Friday, September 08, 2006

9/11 and The Movie Analogy

Tom Engelhardt has written an intriguing article for The Nation entitled “9/11 in a Movie-Made World.” The thrust of the article is that it was through the lens of Hollywood movies that many Americans understood what was happening on that terrible day and during its immediate aftermath. I remember some of the things Engelhardt writes about – references to Independence Day, Godzilla movies, and The Towering Inferno. The Tennessean being my hometown paper, I also remember seeing The Day After headline that Engelhardt references. I remember thinking how strange all these references were, how terribly out-of-place they were. This wasn’t a movie, and the day's events could not be understood in Hollywood terms.

As Engelhardt suggests, these references have consequences. In the recent dust-up over Donald Rumsfeld’s use of the Munich Analogy in discussing critics of the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq and in combating terror, most of Rumsfeld’s critics focused on the idea that comparing his and Bush’s critics to Nazi appeasers was inaccurate and unjustified. I myself made that complaint. But there’s another issue here, and that’s how that analogy shapes Rumsfeld’s own thinking.

The analogies we use to discuss historic events are not simple turns of phrase. As Engelhardt suggests, these analogies have real power. They frame those events in such a way as to suggest how we should respond to them, and further, to limit how we respond to them. If you argue, for example, that Islamic militants are like the fascists of World War II, then the only reasonable response is to annihilate them, as that was how we defeated fascism the first time around. Bush and Rumsfeld know this, of course – their use of such language is no accident.

Maybe I was bothered by the movie analogies used five years ago because I’m not much of a movie-goer. But I think it was more my historian’s training kicking in – movies are too simple to encapsulate 9/11. Note that Oliver Stone, in his recent 9/11 movie, chose to focus on the stories of just two men, men who spent much of that day trapped in the rubble. Even with all the resources of Hollywood magic, Stone, no stranger to ambitious movie making, decided that the big picture was much too large, much too complex to even dare to approach.

We need new analogies. September 11 was not December 7, and al Qaeda is not the German Nazi party. When I think of the violent house of mirrors that is terrorism and the war on terror, I think of something like The Usual Suspects: no one really knows what’s going on, the police are hampered by language and cultural barriers, people are sent to fight an enemy they don’t understand and wind up fighting someone else altogether, the people you like get killed by mysterious forces, the bad guy gets away, and the chief detective is befuddled and angry, wanting to lash out but not knowing where to strike. On second thought, anybody up for The Princess Bride?

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