(Sept 17, 2001)

Theatre of War

Marshall McLuhan said that war is education - especially for the losers. It's important to keep in mind that last week's terrorist act was not simply a bomb exploding in a building full of innocent people; it was an electric postcard to the world.

Terrorism is a theatrical exercise - never forget that. No matter how much we get drawn into the drama, the key players, the tragedy, the spectacle - remember to take that Brechtian step back and analyze the way the movie is made.

"The television war," McLuhan wrote in *War and Peace in the Global Village*, "has meant the end of the dichotomy between civilian and military. The public is now participant in every phase of the war, and the main actions of the war are now being fought in the American home itself."

The attacks on the World Trade Centre were not designed to kill the people inside the towers any more than a Hollywood film is produced for the benefit of the extras. The key element was the tremendous visual impact of the event. The world's most concentrated political, arts, industry, commercial and every other type of news media ensure that an attack there pervades every element of society instantly - witness the collapse of the Toronto International Film Festival due to distributors and media who were too effected by the bombings to maintain interest.

Though it was predictable (and likely intended) that dozens of live cameras would be focussed on the towers when the second jet hit, it would perhaps be beyond the dreams of a desert militant that video footage of the first impact would soon surface anyway.

Many old feature films will now contain a nasty edge whenever the two towers come on screen (*Film Threat* reports that Spider-Man has dropped its WTC-focussed marketing campaign). The entire New York tourist industry - and every postcard featuring New York's skyline - now becomes an advertisement for Osama Bin Laden, or whoever takes responsibility.

But by attacking key financial and military targets, the hijackers were careful to limit the scope of their story and drive a wedge into certain Western splits. It is no coincidence that the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are evil symbols which western anti-globalization activism targets; thus America's internal opposition finds itself an unwilling beneficiary of the attack. Think of the frustration of seeing fifty people achieve a level of media attention and mega-capital confusion which demonstrations of 50,000 activists at a time in Quebec, Seattle, and Prague never got. Progressives must now walk a tightrope in terms of checking US anti-terrorist and racist repression, and figure out how this effects the spread of corporate globalization, without appearing to side with the mass-murders. The reactions of people like Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore and Canadian NDP MP Libby Davies are instructive examples. Davies is concerned that "Canada not blindly follow the Bush/NATO agenda unleashing massive violence and attacks against civilians," and will "urge the federal gov't not to support the awful stuff coming from Bush."

It is not only terrorists who make theatrical choices. During World War II, the RCMP decided, upon investigation, that Japanese-Canadians were not a threat to Canadian security. However, they were rounded up and sent to camps anyway, losing homes and belongings - as a theatrical exercise. Don't forget the South Park movie, in which Canadians are shipped away to "Death Camps... did we say Death Camps? We meant Happy Camps!"

Canada's borders are set as the first stage of response. Some suspension of disbelief is required, of course, since the attacks took place in America, but soon, we may see US customs officers taking control of Canadian ports of entry. This may work as a show of strength, since foreign nationals will encounter gun-toting, scowling US guards when they enter Toronto instead of the smiling and polite Canada Customs agents. It would certainly be a surprise, since most people think this a separate country, but many joint US-Canada customs facilities are already under construction.

However, a more useful theatrical response for Canada would be to open our society further. Canada made a significant display of not withdrawing from the Durban anti-racism conference following the walkout of America and Israel. Actions like this remind the world that we are not yet entirely a US satellite, especially with regards to Middle-East policy. Remaining calm about terrorism - at least until we are given reason to believe we are a target - could undermine the tension created by repeated images of death and destruction on television.

The terrorists have not yet broken the fourth wall, as it were, and stepped up to take their bow. Until then, the first act isn't over.