Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fictionalized Terrorism Abounds on TV, but Realistic Portrayals of ISIS Do Not: How the Post-9/11 Entertainment Trends May Explain the Discrepancy

Recent fictionalizations of terrorism on American television are part of programming trends that arose in the wake of 9/11.  One example is the prevalence of government-focused shows, such as Homeland (2011-present), Person of Interest (2011-2016), Scandal (2012-present), House of Cards (2013-present), The Blacklist (2013-present), Madame Secretary (2014-Present), Blindspot (2015-present), Quantico (2015-present), and Designated Survivor (2016-present).  Shows like these predominantly feature political leaders and intelligence officers continually rescuing the country from peril – often reinforcing the problematic us versus them binary (wherein the “us” is almost always synonymous with American/Western citizens, although the “them” changes in noteworthy ways during various historical moments).  More recently, such shows have also integrated serious political critique, often addressing ethical issues surrounding the ways in which the U.S. has waged its war on terror.  While these government-focused programs are often more explicit in their attempts to remediate 9/11, shows across genre lines (e.g. paranormal fantasy, science fiction, dystopia) have regularly integrated post-9/11 motifs throughout the last decade and a half (e.g. terrorism, government, salvation, justice, fear).

While the prevalence of the above mentioned themes in television may allow viewers to work through some of the cultural anxieties lingering from the September 11th attacks, this steady stream of fear-based programming actually helps to create and sustain those very same anxieties, creating a national climate of fear.  Interestingly, these fear-based narratives do not always align with the most contemporary global threats.  For example, there are relatively few representations, or references to, ISIS/ISIL in 21st century television shows even though plots about terrorism still abound in popular culture.  This suggests that throughout the last decade TV shows have often ignored the shifting geopolitical landscape (or have been slow to depict it).  For example, such narratives often fail to address the ways in which the threat posed by ISIS/ISIL today differs from those presented by Al-Qaeda in the years immediately following 9/11. The medium’s continued role in post-9/11 affect modulation may explain this phenomenon.  (I discuss the ways in which contemporary television works through lingering post-9/11 fears in various blog posts on XXXXX).

While various post-9/11 themes continue to be prevalent in contemporary shows, some things have shifted in TV programs that take on terrorism storylines specifically.  There has been some effort to stray away from the stereotype of Arabic/Muslim terrorists by developing plots that offer up another global threat (e.g. Madam Secretary included a storyline focused on Russian cyberattacks).  When the typical Arab/Muslim as terrorist plot is in place, it is typically accompanied with Arab/Muslim characters intended to counter such stereotypes. Unfortunately, as scholars are quick to point out, this well-intentioned move often simply results in crafting a new type of clichéd character.  Alsultany, director of Arab and Muslim American Studies at the University of Michigan, has documented the new TV trend wherein “if there is a terrorist theme with a Muslim or Arab as a terrorist, the writers and producers will typically throw in another Arab or Muslim character to try and defuse the stereotype.” These characters tend to be depicted as extremely patriotic American citizens or “an innocent Arab-American who’s been victimized by post-9/11 hate.”

The most notable shift in representations of fictional terrorism on television has been the increasing instance of plots that feature terrorist actions/threats that stem from within the United States. Recent seasons of Designated Survivor and Quantico, for example, have had storylines in which American citizens – often holding positions within government – have been responsible for (or complicit in) large scale terrorist attacks that occurred on U.S. soil.  This turn toward the terrorist-within storyline aligns to some extent with the political critique found in many contemporary shows.  This may reveal the continued distrust of government officials that amplified post-9/11.

The one change that did not occur on a large scale throughout the last decade and a half, as one might have expected, is reconfigured terrorist storylines that reference or allegorize the contemporary threat of ISIS/ISIL rather than al-Qaeda.  While ISIS/ISIL-related plots do occur within a few shows, their overall absence (despite the fact that terrorism storylines remain prevalent) seems telling.  Like many programs, Madam Secretary, a TV show focused on the behind-the-scenes work of the Secretary of State, Elizabeth McCord (Téa Leoni), focuses most of its terrorist storylines around a fictional group (in this case, Hizb al-Shahid).  The common practice of creating a fictional terrorist organization may be a tactic to protect a program’s shelf life, allowing it to have a universal appeal even years after its release.  When fictional terrorists are embedded into storylines, as opposed to fictionalizations of real terrorist groups, they can serve as stand-ins for any terrorist group that may be at large when a viewer is watching the episode.  It also serves to distance fictional narratives ever so slightly from the reality viewers may be trying to escape.  Although most of its terrorism-themed episodes focus on its fictional terrorist group, Madam Secretary has also included multiple references to ISIS/ISIL, including a recent storyline that suggests a link between Hizb al-Shahid and ISIS/ISIL.  It has aired one particular episode specifically centered on ISIS/ISIL.  Despite its overt focus on this real life terrorist group, this episode showcases how contemporary television seems reluctant to move away from the America-in-peril motif found in post-9/11 narratives. 

