Culture and Carnage
Terror and the Closing of the Western Mind
8th September 2021
As we approach the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith consider the legacy of the West’s cultural representation of the war on terror. They argue a jaundiced approach to jihadism and terrorism speaks to the West’s inability to defend core values of liberalism and democracy.
As the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 passes, we can begin to see, as through a glass darkly, how the long war on terror affected the West’s cultural self-belief. In strategic terms the long wars launched after 9/11, as the recent fall of Kabul to the Taliban has demonstrated, spectacularly failed to advance a liberal international order.
Little attention, however, has been given to what impact two decades of media representation of jihadism, asymmetric violence and military intervention has had upon western popular culture. Movies, novels, art and popular music, all addressed the global war on terror from a variety of perspectives. However, the prevailing tone might be summarised as, at best, agnostic, at worst, self-lacerating. A study of this area reveals some distinctive insights about the modern West and where it currently stands in relation to its ability to defend core values such as liberalism and democracy.
Overall, the evolving cultural response to the war on terror was to adopt a jaundiced standpoint. Few movies or novels took a positive view of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) were perhaps the exceptions. They offered the most conventionally supportive treatment of the US military and intelligence agencies fighting the good fight overseas. So, too, did a number of country and western singers whose songs might, and occasionally did, serve as a musical accompaniment to America’s external interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
By contrast, the majority of US and European filmmakers, as well as popular music icons, embraced a morally ambivalent and increasingly critical posture to the western response to terrorism after 9/11. On the domestic front, films and TV series dealt tangentially with the home grown jihadist phenomenon, focusing instead on the evolving surveillance state that manipulated ‘the politics of fear’ to impose and extend already authoritarian state controls.
Paranoia and the politics of fear
The western genre of film and television has occasionally offered an intelligent dramatic response to the moral and political dilemmas raised by the long war on terror. From United 93 (2006) to Homeland (2011-2020), The Bureau (2015-2020) and Eye in the Sky (2015), these films and TV series thoughtfully explored the difficult moral in bello dilemmas that challenged the liberal conscience. For the most part, though, TV and film depictions of the war on terror epoch have been exercises in pessimism and self-negation.
The British film V for Vendetta (2005) established this dystopian mood. Set in an alternative future, the elusive masked anarchist V subjects a white supremacist government in the UK to asymmetric terrorist attacks. Later drama series like Bodyguard (2018) and The Informer (2018) sustain this general theme, presenting government ministers and the shadowy apparatus of the security state as solely interested in manipulating putative Islamist terrorists to promote a covert and cynical agenda.
TV and film depictions of the war on terror epoch have been exercises in pessimism and self-negation.
The common trope of dubious ‘right-wing’ forces manoeuvring in the political background does represent an insight of sorts into the current condition of the West. It reflects, in fact, the paranoia of the contemporary cultural elite, where the threat of Islamist inspired violence functions as a pretext to reinforce the suspicion that the ignorant masses are susceptible to manipulation for authoritarian political purposes.
TV and film dramas made on these terms, however, fail to achieve any significant insight into extant security problems. Hence British dramas like Bodyguard or Informer, struggled to delineate plots or depict characters convincingly. Neither were they capable of differentiating their themes from series like Homeland or the French drama, The Bureau. These latter two series had less difficulty representing Islamically motivated jihadists and, as a result, explored the moral dilemmas the war on terror generated more perceptively.
The novel, by contrast, offered only a relativist uncertainty about 9/11 and its aftermath, evident in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) or Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2005). Those novelists who did engage directly with the jihadist persona offered only crude stereotypes like the character of Sheikh Rashid in John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), or Bassam al Jizani, longing for Shaheed, in Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days (2008).
The threat of Islamist inspired violence functions as a pretext to reinforce the suspicion that the ignorant masses are susceptible to manipulation.
Meanwhile, novelists who, like their TV drama counterparts, found the war on terror a state conspiracy to spread domestic fear, like Richard Flanagan in The Unknown Terrorist (2006), Mohsin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), and John le Carré in A Most Wanted Man (2008), either considered the jihadist an invention of the security state or a somewhat complex but sympathetic personality.
If the literary response was equivocal, the popular music response was ephemeral, transitory, and mostly predictable. Patriotic country and western singers supported the wars overseas until they seemed pointless, whilst protest music after 9/11 embraced a self-consciously radical pacifist posture. Country and Western star Toby Keith sang:
You’ll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A. ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass It’s the American way.
