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Turning to Pop Culture in a Time of Trauma

To locate that scenario in pop culture, we would have to forage from another genre, one that could make sense of our journey from sci-to semper fi.

We might have found the perfect match for our mood in Collateral Damage, the new Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Its plot—a firefighter enters the "complex and dangerous world of international terrorism" after his family is killed in a bomb blast—couldn't be more timely. But its release has been postponed. Hollywood is convinced the public wants wholesome entertainment now. Maybe so, but by the Thanksgiving movie rush we'll be eager for diversions that help us rationalize the collateral damage we're gunning up to inflict on a remote population. We're ready for Mortal Kombat in Kabul.

There may be no need for new product. Prozac for the spirit of revenge already exists in films like Black Sunday (1977), in which a terrorist menaces the Super Bowl. Movies like this are right up the tabloid alley, their action tailor-made for a moment when columnists like the Post's Steve Dunleavy scream, "Simply kill these bastards. . . . The time has come!" People like him have been living in a melodrama of terror since their first jolt of testosterone. Now, their time has come.

But there are big problems with terrorist sagas as we know them. For one thing, the villains usually aren't Arabs, and for another, they're portrayed as political criminals rather than agents of a death-dealing state. What we needed was a model for war, not a heroic police action, and there's no genre set in the recent past or the far future that fits this bill. Vietnam films won't do: They're all about the hardship and absurdity of combat. Iraq was vanquished so easily that Saddam has ended up as a comic foil in teen dating films.

These terrorists, on the other hand, are the hyper-real thing. Their invisibility is even more maddening than the physical threat they pose. Americans can tolerate a lot of things, but ambiguity isn't one of them. We need to see the enemy as definite, yet the essence of this situation is that it's a struggle against shadows. To make sense, this "war of the future," as Bush has called it, requires some touchstone from the past. So, as the smoke rose over Manhattan, we reached back to the last time we faced an evil empire in attack mode. We found the ideal metaphor for the twin towers assault in Pearl Harbor.

Though there are crucial differences between these two atrocities—one the clear act of a militarized state, the other a criminal assault by persons or powers unknown—they pale before the psychic benefits of putting both events together. This fusion was even easier to achieve because we could still remember the digitalized reenactment of Pearl Harbor from last summer at the cineplex. Though that movie bombed (as it were), it generated tremendous media attention to the actual event. Pearl Harbor now resonates with the need to convince ourselves that the current crisis has a precedent in our history.

It's not hard to grasp why a nation that prides itself on an unbounded sense of security would see any breach of that belief as an invasion. But before we give ourselves over to the Pearl Harbor analogy, it's worth considering the consequences of calling a great crime an act of war.

The Day of Infamy has many uses. This retrofitted image makes it easier to believe that an axis of foreign powers stands behind the attack. It allows us to imagine the task ahead as a great global battle rather than a series of sorties whose scope is limited by geopolitical realities. It grounds flighty statements like Bush's vow to "rid the world of the evildoers." And it frames the unfathomable in an essentially optimistic context. After all, Pearl Harbor was a trauma that ended in triumph. It was the moment when America transformed itself—just as we are now being urged to do.

The myth of being born again is central to our culture, so it's no surprise that, in this time of trauma, talk of transformation is everywhere in the air. It's not just the stadium-sized chants of "U.S.A." or the flag T-shirts on kids who, just a week ago, were badass acolytes of hip-hop. It's the media's eagerness to march in the purification parade. Days before Congress got into the act, this war was declared by network logo. Pundits from left to right have proclaimed that America will never be the same. Frank Rich, the toastmaster of our irony-drenched culture, announced last week that the twin towers nightmare "has awakened us from a frivolous if not decadent . . . dream." Meanwhile, William Bennett opined on CNN that "things have been put in perspective. We are now taking acknowledgment of what's most important, and I think the lives of Americans are being changed."

This concordance of liberal and conservative thinking is the first fallout of turning a crime into war—and it probably means that issues like civil rights and sexual liberation will be put on hold. In war, the traditional relationships between races, classes, and sexes are sanctioned by necessity. The culture becomes whiter as rituals of unity replace the chaotic clash of minority styles. The status of women is drastically reduced as the public world becomes much more male. And we fall back on the most primitive icon of all: the strongman.

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