(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
"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
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.