While the left coast band, Green Day, condemned the war on terror because,
I don’t want to be an American idiot Don’t want a nation under the new media And can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The visual arts, together with academia and the mainstream media, offered even less insight into jihadist motivation or the rationale for western intervention in states of concern. The liberal arts establishment sought to adopt a ‘balanced’ approach to asymmetric violence. The fact that video artists like Theo van Gough and Ayaan Hirsi Ali or the Jyllands Posten and Charlie Hebdo cartoonists might suffer assassination or death threats for satirising Islamist fanaticism failed to trouble this Olympian pursuit of neutrality.
What, however, became evident in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in 2015 was that the official, progressive, post-9/11 mindset had difficulty in portraying Islam as anything other than a peaceful religion. This unwillingness to question, interrogate or criticise reinforced an evolving media, academic and artistic climate of self-censorship. Cross-dressing British artist, Grayson Perry, was one of the few to admit a baser motive for this posture. In November 2007, Perry acknowledged: ‘The reason I have not gone all out on attacking Islamism in my art is because I feel the real fear that someone will slit my throat’.
A little fear went a long way.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair, the mainstream media, along with European and U.S. political elites, came to endorse, in the name of a fashionable commitment to diversity, a minority practice of religious intolerance. Tolerating intolerance as a response to blasphemy legitimated a growing and widespread condemnation of statements or artistic representations that might cause offence on British, European and North American campuses. Hate speech, trigger warnings and no-platforming campaigns were the ineluctable consequence.
The official, progressive, post-9/11 mindset had difficulty in portraying Islam as anything other than a peaceful religion.
The predisposition towards tolerating the intolerant was displayed most graphically in the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) Art in the Age of Terror exhibition, staged between 2017 and 2018. Sanna Moore, the curator of the exhibition, told The New York Times that the show reflected how the West has changed, and not for the better, through ‘mass surveillance… and detentions without trial’. The ‘age defining’ artwork on display explored not only personal reactions to 9/11, but also the manner in which western civil liberties had been ‘compromised and security and surveillance amplified’.
A visitor to the exhibition might, however, have observed that the civil liberties at stake were those of Muslim minorities after 9/11, not those of cartoonists or filmmakers assassinated for having an ‘Islamophobic’ reaction that deviated from the prevailing progressive norm. Wandering through the rooms devoted to ‘Art Since 9/11’ one finds no reference to Theo van Gough, Jyllands Posten or Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons or, indeed, ‘the complex issues’ they might have raised.
Nowhere were the actions or the images of those who perpetrated either the 9/11 or London 7/7 attacks represented. The artwork curated by the IWM instead gave visual support to a radically pacifist agenda. This critical perspective, which found traction on university campuses after 2005, held that western interventions created instability abroad, and jihadism and a surveillance state at home. In one sense, that is a valid perspective to interrogate artistically. But to make it the only perspective renders the artwork disturbingly one-sided. The impact, over time, is to undermine the principles of free expression that make creativity possible in the first place. It silences the secular right to blasphemy and cancels viewpoints on campus or in exhibitions deemed Islamophobic, or, as the woke argot extended its remit after 2016, ‘racist and colonialist’.
The visual arts, museum collections and exhibitions, like the university departments of the arts, humanities and social sciences that promoted this attack on the western way of war are, ironically, the most heavily state subsidised institutions of western cultural life. However, they adopted and promulgated a ‘reflexive’ empathy with the non-western other, that amounted to a masochistic assault on the history and institutional legacy of western democracy.
Critical theory and its impact on western self-understanding, after 2001, thus offers an important insight into the agnosticism that recurs throughout the novels, music, film, visual arts and academic responses to the war on terror. The radically deconstructive political agenda that informed French postmodernism and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school at the end of the Cold War, that constituted the key ingredients of critical theory, embraced a relativism not only towards language but also towards social action. The extreme relativism and the ‘ethics of responsibility to the terrorist “Other”’ it advocated, over time, exercised a debilitating grip upon western culture.
A ‘reflexive’ empathy with the non-western other, amounts to a masochistic assault on the history and institutional legacy of western democracy.
