Terrorists Watching TV
by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University
What is the problem with the modern world?
— Ramzi bin al Shibh (Omar Berdouni), The Hamburg Cell
When I was offered the role, I didn’t accept it. I refused it. I obviously had my own issues with playing a terrorist.
— Shohreh Agdashloo, Newsday (9 January 2005)
About a half hour into Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell, a group of young Muslims are watching TV. Gathered in a group house, they watch, rapt before chaotic, smoky, siren-laced images of the 1998 U.S. attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan. “Death to America,” they chant, angry at the retaliation for Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At the same time, however, they’re pleased with the American president’s performance. As he asserts his nation’s clear “mission,” the viewers nod solemnly. “The war has begun.” A visitor is greeted by an enthusiastic believer: “Have you heard the news? Clinton is the best. He’s our personal PR. Every time he mentions Osama, it’s a challenge, he promotes jihad!”
This scene, in which the hijackers appear at once naïve and canny, shows their fervent devotion to an increasingly dreadful cause and awareness of the uses of tv. Sometime later, the group again sits before their television set, absorbing the lessons of their “jihad” tapes, their own faces reflected in the screen that shows various martyrs — armless in a hospital or dead and shown floating above pacific landscapes. Now they don’t cheer what they see, but only watch in silence, sober and knowing. It’s telling that the movie charts their transformation from eager students to committed martyrs in these images as media consumers, as they seek and find their self-images on tv.
Here they are like other viewers, looking for affiliation. But for viewers of the movie, another point is also clear: the men in this cell watch tv differently than you do. That television has become a medium of information and identity. That it appears on tv as a sign of such process is also common. And so here it is, repeated — in The Hamburg Cell (a Channel Four film that never found U.S. distribution, but instead showed up last month on HBO2) and in the terror-focused Fox series 24.
For this second case, terrorists watching tv at first fools 24 viewers into thinking the terrorists are not. The so-called “Terror Family,” that is, Navi (Nestor Serrano), Dina (Shohreh Agdashloo), and their son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout) Araz, first appeared this season watching tv. Seated at the kitchen table, their expensive flat screen perched on their pretty white counter, they discuss what seem to be daily details. However, they soon notice a news report of a terrorist attack on a train: raucous, handheld shots of twisted metal, smoke, and bodies strewn about. They settle into their seats and exchange glances, and agree that the “plan” is proceeding as they had hoped it would. And so the episode engineers one of its many big reveals: these folks aren’t just nice Southern Californian suburban Muslims, they’re terrorists, living next door to someone. Using tv to reflect and frame their identities, the series ensures that viewers will be effectively startled and disturbed, but also reassured, imagining that the Arazes’ emotionless reaction to the carnage on tv marks their difference, their utter monstrosity. “What we will accomplish today will change the world,” says dad, “We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this. We cannot fail.” (On seeing portions of this first episode, the Council on American-Islamic Relations understandably protested that the depiction “casts a cloud of suspicion over every American-Muslim family out there.”)
The series 24 has gone on from that first conflicted moment — at once so self-conscious and so awkwardly sinister — to complicate the familial interactions and political implications of the Turkish Araz family. Typical of the show in its first three seasons, it again combines intensely domestic melodrama and hi-octane action, perhaps most hysterically figured when the Secretary of Defense (William Devane), kidnapped with his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), found the wherewithal — with Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) help, of course — to shoot his way out of the compound where they were held for a couple of tense hours. Imagine it: Donald Rumsfeld blasting his way out of a terrorist hideout, rescue choppers whirring, bullets flying, and yes, bodies dropping.
This isn’t Secretary Heller’s most despicable moment, however, only his most Wesley-Snipesian. In fact, his awful parallel to the plainly odious Navi is revealed in their similar attitudes toward their disposable, wrong-doing sons (and this doesn’t even get at the entangling of Jack as stand-in son, as he’s sleeping with Audrey). When the Secretary hears that CTU (the Counter Terrorism Unit) has determined that his long-haired peacenik son, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), might have known something about the kidnapping, he’s only vaguely upset that the agents have tortured him, then gives them permission to do it some more, in case they can get “information” out of him. This seems of a piece with Navi’s decision to order Behrooz’s death for endangering their mission.
The fact that Behrooz’s troublemaking emerged from his affection for a whiny white girl high school classmate only underlines the preposterous soapiness of all this drama (as it also alludes to the intersections of romantic intrigues and parent-child tensions that power nearly every major plot point in the series). Heller and Navi are both bad dads on single-minded missions. (And frankly, though his daughter Kim [Elisha Cuthbert] is absented this season, Jack’s notorious single-mindedness remains an emblem of his own dis-ease, though it is by now expected; when he shoots a suspect in the knee to learn a terrorist plot detail, he’s just being Jack, as he’s been known to kill people to provide useful body parts and turn heroin addict to bring down druglords.) While Navi pursues his end in secret, out of (fictional) camera range, Heller appears on tv repeatedly. And, to jumpstart this season, he quite sensationally becomes an internet broadcast star as well, when his trial for war crimes is not only made available for all the world to see, but also serves as a ruse to set up the real crisis, an attack on multiple nuclear plants.
Television is everywhere in 24 — in CTU, in characters’ homes, in Air Force One, where the new, non-Palmer president, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) shares ominous glances with his white guy administration minions. Television links Jack, Heller, Navi, and Dina equally but also imprecisely with the day’s events, as they work to push forward diverse agendas. Television is visible as well throughout what might be termed today’s terrorist-themed tv, the BBC movie Dirty War and tv series MI-5, and the U.S. series Medical Investigation and Alias, even the forensics or procedural shows that dip occasionally into terrorism as a “topical” plot device, the CSIs and the Law & Orders. In all cases, tv signifies connection and disconnection. It indicates the terrorist’s devotion to mission as a source and symbol of identity, a cause of outrage and frustration (all the “trash” on tv) and a means to channel emotion into morality.
At the end of The Hamburg Cell, the primary character, Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh), has left behind a wife in Florida, Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), and her final understanding of what he’s been up to all these years appears in her face as she watches the Twin Towers fall on tv. She has struggled to gain his attention, to make him behave like the partner she desires, throughout. And his utter inability to be hers is captured in her face: eyes wide, mouth agape, she reflects the devastation on the screen in her horrified gaze. Television makes her a survivor. It makes her like you.
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