. The plot of the heavily marketed White House Down centers around the government’s national security infrastructure being disabled by a computer virus, causing all hell to break loose in short order. Complete with a teaser trailer that ironically misinterprets Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic warning about America being destroyed from within, White House Down is primed to build the foundation of Americans’ fear of a government-crippling cyber attack. Rather importantly, White House Down is unique from the other takeover movies, as its central conflict is borne of the presence of a lurking internal threat, just as the story of the NSA’s radical surveillance of American citizens became national news.
Unfortunately, the un-reality that forms the basis of U.S. counter-terrorist efforts hampers the ability to address real terror. Though they have been sold to the American public as necessary evils, does anyone actually believe that mass surveillance of Americans and proactive drone strikes are actually reducing the risk of terror attacks? Demonstrably, they are not. Instead, I urge Americans to pay more attention to how the government’s vast, Batman-like surveillance network has already been used, mainly to spy on whistle-blowers and the press. Still, the Mainstream Left is willing to defend the government’s need to take these draconian steps, without having a clear understanding of how they actually reduce the threat of terror.
When Americans stop believing in the sensational plots that provide the basis for both action movies and foreign policy, a real conversation about the U.S. government’s bull-in-a-china-shop interventionism in the Middle East and how it is probably the greatest source of regional instability and future anti-U.S. terror attacks. However you feel about their tactics, Americans can no longer afford to naively believe that terrorists are random evil guys that hate America because we have Disneyworld and let women drive cars.