As the political philosopher Leo Strauss inquired of the evolving relativist tendency he first observed in the Cold War practice of the American political and social sciences: ‘is such an understanding dependent upon our own commitment or independent of it?’ If it is independent, Strauss observed, I am committed as an actor but I am uncommitted in my capacity as a social scientist. ‘In that latter capacity I am completely empty and therefore completely open to the perception and appreciation of all commitments or value systems’. As a relativist, I go through the process of understanding in order to reach clarity about my commitment, because only a part of me is engaged in such empathic understanding.
What this means, however, is that such understanding is neither serious nor genuine, but histrionic. Ironically, such a perspective is also profoundly dependent on liberal tolerance. For it is only in an open society that questions the values it promotes, that the possibility of empathetic identification with another culture could arise. The critical theorist’s explicit contempt for the openness that affords such posturing conveniently ignores this constituting fact.
Wokeness, critical terror theory and the rise of the revisionist powers
Homegrown Islamists exploited the liberal empathy paradox which Strauss identified. Jihadism manipulated the sanctimonious, progressive pursuit of social justice and its preoccupation with exposing Islamophobia for its own illiberal ideological ends. The progressive media meanwhile embraced the empathy paradox, exploring it in all its woke equivocation in the aftermath of increasingly violent attacks on western cities between 2011 and 2018. By the second decade of the long war on terror, revisionist regimes of an illiberal or totalitarian hue, observing the confusion that the western cultural and political response to the war evinced, also sought to exploit it for their own geopolitical ends.
During the Presidency of Donald Trump in the U.S. and after Brexit, the long wars and terrorism fell into desuetude, but their legacy lingered, mutating and growing into a critical academic and mainstream media campaign on the West’s darkly imperial and colonial past and institutionally racist present.
The constituting incoherence that now besets the progressive mind dramatically manifested itself in the first direct encounter between the Biden administration’s foreign policy team and China’s top diplomats in March 2021. The Chinese delegation rejected any American attempt to question its human rights record, pointing out, as senior diplomat Yang Jiechi said, ‘I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognize that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States’ any longer represents international public opinion’.
From Beijing’s perspective, the U.S. no longer exerts either soft power or global influence. Instead, the U.S. seemed mired in a slough of condescension and hypocrisy. Citing The Black Lives Matter movement, Yang observed: ‘The challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated’. ‘It’s important’, he advised, ‘that we manage our respective affairs well instead of deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world’. A Democrat administration promoting democracy, a liberal international order and human rights abroad whilst selectively denouncing its own racism and social injustice at home does indeed appear either confused or hypocritical. Why, in the course of the war on terror, did America and, by extension the West’s global influence, become so diminished?
What went wrong?
In the postscript to his 2010 autobiography, Tony Blair, a key architect of a progressive, western led, ‘third way’, of government, and advocate of the Iraq war, wrote: ‘For almost twenty years after 1989 the West set the agenda to which others reacted … the destination to which history appeared to march seemed chosen by us’. ‘We thought’, he reflected, ‘the ultimate triumph of our way of life was inevitable. Now it is in shadow’.
Obviously, the mixed legacy of globalisation and the financial crisis it unleashed after 2008 undermined the economic foundations of the progressive project. However, it was the moral and political shortcomings of the long war on terror that played a seminal role in the loss of faith in a universal liberal institutional order as the culminating moment in world history. In particular, the war on terror and the ambiguous political response both at home and abroad gave particular force to an otherwise academically obscure critical theory that from the outset viewed the West and its open societies and civil liberties, not the jihadist, as the problem for global liberation.
This critical view, that deconstructed the West’s commitment to liberalism and democracy, particularly influenced the cultural response to the war on terror after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The dark enlightenment of the European and North American left after 2003 fed into popular cultural tropes. Islamophobia had long preoccupied critical theory. It subsequently came to inform films like Syriana (2005), Redacted (2007) and Green Zone (2010), as well as novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Unknown Terrorist.
The moral and political shortcomings of the long war on terror played a seminal role in the loss of faith in a universal liberal institutional order as the culminating moment in world history.
The inchoate western response to international terrorism, where governments prosecuted a war against Islamism abroad, but tolerated its advocates at home, facilitated a morally ambivalent cultural response to the phenomenon. In film, crime drama, novels and the visual arts the misunderstood or naïvely misled terrorist contrasted with the heavy-handed agents, capitalist interests and state agencies that oversaw the western response. This political and moral ambivalence inflected intelligence led dramas and novels about the war from Homeland, and A Most Wanted Man to The Bureau as well as the art works on display at the Imperial War Museum.
