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.

Patterns of Global Terrorism
The 9-11 Commission Report
Production Credits for ‘The Hamburg Cell’

Please feel free to comment.


  • It is interesting to think of the way tv codes the act of viewing itself. Despite cultural biases against the detrimental effects of watching “too much” tv, major events, in my estimation, tend to be thought of as only visible through tv. How do portrayals of viewing in shows like 24 and the Hamburg Cell frame this activity? Do such representations attempt to construct ubiquity, and thus the importance of tv for all people, or do they attempt to construct some sort of “wrong way” to view television? That is not to say, however, that both programs frame viewing in precisely the same way.

  • 24’s bias

    I love 24, every season has a cohesive, emotional build that is very good at holding the viewer’s attention. I am usually pretty good at looking at media critically, however, sometimes i find myself completely engaged in the tension created by 24, that i overlook its conservative political bias and stereotypes. Once you get into a show like this, it can send consistent messages and support certain view points on very touchy issues that you will accept. Although they are only trying to make a good story, they allow themselves to promote suspicion toward Arab-American families, and even toward “hippie-liberals”, such as Heller’s son, who is portreyed in a negative light as compared to his ultra-conservative father. The message i got was that Arab-American families are very good at hiding their “secrets” and that anyone that protests against military action will be subjected to “sensory disorientation” torture techniques. I think everyone should take the show as entertainment as long as they understand that it is solely for that entertainment value and rarely depicts reality.

  • 24, in real time

    What is so interesting about this discussion of televisuality on 24 is that almost everyone I know who is a fan of this show watches it on DVD, all at once…. Michael refers to ubiquity, but I’m wondering if this show on DVD, scripted as it is to occur all in one day, places even more stress on temporality? Not that the two are mutually exclusive, or even related, but I find an interesting thread in this kind of “manic” fandom, as if watching it in the way it’s scripted has collapsed the televisual into the real in some very odd — dare I say “televisual” way….

  • 24: A Work of Fiction

    Over the past 4 years, 24’s Jack Bauer has sawed of the head of a prisoner, shot the knee of an interrogant, and committed countless other acts of torture. We were outraged by the injustices of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, yet no one batted an eye at Bauer’s actions. Why? Because we can separate fact from fiction. The same applies with the season’s Muslim terrorist family. Those who hate the Muslim community will continue to hate the Muslim community regardless of any messages 24 sends out. The rest of us can see 24 for what it is: fictional entertainment.

  • I agree with Brennan that 24 is only fictional entertainment. Although I do agree that there are many stereotypes on the show, it’s not like this is the only show on tv that incorrectly portrays a particular group. For example, characters like Jack from Will and Grace portray gays as being feminine, fashionable, and sex-crazed. We know that homosexuals are not all like this, just as we know that all Arab-Americans are not terrorists. I also agree that those with existing prejudices against gays or Arab-Americans will continue to have these views no matter how these groups are portrayed on tv. Shows such as 24 and Alias are not meant to be seen as realistic…they are meant for entertainment and that’s what they provide.

  • (TV the Teacher)

    I might halfway disagree with Brennan and Kelly, especially in the context of The Hamburg Cell. The line between fact and fiction when it comes to television is completely subjective. There are people who trust Survivor to be more real than the major news networks. We all know that every show will portray some group in some way, but try to think less directly.

    In the Hamburg Cell, the characters see TV as a source of identity. Did they see a show where Arabs were portryed as jihadists? No, they were watching the news. That is something that I feel exists very much in the real world. I think that no Black American watched Rush Hour and thought they should behave like Chris Tucker. However, I think that youth especially will look to TV for identity. Youth of all races look to things like MTV, celebrities, and TV personalities for what they think are social expectations.

    Also, think about how 24 might affect how people veiw American anti-terror and intellegence agencies. Who is “on our side” and who’s not?

  • entertaining fiction

    I think that much has been made of the content that some call stereotypical on 24, and I think it is maybe a little too much. Brennan makes an excellent point that all that occurs on the show does so under the pretenses of entertainment, and in my point of view, that’s the bottom line. There has been a heightened level of sensitivity towards what should and should not be said or portrayed on television and film since 9/11, and I think anytime an action show contains villains from middle eastern descent, someone will be offended. I don’t believe it’s that big of an issue, however, because what right-thinking person is going to fear muslim or middle eastern-americans because they were the badguys on TV? I think that most people are smart enough to differentiate between what is real and what isn’t, and to not take television content so seriously. As a previous comment stated, 24 is not the only show on TV that could be considered problematic. If anything, it will only enflame those with pre-existing prejudices. It would be hard to blame 24 for that.

