Like many other Americans lately, I’ve been scared – but like only some Americans, I’ve been scared both of Middle Eastern terrorists and those whom I regard as American terrorists, almost in equal measure. For what can be truly terrifying on occasion is how alike these two kinds of myopic, intolerant individuals can seem to be: not just religious fanatics, but ordinary Americans who all of a sudden start thinking of the vanished World Trade Center as their own private property and the terrorist attacks of September 11 as simply and unambiguously an “attack on America” – thereby allowing the Middle Eastern terrorists and their assumed positions to set the terms of the discussion and automatically dismissing the many non-Americans who were destroyed in the attacks as irrelevant.
Three disparate yet characteristic examples of everyday American “terrorism”: (1) A headline recently blazoning Chicago’s only tabloid (Roger Ebert’s paper), the Sun-Times, announcing that the Taliban was poisoning U.S. food packages. The story inside revealed the basis of this assertion – that American “experts” (something approaching an oxymoron, I suspect, when it comes to the Middle East) were speculating that, at some point in the future, the Taliban might resort to such a tactic. (2) Literally much closer to home – on the front door of the building where I live, in fact – is a poster with an American flag over the words, “September 11, 2001/We Will Not Forget,” placed there by one of the tenants, apparently without consulting anyone else in the nine-unit building about it. (I was at the Toronto film festival when the towers fell, planning to fly to New York that weekend to attend a conference on Iranian film that was subsequently canceled.) The tenant is our condo association’s treasurer who performs lots of our collective chores, which I suppose gives him some entitlements. Still, I’m not comfortable about that poster staring me in the face every day, if only because that flag is used so routinely nowadays as a way to stop conversations rather than start them – and therefore as an instrument of intimidation. A tentative and gingerly attempt on my part simply to discuss this issue at the end of a recent condo meeting got me nowhere; the treasurer walked out angrily and the poster remains. (3) A New York friend who’s more courageous than I am reports raising a ruckus at his local Tower Records outlet when he discovered that all the Middle Eastern music not from Israel had recently been removed from the bins. (God knows that many New Yorkers have been traumatized by September 11 and the more recent plane crash more than most of the rest of us. Still, it’s tempting to attribute part of this climate of censorship to a certain “narcissism about mourning” that a visiting German filmmaker noted to me about some of her New York friends and acquaintances.)
Cultural policing has been the name of this game from the beginning, and it impacts on movies because movies have been providing the bogus models all along. Personally I would have opted for Titanic as a model for September 11 over Pearl Harbor: the decimation of a seemingly indestructible symbol of wealth, power, and privilege rather than an invasion galvanizing the U.S. into some sort of consensus (or at least an illusion of same). But that was four years ago, not four months, and in what Gore Vidal calls the United States of Amnesia, such a time difference is crucial, especially if you’re selling something on the basis of a fantasy. In terms of bogus wars, this nostalgia can even pretend to satisfy a yearning for a kind of national unity that dates back 60 years, although I suppose the bonding of parents and children over Star Wars provided a kind of SF update of this mindset – something along the lines of the family that slays together stays together. Recently watching the DVD of The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946), it wasn’t hard to see how potent nostalgia for the certainties – even the uncertain certainties – of World War II and its aftermath could still be, especially as perceived through the touching performance of a nonprofessional actor with hooks in place of hands. Even if the film cops out well before the end, there’s a bearing witness to the brutality war can bring even to its supposed victors that still moves me deeply – a quality I also find in John Gianvito’s recent The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001), about Americans in New Mexico during and after the Gulf war. (An interesting historical contrast: The Best Years of Our Lives, one of the apexes of a certain kind of Hollywood professionalism, gets weighted down with Oscars; The Mad Songs, an inspired piece of amateur filmmaking, doesn’t get into any of the “major” festivals and still lacks a distributor, bypassing the mainstream completely.)
It’s the terrorists on both sides who insist on dignifying slaughter by calling it war – an attack on random civilians defined as collateral damage and constituting the alleged “side-effect” of a Holy Crusade, regardless of whether it’s happening in Manhattan or Kabul. In the former, it’s attacking a symbol with blood-chilling efficiency; in the latter, it’s aiming at the Taliban and often missing – though obviously hitting enough of them to rout them from the capitol by November 13, the day I happen to be writing this sentence. But from the vantage point of the victims in both cases, it might as well be the same remorseless and senseless carnage – an elephant stepping on fleas rather than a war in any meaningful sense of the term. Either way it’s bending reality out of shape and decimating various civil liberties in order to honor antiquated notions of tribe and state – on a planet that can ill afford either if it expects to survive for long in the present nuclear-heavy climate.
