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Terrorists Followed Media Violence Script

Continuing the analysis of the 9/11/01 terrorist attack on America....

From the LA Times, 10/1/01:

Time to Rethink This Media Theory?


It is clear that the unprecedented tragedy of Sept. 11 will affect not only U.S. foreign policy but domestic policy as well. One example of this is the debate over whether the terrorist attacks undercut the supposed benefits of the "Star Wars" missile defense system that President Bush has advocated. Fans and foes have been having their say in newspapers and on talk radio.

As of yet, however, there has been precious little discussion of a theory that is a favorite of politicians on the left and right: the claim that TV and movie violence causes, or contributes to, real violence.

In the wake of every violent tragedy in the United States during the last 10 years, the media have been cluttered with talking heads ready to put the blame squarely on Hollywood's shoulders. In the aftermath of every school shooting, every rampage by a disgruntled office worker, every well-publicized case of matricide, patricide and infanticide, we've been treated to a parade of politicians and "experts" telling us that these horrible tragedies occurred because of the debasing effects of our popular culture. So where are these politicians and "experts" now? Where are they now that an act of unprecedented violence and evil has been committed by people who hail from a culture in which movies, TV and pop music are banned? Isn't the Afghanistan of today the model country for the "blame the media" crowd?

The Taliban has gone beyond mere warning labels and V-chips. It's attacked the problem in much more concrete ways, creating a society free of buddy cop shows, slasher films, MTV's "Jackass" and "Beavis & Butt-head."

In short, Afghani culture lacks the things that the "experts" tell us are responsible for societal violence. And what's the result? You have a country that serves as a gathering place for the world's most violent terrorists, and where, as shown on a recent "Dateline" episode, the murder and rape of women is routine, and political dissidents and non-Muslims are oppressed, attacked and sometimes killed.

So what's the deal? Where are the anti-violence talking heads to explain to us why the banning of violent media from Afghani culture didn't lead to a peaceful utopia? After all, haven't these folks been promising us for years that if we just got rid of violent media, we wouldn't be plagued with high crime rates?

Haven't we been told time and again that societal violence is the inevitable result of messages we absorb from TV, movies and music?

For better or worse, human beings are much more complex than the anti-Hollywood ideologues assume. Our actions are shaped by so many divergent factors that even if we removed the TVs from every house in the United States, I doubt we'd see any major fluctuation in crime statistics. Violent criminals don't need the media to give them ideas. A sick and twisted mind can think up the vilest acts of evil, even if there's not a TV set or movie theater in sight.


David Morgenthal, a freelance writer living in West Hollywood, is working on a book of horror short stories. He lived for 10 years in Germany, where he edited the bimonthly horror fiction magazine Schrecken.

Rob's reply
I submitted the following column to the LA Times to rebut Morgenthal's screed. Unaccountably, the Times didn't print it.

Terrorists Followed Media Violence Script

In the wake of the 9/11 holocaust, movie and TV producers postponed or eliminated shows with ultra-violent plot lines. Video-game developers curtailed references to bombs, hijackings, and terrorism. Radio stations banned songs that might remind Americans of the nightmarish horrors they had seen.

Shocked into action by the cataclysmic events, media moguls finally ended the pretense and admitted what we've known all along: that media violence affects real life. When push came to shove, they dropped the denial and did the right thing. They altered the products that might hurt people's feelings or give criminals ideas.

Finally, everyone in Hollywood seemed to be on the same page. Everyone, that is, except David Morgenthal.

In "Time to Rethink This Media Theory?" (Oct. 1), Morgenthal wasted little time scoring political points off American deaths. He wondered where the "anti-violence talking heads" were and challenged them to answer his riddle. Simply put, if the Afghan terrorists had no media, hence no media violence, why did they kill so many?

As an occasional anti-violence advocate myself, I've been right here, following the news like everyone else. I'm happy to answer Morgenthal's charge and expose the gaping holes in his argument.

First, media conditions in Afghanistan are irrelevant to Morgenthal's case. By all reports, the terrorists were educated, cosmopolitan travelers. Undoubtedly they got their news—and their exposure to violence—from the same worldwide sources as everyone else: CNN, BBC, MSNBC, etc.

Moreover, the terrorists spent the last several years in Germany and the United States, not in Afghanistan. They spoke English and blended in easily with their neighbors. At least one enjoyed video games and strip joints, suggesting his familiarity with our communal sex and violence. There's no reason to think the terrorists weren't immersed in the same media influences as our homegrown, McVeigh-style murderers.

Second, the atrocity happened on American soil. If the FBI or whoever is keeping stats correctly, the deaths should accrue to the US murder toll. The terrorists didn't jack up Afghanistan's crime rate, they jacked up ours. Their onslaught proved the time-tested rule: that America is the deadliest place on earth.

Does Morgenthal think the 3,000 fallen should count against Afghanistan's murder toll even though they happened here? Okay, let's go with that "logic." By the same logic, the hundreds of thousands we've killed over the last decade—in Iraq, Kosovo, Somalia, and Sudan—should count against the US murder toll. So who's killed more: the terrorists who supposedly weren't influenced by the media, or the US pilots and bombers who were?

