Putting the War into the 'War on Terror'

Our grandfathers ran around as children playing cowboys and Indians. Our fathers played cops and robbers. In the digital age, we have video-game iterations of the same dichotomy like Counter-Strike, a classic and frequently remade title featuring frantic objective-based gunplay between terrorists and the counterforces employed to stop them.

A mainstay of masculine entertainment, the terrorist stands in place of the generic black-hatted villain of yesteryear, all but tying damsels to railroad tracks. As antagonists go, terrorists come readymade, requiring little to no explanation for their menace. They hail from somewhere exotic, believe something bizarre, and destroy as a means to their chosen end. Often, we don’t even care what fuels their violence so long as we get to shoot back. As I think back on terrorist films I’ve watched multiple times, like True Lies or Air Force One, I couldn’t tell you exactly why the bad guys were bad or what they hoped to accomplish. It didn’t really matter. They were there to rally our hate and earn a satisfying death at the hands of our hero.

For a moment, the reality of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent "War on Terror" paused all of that. Suddenly, terrorists weren’t to be taken lightly as make-believe villains. What fueled their violence became a matter of grave consequence. No matter our political perspective, how we thought of terrorists changed dramatically.

For the Left, certainly during the Bush years, the terrorist became the pitiable personification of American imperialism, the sins of a nation come home to roost. For the neoconservative faction of the Right, as institutionalized by the Bush administration and its supporting organizations, the terrorist became the next advent of the Evil Empire, a virulent boogeyman lurking around every corner much like the Cold War spy before him.