Went to see the Sum of All Fears today. It’s hard to say how the Sept. 11 incidents will affect the films popularity and its success. That the film depicts a terrorist organization importing a nuclear weapon seems, or so one would think from many of the reviews out there, all the more real after the events of last year.
Yet it was not this that I found most interesting or most frightening about the film. I grew up during a time when MAD was the norm. As a child I had nightmares about the effects of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union, and plotted elaborate ways of ensuring survival after such an attack. I decided early on, and still believe, that the question was not if a nuclear war would reach US soil, but when.
So the idea of a terrorist detonating a nuclear device in the US, a filmic device that is well worn, is not granted any special standing because of recent terrorist activities here in the US. War has always evolved, and one would have had to have been blind not to predict terrorism would continue to be used against the sole global hegemon. As a side note, I recently heard on the radio that fully 30% of Americans do not believe another attack will occur. This seems to me to defy explanation, unless it is some form of denial in order to push the possibility of danger from their minds.
What struck me instead as particularly timely in the film is that the nuclear device detonated by terrorists (neo-fascists in this case) was far overshadowed by the possibility of US/Russian conflict. It is easy to forget that although the two nations are friendly at present, relationships come and go, often over what seems the most trivial matters. Bush certainly sees a need to maintain a nuclear arsenal for use against a similarly armed enemy. Who would this enemy be? Certainly not al Qaeda.
In the film, due to a lack of good information on either side both escalate to the brink of global nuclear war. The countdown to launch is stopped with seconds to spare, in true Hollywood style. Those moderate voices, and those voices who are situationally informed, are kept out of earshot by a culture and an organizational structure that is dictated by power and personal politics. I think the movie does a good job of indicating the degree to which entering into a war can be an irrational act dictated by a number of seemingly rational steps.
Now that a mourning period for those lost last September is coming to a close, many are not comforted by the “War on Terrorism.” (How our actions in Afghanistan could be satisfying to anyone is beyond me, but that is a point for another diatribe.) They are looking for more than revenge, they want explanation. They want to know why the attacks were not stopped, especially when–in hindsight–there appear to have been some indications of an imminent attack. To be honest, I expect that many other such attacks are foiled on a regular basis, and fail to see a particular failure here, given the context in which we were operating in September of last year. But the response seems to be to give the “authorities” more power. That by sacrificing a certain degree of our privacy and autonomy, we will gain a measure of safety.
A weapon against America has been found in the act of terrorism, and our response remains one hindered by the past. We assume that more structure, more bureaucracy, more police, and more firepower will help us to feel safe, and in so doing forfeit our greatest new assets in such a war. The idea that bunker-busting fuel-air guided munitions are a good match for international terrorism reminds me of British redcoats marching in lock step into the early guerilla tactics of American revolutionaries. Even as children we marveled at the foolishness of this oddly structured way of war. And now we fail to see that same foolishness in ourselves.
The film says nothing of teaching flight attendants to defend themselves, or of the creative use of self-monitoring. It provides few clues as to the ways out of our current state. But it does help to remind us of our priorities. The global system is complex, and while the attacks on New York and Washington were horrifying, they were classic acts of terrorism in that the greatest impact was not upon the victims but the witnesses. We watch events in South Asia and in the Middle East with a certain degree of detachment because they are not in our “back yard.” But we have made the world our back yard. The sooner we recognize this, and the sooner we see terrorism as a symptom rather than an enemy, the more likely we are to hold off what remains the most frightening of possibilities, the emergence of a long and horrible global war.