The whole enterprise defies logic: even if it were a war (and it isn’t), there seems to be general agreement that (a) there’s no way it could possibly be won – not if terrorists are to be found in as many as 50 countries – and (b) in terms of world opinion, it’s one that the U.S. is losing in many respects: driving many Afghans back into the arms of the Taliban while turning more of the world against the U.S. and motivating future terrorists, meanwhile accomplishing…what, exactly? “The United States can win the war in Afghanistan, but only at the cost of losing its war on terrorism,” opines Jonathan Schell in The Nation, making the U.S. sound halfway reasonable by adopting its nonsensical definitions of war – until one stops to consider that the U.S. was empowering and financing the Taliban only a few months ago, and that no credible scenario for winning any “war on terrorism” has been offered to date by anyone.
“But we have to do something,” many people insist. Yes, but does that invariably have to mean killing more innocent people unlucky enough to be trapped in the wrong countries – as if we were bent on imitating the September 11 assassins? Are we truly inhibiting any more suicide missions of terrorists by doing this? Why is the policy always, “When in doubt, bomb more civilians”? I guess the fact that “we” drop bombs on the Red Cross by mistake – twice, no less – makes us morally superior to those who kill innocent people deliberately. Yet the fact that killing people in any case is deemed necessary finally counts for more than any other kind of intentionality. Necessary to whom, and why? The oil interests in Bush’s cabinet and Afghanistan as a site for future pipelines is surely more relevant to what’s happening than “terrorism”.
What has any of this to do with cinema? A great deal, especially if one thinks of the monolingual American method of comprehending the universe as a relevant model, with applications of false consensus setting the tone of the overall skirmish and bullying monopolies setting the ethical and practical terms of the operations. The fact that apparently no American minding the store has direct access to the language spoken in Afghanistan – and that the Bush-whackers have to depend on former foes or uncertain friends for translations – calls to mind the hilarious account in Joseph McBride’s new John Ford biography of Navajos improvising on-screen obscenities, wisecracks, and non-sequiturs in their native tongue to get even with Ford’s indifference to casting Native Americans in their own tribes.
Lecturing this week about Atom Egoyan’s remarkable Calendar (1993), I encountered a perfect illustration of the paranoia arising from not speaking a second language – a sense of absence typically filled by demons. This paranoia takes shape in the jealousy of an assimilated Armenian photographer, based in Canada (Egoyan) but working abroad, about the various chats in Armenian between his wife (Arsinee Khanjian) and a local guide (Ashot Adamian) while the photographer snaps views of ancient rural Armenian churches for a calendar. Like many other forms of terror, it suggests that cultural policing can turn out to be relatively easy if you’re working with a void in the public imagination about other parts of the world. Whether it’s critics blaming the audience for crummy commercial movies (and confusing a lousy and limited distribution with a lousy and limited cinema) or journalists collapsing the Taliban and Afghanistan into the same entity (which makes about as much sense as equating Saddam Hussein with a million innocent yet “expendable” Iraqis), the fervent belief in basing attitudes as well as policies on as little data as possible seems especially flagrant at the moment.
The day before I lectured on Calendar, I heard a professor of Persian literature on a panel – one of the English translators of Abbas Kiarostami’s recent book of poetry, Walking with the Wind – bristle when someone in the audience alluded to Iran as a “fundamentalist state,” even while I recognized that most Americans aren’t exposed to any alternative images of that country, falling back on such a concept simply by default.
Speaking with an American studies professor on the radio in late October – a fellow who kept using the first-person plural about both the victims of September 11 and the American soldiers bombing Afghanistan – I said I felt the same way about the innocent victims of Iraq; weren’t they part of “us” too? Well, of course, he said, one can’t feel very good about bombs falling anywhere; but when “they” attack our buildings – at which point I interrupted him: “They’re not your buildings. They’re not our buildings. They belong to multinationals.” This prompted a few letters and emails to me over the next several days – some favorable, some not. One of the latter said, “You love all people. Well, all people don’t love you! Especially Muslims, and especially if you’re Jewish. When hordes of bloodthirsty heathens want to come over here and kill you, who will save you? We will…`we’ being the Americans who see things as they are instead of as we’d all like them to be.” Astonishing, the generalizations that can so readily be reached about a billion Muslims – and about the same corner of the world that produced Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam – yet only a more flagrant and more openly racist version of the sort of glib generalizations one hears about thousands of unseen films in various “death of cinema” diatribes by Thomson, Denby, Monaco and Company. Life becomes so much easier if you factor out everything you can’t see or consume on the spot. And in an era in which life and economics – not to mention countries and markets – are being regarded increasingly as interchangeable, our marketers and leaders obviously don’t want to clutter up our brains with distracting stuff like undistributed and unseen films and Middle Easterners who aren’t terrorists.