In the weeks and months following 9/11 Security Analyst Richard A. Clarke was asked by countless members of the Joint Chiefs and high ranking officials of the Bush administration what literature they should be reading to better understand the situation with Al-Qaida. Clarke would always answer this question not with a book or a research study or an academic article or a journal.
He would advise anyone who asked him to watch the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.
You see Clarke was trying to get anyone who had any power in the administration to listen to him before 9/11, he had been screaming for a meeting to warn of an impending Al-Qaida attack. After 9/11 he understood too well what the consequences would be. When the United States entered Iraq he realized what the difficulties of conducting a war in a land you are not familiar with. He knew that the famed Gillo Pontecorvo film would be a perfect example of what war with Iraq would look like, and how destructive the cycle of violence that was about to begin would be.
Gillo Pontecorvo’s film is a classic in the neo-realism movement that ran through Italian filmmaking in the early 1960’s. It chronicled the struggle of French Algerian war from 1954-1962 and showed how a relatively small Islamic country overthrew a powerful, modern Western Nation. The film depicts the cyclical nature of violence in urban guerilla warfare with both sides performing retaliatory attacks on one another. The French eventually bring in a ground force and attempt to kidnap and torture leaders of the resistance, only to find that new leaders would rise from the Kasbah to endlessly fight for their freedom.
We all have experienced times when we watch a film and draw a level of truth out of it. This is the inherent draw of films; they provide well orchestrated situations that we all can identify with as human beings. Sure we may feel a level of escapism but that escape would not mean anything if there was no humanity in the films that we watch. In The Battle of Algiers Richard Clarke find a connection to a situation in the world through the artistic expression of Mr. Pontecorvo. People began to listen up, in 2003 there was a large screening of the film in the Pentagon after we had already entered into war in Iraq and were well on the path of Osama Bin Laden. Other officials began seeing truth in this and understanding the humanity of our enemies, that they were not simply going to turn over when we entered the picture. That perhaps the same ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not just American goals but could be fundamentally human. That maybe we couldn’t just flick a switch and find Osama.
The root of our societal misinterpretations of justice can also be seen back with the movies. While Battle of Algiers shows a realistic side of conflict the movies we have been saturated with in our culture in American give a much different idea of conflict. We live in a post-Die Hard culture, one where we know what terrorists are, we know what they want, and we know that John McClain is going to take care of business. There are a massive amount of action movies that have come out in the past 20 years that have followed a similar formula. Air Force One, True Lies, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Bad Company, and Executive Decision all feature terrorism as a plot device. These movies are tremendously black and white, the good guys are so good; perfect looks, perfect families, perfect jaw lines. The terrorists are always pure evil, with only evil motivations like killing innocent people, ruthlessly murdering without a second thought, terribly ambiguous accents that could place them anywhere from Eastern Europe to Kazakhstan.
Hollywood knows that these falsified “heroes’” sell however, there has been an interesting spike in the amount of superhero films that have been released post-9/11. It seems that Hollywood is continuously feeding the general public with the archetypes that we desire. This year alone we have Thor, The Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, and the aptly titled Captain America hitting our screens. The sense of hope that comes from the supernatural and unexplained is a phenomenon we have always searched for at the movies. That’s why films with special effects and hair-raising visuals have brought in audiences in droves since King Kong. However are these “heroes” who we really believe in or are they more what we want to see in ourselves and the people around us? Are these plots a reflection of real life or a desire for the simplicity of good/evil?
If only every terrorist were Hans Gruber and every U.S. soldier were John McClain, cheerily swapping puns as they head on a collision course for an imminent showdown where the good guy kills the bad guy. Then there are those cheery scenes at the end of the film where people are wrapping each other in blankets and giving each other kisses and reinforcing their newfound peace. Roll credits…
…However things are not as black and white in real life. Heroes are not always charming and good looking, sacrificing themselves for the good of others. Terrorists have families and motives beyond just destruction. And the unfortunate thing is that there are no credits, when terrorists die there are others who still care about the same cause that are not going to be merely silenced.
So when 9/11 happened we all were primed for what the response was going to be. The good guys had to go take out the bad guys and everything would be better. Once we went over to Afghanistan and found Osama then everything would be back to normal, back to what we were used to. We just had to take him out and then everything would be happy and normal.
Ten years later and countless lives and dollars spent later we have what we want, except maybe our initial feeling of triumph will fade and we will continue to feel that same emptiness we did before. Maybe we did not create peace; maybe our troops in Afghanistan are not coming home yet.
By no means do I feel like Osama was not at fault, he chose to fund operations that killed thousands of innocent people. He had his own motives and purposes that led him to believe this was the best way, and now we are left with a generation of people forever changed by his choices. It was a heinous crime and one he deserved consequences for. And his death is one that was deserved if he was indeed fleeing arrest.
I take issue with the response that we as American’s have displayed. The undulating roar of joy was heard from every Facebook and Twitter account, as well as from stadiums and venues across the nation. Yet what are we celebrating? The losses of a criminal will always begat another criminal. Pontecorvo knew this when he made The Battle of Algiers as his generation had seen it with the bloody Algerian revolution. Let us not forget that this action does not heal the families that suffered losses at 9/11 nor does it heal the lives of people currently struggling with oppression around the world.
Osama Bin Laden is dead, and a week later much of the situation in the world has not changed all that much. It is my hope that whether we go to the movies or we read the news and books about the world we can find the truth in the fiction and the non-fiction. And that we can devise our own thoughts and ideas about people and situations in this world, because not everything we see is as simple as the good guys versus the bad guys.