In the visual arts the age of terror led to self-censorship, no-platforming and the repression of imagery deemed sacrilegious or satirical. The response to the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the subsequent silencing of any attempt to discuss or display satirical images of the prophet and his message demonstrated how the West now accepted and complied with the intolerant strictures of Islamist ideology. By the second decade of the twenty-first century some version of queasy agnosticism became the default western cultural position on international terror. Even the more intelligent attempts to grapple with problems of both in bello and ad bello conflict in films like Eye in the Sky or Houellebecq’s novel Submission (2015), either accept or explore the limitations and failings of western liberalism.
The popular cultural response to the forever wars peaked midway through the second decade of the twenty first century. Thereafter, terror and its threat functioned as a cultural signifier intimating official stereotyping and a plot line exposing the mistreated non-western other. The West’s institutions, its police, militaries, judiciary, business interests and political parties are depicted either as corrupt, insensitive and morally compromised or institutionally and individually racist.
Continental philosophers from Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault to Adorno and Habermas had, from the 1970s, exposed what they saw as the false consciousness that distorted the West’s bourgeois self-understanding. Their British and American epigone who packaged these writers’ reckless ideas for consumption across the Anglosphere came in the course of the long war on terror to influence popular and mainstream media. They also came to dominate university humanities and social science faculties where this ideology flourished, mimicked, and eventually displaced, conventional scholarship.
Ironically, the western media, long held by Herbert Marcuse, the godfather of critical theory, to be the vehicle of a totalising one-dimensional capitalist modernity, translated this deconstruction of secular liberal values into accessible commodities for popular consumption. By 2020, the prevailing popular media depiction of the West, with its inherent propensity to violence and overt or covert racism, placed it on a lower ethical plane than the terrorist whose resistance on behalf of the victimised deserved critical recognition.
The two-decade long encounter with critical theory and the long war deracinated western cultural self-perceptions, making it impossible for the West to defend its values, let alone promote them, as those like Yang Jiechi recognised. What, we might ask, does the cultural response tell us about the overall state of the western mind?
It above all shows the bankruptcy and intellectual exhaustion of progressive thought at the ‘End of History’. The dark enlightenment of the left after 2003, like the liberal globalisers of the 1990s they succeeded, assumed that world history was moving towards a socially just, diverse, but inclusive, worldly utopia. ‘Third way’ liberal cosmopolitans had assumed, like Tony Blair, that the West would set the teleological agenda. By contrast, the critical theory inspired woke left saw the West as the problem. The alter globalisation movement consisting of transnational networks of NGOs, critical academics, radical pacifists, indigenous peoples, environmental activists and the odd jihadist promoting universal liberation, now work remorselessly to overthrow this western capitalist imperium.
At the end of the Cold War and in the first decade of the long war on terror the West had seemed certain of its liberal, international purpose. This was ‘a purpose’, Leo Straus wrote in a different context, ‘in which all men could be united’. The core lesson of the long war on terror was the failure of this purpose to achieve progress toward a society embracing equally all human beings. This has engendered a moral and political crisis in liberal thought.
The cultural response to the war on terror, the equivocation, relativism, moral ambivalence and self-censorship, reflects this crisis in western progressive faith. It also intimates, if nothing else, the need to return to a tradition of prudence that accepts that a political society remains what it is and always has been, namely, a particular society informed by unique customs, traditions and modes of cultural engagement, whose most urgent and primary task is its self-preservation and whose highest task is its self-improvement.
A distracted and confused democratic West needs, in other words, to reclaim its cultural moorings before it again foists its ‘universal’ values upon the world. A society that is confident in its values and traditions attracts others. A condition of alienated disenchantment preoccupied with identifying victims rather than celebrating a shared citizenship does not.
The majority of citizens of Western democracies do not subscribe to critical theory or social justice extremism. At some point, the majority will need to make their voices heard. The alternative is to face the consequences of a woke end of history. And as Albert Camus might have observed, such a conception is an ‘arbitrary and terroristic principle’.
David Martin Jones is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory at King’s College London.
Their latest book, Terror in the Western Mind: Cultural Responses to 9/11 is published by Academica Press and is now available to pre-order.