Third, consider one media influence Morgenthal may have missed. We've heard how Al Qaeda's training camps have indoctrinated their students in a rabid version of Islam and a rabid hatred of America. Whether Osama bin Laden exhorted his followers from a recording or preached the gospel in person, what is that but a media influence?

So what if the Koran is 1,400 years old? It's still a form of media. Just as our fundamentalist preachers have used the Christian media to inspire hate against gays, abortion seekers, and other "sinners," Afghanistan's fundamentalist preachers have used their media. Whether it's the Bible or the Koran, in person or on TV, external messages have warped internal thoughts and feelings.

Morgenthal must not read his Los Angeles Times, because the Times paraphrased cultural critic Neal Gabler on the terrorists' obvious media borrowings: "Just as pop culture may provide a matrix that can help survivors cope, [Gabler] added, it also seemed to offer a blueprint for the terrorists. The precise choreography of the attacks suggested the planners were consciously using movie-like images to terrorize the public."

Proving how the media shapes everyone's thinking, President Bush responded in kind. Like a televangelist, he promised an old-time crusade. Like a cowboy hero, he promised to take Bin Laden "dead or alive." Like a comic-book character, he promised to rid the world of evil.

Morgenthal has argued the terrorists were devoid of media influences. I'd argue just the opposite: that in today's global village, the world is drenched in American media influences. The question isn't why the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center as in a Schwarzenegger action flick. The question is how the rest of the planet avoids grabbing a gun and acting out its favorite movie/TV show/rap song/video game.

Robert Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Culver City who publishes PEACE PARTY, a multicultural comic book featuring Native Americans.


The evidence:  Terrorists know American media
From "First, Know the Enemy, Then Act," an article about Al Qaeda by Dale F. Eickelman. In the LA Times, 12/9/01:

In part, the group's success can be traced to its ability to effectively use the tools of the pop culture it rejects. An Al Qaeda recruitment video that circulated widely in the Middle East prior to Sept. 11 demonstrated that the group's propaganda skills reached the "Arab street"—its target audience—more effectively than the Western superpowers or many Arab governments. The video begins with the attack on the U.S.S. Cole. It then moves to a quick-cut montage of aggression against Muslims in Palestine, Jerusalem, Lebanon, Chechnya, Kashmir and Indonesia. Many of the images are from Western news clips that still bear the BBC or CNN logos. The scenes are juxtaposed with images of a scholarly Bin Laden, posing in front of bookshelves or seated on the ground like a religious scholar. Then, putting to rest any thought that this is an organization of wimps, come clips of Al Qaeda military training in Afghanistan, including target practice on a projected image of Bill Clinton.

From the LA Times, 11/8/01:

One gunman taunted U.S. troops to come to Afghanistan as he showed Bin Laden's sons a picture of U.S. soldiers.

"You see. They are commandos? They are a superpower only in Hollywood and in films," said the gunman in English.

"Their heroes are only mythical like Rambo and they won't come on the land of Afghanistan. And if they do come here, they will end up in pieces like this," he added, pointing to the wreckage.

Comment:  So a "dirty, illiterate moron" (to quote one correspondent) is familiar with a 20-year-old US movie? So much for Morgenthal's assertion that Afghanistan is devoid of media influences.

More on terrorism's connection to media violence
From "A Horrifying Feeling of Deja Vu" in the LA Times, 9/12/01, a quote from Neil Gabler:

"Everybody has these movies on the hard drives of their heads," Gabler said. "And when you're thinking of the cultural ramifications [of such an attack], you're thinking cinematically."

From "'Our' Violence Versus 'Theirs'" by Ray Greene. In the LA Times, 9/25/01:

You know the roll call: "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard." "The Rock." "The Matrix." "Mission: Impossible." "Face/Off." "Con Air." Each vigilante plot line so disposable it is almost impossible to remember a half-hour after the end title rolls by, but functioning according to a received set of values, including the idea that there is good violence and bad violence. And that here in America, our violence is good violence because it has come from us.

What happened at the World Trade Center was not good violence by anybody's standard of measurement. Though vigilante in spirit—for what is a vigilante if not someone who takes some highly personal and idiosyncratic notion of cosmic justice into his or her own hands?—it was "their" violence, not ours.

From "Shake the Culture Too," an editorial in the LA Times, 9/24/01:

Even mired in the emotional muck of awful death and destruction, we half-expect a boastful 30-minute special explaining how filmmakers accomplished such realistic special effects for our entertainment.

From Changed Forever? No, Two Months, LA Times, 11/13/01:

Like it or not, the visceral kick of action-hero exploits has become part of our collective pop subconscious. Is it any wonder that some New Yorkers, asked to describe the first moments of the World Trade Center attack, said it was like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie?

Related links
The evidence against media violence
Pop culture:  time to get serious
Violence in America
America's cultural mindset

Readers respond
"Whether or not the use of airplanes was prompted by disaster movies, they seem to have wanted to create large-scale loss of life."
"Were we obligated to undertake a major diplomatic initiative post Pearl Harbor?"
Reisman:  Liberal "anti-hero, anti-God, anti-American terrorist campaign" is "driving virtue out of American life."
"Do you think the parties responsible for 9/11 did it because they watched too many disaster movies?"

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