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A Plot Fit for the Big Screen

June 21, 2004|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith," due out next month from Viking.

Am I the only person who, upon learning of Al Qaeda's 10-plane plot for Sept. 11, was reminded of ... Hollywood?

Think about it: Here we have a terrorist plot of blockbuster proportions, featuring the destruction of landmarks, the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians and a final sequence in which Al Qaeda terror chief Khalid Shaikh Mohammed hijacks a plane, murders all the male passengers and lands at an American airport, where he makes a speech to the media about the corruption of the West. It's so over the top, so image-laden and willfully spectacular that you can see the movie poster more easily than the news coverage -- it makes more sense as action-adventure fantasy than the stuff of geopolitics.

Apparently, Osama bin Laden also thought so; he passed on the original plan as unrealistic, pushing for a more stripped-down attack instead. Setting aside for the moment the sheer through-the-looking-glass absurdity of any situation in which Bin Laden comes off as the voice of reason, the whole thing seems like a skewed variation of a pitch meeting, with Mohammed filling the role of the overeager screenwriter ("And then, in the third act, we kill the men and alert the press"), while Bin Laden stands in for the jaded studio chief.

I don't mean to make light of Sept. 11 and its all-too-nonfiction horrors; nothing about it should ever be read as make-believe. Yet I can't help but be intrigued by this apparent confluence of Hollywood and Islamic fundamentalism, by the blurring between these two inimical cultures, if only because it indicates how interconnected our world has become.

We already know that Al Qaeda relies on the infrastructure of Western materialism to put its plans into action -- cellphones, e-mail, jetliners and the electronic transfer of funds. What's striking about the Mohammed plot, though, is the degree to which it suggests that Western influences have infiltrated not just the mechanics but the aesthetics of modern terror. What does it tell us when an Al Qaeda chief envisions a starring role for himself in a scripted orgy of destruction, when he dreams of devastation on the scale of a film like, say, "The Day After Tomorrow" or "Independence Day"? It's easy to dismiss this as an ambitious fantasy, but then, before Sept. 11, I never would have believed that anyone would or could crash a plane into a skyscraper and bring it down. So how do we parse reality from illusion? How do we know where we stand, what to hold on to?

In many ways, of course, such confusion is the whole point of terrorism -- to make us question our assumptions, to see the structure of society as fallible, a chimera that can't protect us. On a more superficial level, that's also what attracts us to disaster films, an open-ended sense of negative possibility, of the catharsis in confronting the terror outside our doors, under our beds. It's been reported that, before Sept. 11, a U.S. software company was working on a video game about an attack on the World Trade Center, the plans for which were subsequently scrapped.

But if Al Qaeda's 10-plane plot tells us anything, it's that this cultural confusion cuts both ways. Among the more compelling details that emerged from the 9/11 commission is that one of the hijackers, Ziad Samir Jarrah, had a taste for beer and discos; he had frosted hair and a girlfriend, yet, despite considerable misgivings, he managed to reconcile all this with the idea of martyrdom. Once again, we confront the blending of seemingly irreconcilable perspectives, made more unsettling by its implicit understanding (embrace, even) of our way of life. I can think of no more fitting metaphor for an era in which secular relativism and theocratic absolutism come bound together in an enormous Gordian knot.

Does this mean that terrorists now look at Hollywood as a source of inspiration, a template for their ambitions and ideas? I think the connections are far more elliptical, although whatever we can imagine, Al Qaeda too can imagine -- and probably already has. That's a terrifying prospect, especially when you consider the creativity we bring to inventing fictional devastation, all our tortuous permutations on the theme.

Yet at the same time, it's oddly comforting, if only because it suggests a strategy for us to recognize and perhaps anticipate the dangers of a world where all of us -- East and West, secular and fundamentalist -- have, at some deep level, begun to dream from the same unconscious well.

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