Season 2, episode 6, “Catch and Release,” opens with chilling footage that remediates the ISIS/ISIL-caused deaths of the first American civilians:  journalists James Foley and Steven Joel whose videotaped beheadings were broadcast globally in August and September of 2014 (Hall, 2015).  The first moments of this episode include a video of an American aid worker accused of being a spy kneeling beside an ISIS leader.  The American captive is forced to read a script about how the United States’ interference in Syria is responsible for his pending death by beheading.  The remainder of the episode focuses on the government’s investigation and response to this murder. Governmental officials determine that the terrorist leader shown in the video is American born (and importantly not of Arabic decent); this man also happens to be the son of a State Department worker.  The fact that Madam Secretary’s most comprehensive storyline tackling ISIS/ISIL results in a plot focused on an estranged American family is telling as it, again, places the United States at the center of a narrative that had the potential to delve into wider-reaching geopolitical concerns. Assuming current televisual texts are still being used to modulate lingering post-9/11 fears, this episode serves as an example of the how such programming seems to require a continued depiction of the United States as the center of attention (and likely target) of the war on terror. 

However, the lack of (realistic) representations of ISIS/ISIL on television might simply align with the United States’ slow comprehension of this threat and/or the ways in which it differs from its predecessor.  Writing for The Atlantic, Wood (2015) explains how many Americans – and even, at least initially, government officials – misunderstand the nature of ISIS/ISIL because they “tend to see jihadism as monolithic” and, hence, “apply the logic of al-Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it.”  Wood (2015) details the ideological differences between ISIS/ISIL and al-Qaeda and the ways in which these impact the focus of their terrorist actions:

The humanitarian cost of the Islamic State’s existence is high. But its threat to the United States is smaller than its all too frequent conflation with al-Qaeda would suggest. Al-Qaeda’s core is rare among jihadist groups for its focus on the ‘far enemy’ (the West); most jihadist groups’ main concerns lie closer to home. That’s especially true of the Islamic State, precisely because of its ideology. It sees enemies everywhere around it, and while its leadership wishes ill on the United States, the application of Sharia in the caliphate and the expansion to contiguous lands are paramount.

So regardless of whether television shows rely on the United States-in-peril motif as part of the continued post-9/11 trends, or whether these hyperbolic plots simply reflect Americentrism which is common in U.S. popular culture, it is clear that integrating realistic storylines related to ISIS/ISIL would result in an incongruity with the typical television mythology concerning terrorism.  More realistic fictional portrayals of ISIS/ISIL could actually help Americans better understand the threat this group poses and, as a result, move past some unnecessary lingering post-9/11 fears about the likelihood of another 9/11-like terrorist attack on U.S. soil.  To its credit, Madam Secretary’s recent storyline discussing ISIS/ISIL in relation to their fictional terrorist organization may actually provide this sort of cultural education.  In the scene that introduces this storyline, the Secretary of State’s husband, a religious scholar, Henry McCord (Tim Daly), questions the possibility of Hizb al-Shahid and ISIS/ISIL working together because of their ideological differences.  Should the television program decide to delve into this in greater detail it might help counter the misconception that there is some commonality between all jihadist terrorist groups.

The television program that has provided the most realistic ISIS/ISIL related storylines to date is Showtime’s Homeland.  In fact, sadly, its fifth season premediated the recent terrorist attacks in Europe. (The season was almost completely filmed prior to the coordinated terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris on November 13th, 2015, killing over one hundred people.)  Fans may have anticipated a departure from storylines focusing on Muslim terrorists during a season where the main characters relocated from the Middle East to Europe.  And while the season does delve into other threats (with attention paid to Russian cyber terrorism, for example), the focus on Muslim terrorism continues to be a major focus of the show (Hibberd, 2015). Critics have praised the show for pointing out real problems in the U.S. approach to combatting ISIS/ISIL, pointing to one speech in particular, which appeared in the season five opener, “Separation Anxiety” (Tapson, 2015).  During a CIA debriefing, a main character, Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend), an agent who spent two years in Syria, is asked whether the U.S.’s strategy is working, to which he replies:

What strategy? Tell me what the strategy is. I'll tell you if it's working. [Silence]
See, that right there is the problem. Because they, they have a strategy. They're gathering right now in Raqqa by the tens of thousands. Hidden in the civilian population. Cleaning their weapons. And they know exactly why they're there. Why is that? They call it the end times. What do you think the beheadings are about? The crucifixions in Deir Hafer? The revival of slavery? You think they make this shit up? It's all in the book. Their fucking book. The only book they ever read. They read it all the time. They never stop. They're there for one reason and one reason only. To die for the caliphate and usher in a world without infidels. That's their strategy. And it's been that way since the seventh century. So, do you really think that a few special forces teams are gonna put a dent in that? (Raff, Mann, Stoudt, Gansa & Gordon, 2015).

When asked for suggestions for how to proceed Quinn recommends “200,000 troops on the ground indefinitely to provide security and support for an equal number of doctors and elementary school teachers” (Raff, Mann, Stoudt, Gansa & Gordon, 2015).  He is, of course, told this is impossible.  This fictional CIA agent’s assessment of his government’s inability to effectively combat ISIS/ISIL realistically delves into the difficult predicament the U.S. finds itself in concerning the real world fight against them.

With thoughtfully crafted storylines, fictional television has the potential to critique U.S. military practices and to help inform citizens about geopolitical issues.  However, as seen in the discussion of post-9/11 fictional programming on the air, it also had the potential to maintain cultural anxieties that have dominated the United States for the past 15 years. Furthermore, when storylines fail to align realistically with real world conditions, television may actually end up manufacturing unfounded fears. The continued attention to 9/11 (or at the very least post-9/11 televisual themes evident in this study) neglects contemporary threats and perpetuates a fear cycle from which viewers have very little chance of breaking free. 

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