Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Ice Cube vs. Donald Rumsfeld

Now, one man is discovering that the greatest threat to our nation comes from within.
- from the trailer for the upcoming xXx: State of the Union

So, it's now three and a quarter years after the September 11th attacks. For the past 40 months (or thereabouts) the United States has been involved a protracted war against Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. In that period, we've fought with to countries from the Muslim world, one a theocratic dictatorship, one a secular one. In that span, a huge number of movies, including a huge number of action movies, has been released. And of those movies, how many have featured Islamic fundamentalists, of the kind our soldiers are fighting every day, as the villains? To my knowledge, none.

Because, of course, the real threat to the United States is maniacal secretaries of defense, or wealthy German neo-nazis, or oil-industry-linked vice presidents and the global superstorms who love them.

Back in the 1990s, when Islamic fundamentalist terrorism was generally perceived to be less of a threat than it is today, we were relatively comfortable with having our cinematic villains be terrorists who happened to be Muslims. True Lies isn't an especially political film; it's a spy caper that uses Muslim terrorists as its villains chiefly, I assume, because by 1994 "the Russians" seemed old hat. The Siege is much more political, and though Bruce Willis' General Devereaux is treated as villainous for his vicious abuses of civil liberties, the movie at least recognizes that there's an actual (if perhaps complicated) terrorist threat that has to be combated. (I think, for what it's worth, that "The Siege" was way off in how it expected the government and the American people to react to a domestic terrorist attack, as our reaction to September 11th demonstrated. The idea that all the Muslims of New York City would be rounded up and forced into a makeshift concentration camp in the old Dowling Stadium - which, since the structure was a horseshoe rather than a complete oval, would have made a pretty lousy detention center anyway - always seemed a bit overblown, and now just looks ridiculous.)

I think CAIR has something to do with this. (Yes, yes, I know: when in doubt, right-wingers blame CAIR. But this time it really is them.) They started protesting the portrayal of Muslims in "True Lies", and, to my knowledge, have protested every movie since that features Muslim terrorists, or Muslims fighting against Americans. They protested Rules of Engagement, about an American soldier on trial for massacring Yemeni civilians. They lobbied (successfully) to get the Muslim villains of "Sum of All Fears" changed to German neo-nazis. And so on. They're an organized interest group that makes life difficult for producers, who doubtless find it easier to send their heroes to defeat bad guys from ethnic or political groups that lack lobbying arms, like neo-nazis.

That said, I don't think CAIR's the whole story. CAIR's been around, protesting the inclusion of Islamic terrorists as villains, since 1995. It's only since 2001 that we've had this unofficial moratorium on Islamic terrorists as villains. Maybe CAIR took a while to perfect its protesting technique; maybe took six years to get the message that having Muslim villains was more trouble than it was worth. Those are both plausible explanations, and probably part of the story. And, I think, part of it is the fear of creating a backlash: as long as Islamic fundamentalist terrorism was a hypothetical threat, having them as movie villains was fine; but after the attacks, when people feared there was going to be a great retributive backlash against American Muslims, the safest avenue was to stop portraying Muslims as villains on film. The last thing anybody wanted was for a guy from Bangladesh get killed, and have his murder justify his actions by claiming that he understood from "Sum of All Fears" that all Muslims were terrorists.

But, I think, there's something else going on. I think you have to take seriously the idea that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism dropped out of movies after September 11th because Hollywood types (how's that for painting with a broad brush?), who as we know aren't too keen on "Shrub" Bush, figured that casting al-Qaeda types as villains would strengthen Bush's hand, by reinforcing the notion that we actually are in a "war" against "terror", that the "threat" is "real" (fingers tired from the scare quotes yet?). Better to just ignore it.

And yet, I suppose Donald Rumsfeld should be proud. He joins Cheney and Bush on the list of Administration officials who are also movie villains. How Ashcroft made it four years without having to go mano e mano in a climactic battle with The Rock, I'll never know. Next up: Paul Walker versus Treasury Secretary John Snow. There's a secret conspiracy to institute a national sales tax, and only one man can stop it!