The Metaphor Translations: Terrorists

This is an occasional series on metaphors in narrative. Earlier editions focused on doomsday scenarios, androids, and monsters.

They are everywhere, plotting, planning, building in the moldy recesses of basements and garages where apparently they are never discovered until there are mere minutes left on the digital timers, receding separation between life as we know it and cataclysm. If there’s one big difference between narratives about terrorists and narratives about the previous topics in this series, it’s that terrorists really exist in the world (vampires, seriously, vampires do not exist, folks). And while I suppose it’s technically feasible that a volcano could rise up from an unstable fault line, it’s not likely to happen in the middle of Los Angeles, so although some doomsday scenarios (The Day After Tomorrow, asteroid stories, for example) are a remote, remote possibility, they’re not realistic in the same way terrorist and terrorism stories are.

Judging from the scripts, some of these narratives have wrestled with the news reports of terrorist activity and the attacks that occur across the world. The attacks on September 11, 2001, basically ended The West Wing’s idealized portrayal of White House politicking and policy making. These days Homeland articulates a reasonable take on the way in which government analysts sort through data on terrorist cells and actors, even as it occurs within a larger paranoid fantasy (i.e., anyone could be a terrorist, even your Congressman!). NCIS, and Covert Affairs cover plotlines that stretch much further from this approach, including stories with terrorists as more like love-torn stalkers with a political interest.

Whether the narrative at hand is an attempt at realism or further afield, it still presents a threat to our culture, which makes it similar to narratives that feature attacking monsters, zombies, aliens, and the like, but there is a notable difference to the fantastical tale. Typically terrorism narratives include a lot about our response as nation-states, as governments with caring and dedicated employees who are working against all odds to stop the threat (think 24, A Most Wanted Man, Spooks), and in this way they reinforce the idea that the tactics our actual governments use are good, be they waterboarding, phone surveillance, or the near-omnipresent security cameras in our cities. The sheer number of plot lines across terrorist-themed shows and movies that include phone tapping, police stakeouts, computer programming to listen for terrorist plots, face recognition software, partnerships between the CIA, MI-6, and Interpol, and so on become a kind of system of justification for presuming our government is on duty for its citizens. Sure there may be a bad apple here or there (and always the double-crossing agent to watch out for), but the narrative of the fight against terrorism nearly always ends with the agents from the government thwarting evil.

In my mind, this puts the terrorism narrative closer to police procedurals (the police are good, they’re here for us, they work hard and they’re often under attack from Bad People) than narratives about aliens. And as metaphors go, terrorism narratives stand as reminders that giving up our civil liberties is a necessary move in order to keep those timers from ever getting to 00:00. Think these narratives don’t have an effect on our attitudes? Public opinion analysts from a variety of organizations agree that Americans are more in support of torture than has ever been expressed before.

One other note: When I started writing this post I presumed that most of these narratives would be about brown or Islamic terrorists, but as it turns out, many of them are white, at least in American and British terrorism narratives. News media’s reporting, at least at second glance, seems to be much more skewered toward stories about Islamic fundamentalists than fictionalized portrayals of terrorism, which may have something to do with the “gotcha” or dramatic factor at play (IT COULD BE YOUR CONGRESSMAN!). I will do a more in-depth look into this and follow this up with another post.

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