  • Fact vs. Fiction

    Today it is extremely easy for “reality shows” to attract a major audience. It is easy and convenient to view people as we see them on screen, but often times, if the viewer is aware of the reality of the subject, such as stereotypes, and issues going on, he/she will not allow him/herself to this falsified notion of real time. Media provides entertainment as a form of distraction to the viewer. September 11 brought with it a new era, one in which we would instead of uniting, observe specific differences within ourselves and distinguish, who would be an enemy and who a friend. People will be portrayed differently at different points in time, what is important is not to take what we see on TV without questioning how true it really is.

  • Jessica Gutierrez

    If Only it Were ‘Simply Entertainment’

    It would be nice if every one who watched shows like ‘24’ were able to view it as pure entertainment, but, it’s too easy and dangerous to view the impact of shows like ’24’ as pure entertainment. When we do that, we overlook the fact that some viewers may be getting more out of shows like ‘24’ than just mere entertainment. I don’t believe that all viewers of television can or choose to differentiate completely between the way people of different ethnicities really are, and the way they are sometimes stereotypically portrayed on TV. Since 9/11, people have obviously had a heightened awareness of people of Arab ethnicity, and ultimately, when all we see is “Arab=Terrorist” in shows like ‘24’, it’s not always easy to get rid of that stereotype that has been repeatedly shown to us. People may say that even though certain groups are stereotyped on TV, that we are all smart enough to know the difference. That may be true in some cases, but I have a friend of Arab descent, who is a guy, has a beard, and looks distinctively like an Arab-Muslim. He was talking the other day about how he gets those glances of suspicion, worry, and fear. He said he expects it because of all the media news coverage of terrorist acts in the Middle East since 9/11, and because, right now, a lot of Arab people have been depicted as terrorists or radicals in films and TV shows, ala ‘24’. When we are entertained with shows like ‘24’, that depict certain groups in a stereotypical way, it is very critical that we also realize that such depictions do impact people. Such stereotypical depictions can reinforce ideas we already have about certain groups, can raise new ideas, and can have an effect on the people whose ethnicity is being depicted.

  • 24’s Attempt to Attract Viewers

    24 has been created to take on the effect of capitalizing on the fears and injustices of society that have become a “hot topic” as said where every revered character in a tv show “sniffs” out the probably terrorist and ends the reign of terror that could possible destroy the fabric of society. This type of entertainment is creating not only a stereotype in television but also a cheap way of entertainment by pressing the inate fears of society. Just as Bond took care of the Communists in the 60’s, Jack is taking care of the Terrorists to create a type of undermining justice. I believe that this is more than just television shows, they are ways for people to boost moral and create a greater believe in the ways of justice…even if it is only fictionalized.

  • Entertainment and not simply entertainment

    The issue on rather TV shows like 24 are more than just entertainment, I feel is a little bit more complicated than what the article and others’ comments say. On one side it is just entertainment. I watch the show and find it enjoyable: it is action packed and has neat plot twists, which seem kind of out there and unreasonable at times, but hey it is entertainment. I do feel that the show does throw in some stereotypes at muslims, and this isn’t a good thing at all. The US is currently at war on terroism and by 24 having muslims as the bad guys, people may or may not subconsiously soak up this racism and form the idea that all muslims are terroists. But in reality who knows how this effects everyone. I guess everything and anything anyone says on this topic is true. Yes some people play into stereotypes. Yes, some muslims are terroists, but hey we got American ones to. Yes, people just see the show as entertainment. The fact that all these are true kind of makes all the commentary in the article and what not pointless. This topic is a study that is not quite studyable (if that is a word) because it is lacking any definite answer or solution.

  • Who exactly is the terrorist?

    This idea is interesting because most of the general public, myself included, really have no idea what a terrorist looks like. Obviously they can be anyone living anywhere. It’s not fair to classify terriorist as one certain race or religion, which is a current trend. In the past, though, the face of a terriorist has changed in the media through films like “Passenger 57” and “Executive Decision.” The npublic has the idea that the terrorist is either one of two extremes- wildly psycho or chillingly calm. They have this idea because it is the idea created for them by television and the media. This is the most entertaining form- a middle of the road more “normal” creation is not what they are selling. Instead they are selling fear.

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