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Arts & Culture Terror, Suicide Bombings Explored in Books, Tv Shows, Plays and Films

September 19, 2005
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Four years after the terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, films, television, plays and books are just beginning to grapple seriously with the phenomena of suicide bombings and terrorism. The lag time between a cataclysmic experience and its absorption into popular culture is hardly surprising. The greatest novel about World War I, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” was written 11 years after the armistice.

Popular worldwide perception of the Holocaust has been shaped most graphically by “Schindler’s List,” which came out almost half a century after Hitler’s fall. Though there have been several impressive attempts, some critics feel the definitive books or movies about World War II and Vietnam have yet to appear.

An initial serious cinematic foray into exploring the mind and motivation of the Muslim suicide bomber comes not from Hollywood, which has been timid about tackling Sept. 11 and its implications, but from the Palestinian-Dutch-German-French co-production “Paradise Now.”

The film tracks the recruitment of two young Palestinian suicide bombers — their motivations, preparations, video testaments and ultimate hesitations — but stops short of divulging whether they carry out the bus bombing they’re planning in Jerusalem.

Other movies, both mainstream and independent, are starting to explore a world in which the enemy is not a clear-cut uniformed presence but the shadowy, even invisible, suicide bomber. Steven Spielberg calls this growing dread in Western nations the “paranoia of the unknown.” His recent “The War of the Worlds” is infused with it.

As fear of the unknown spreads, so do conspiracy theories to explain the unexplainable. A historical example is “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a venerable forgery that posits a global Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world.

The long-discredited theory has been brought up-to-date by blaming “Jews and Zionists” for plotting Sept. 11. In his upcoming film, “The Protocols of Zion,” director Marc Levin explores the old and new hatred and zealotry underlying the revival of the worn canard.

Television viewers will get their first sustained, if fictional, look at Muslim terror in December, when the 10-part “Sleeper Cell” debuts on the Showtime cable channel. Eerily reminiscent of the British-born terrorists who bombed London’s subway system in July, the Muslim cell in the TV series is based in Los Angeles and its hit list includes Los Angeles International Airport, the UCLA campus, Rose Bowl Stadium and the San Onofre nuclear facilities.

The cell is led by the brutal yet personable Farik, played by the Israeli actor Oded Fehr. To heighten the irony, Farik operates in the undercover guise of an observant Jew, who regularly attends a West Los Angeles synagogue.

Farik’s sleeper cell, however, has been infiltrated by a black Muslim and undercover FBI agent, Darwyn, played by Michael Ealy of “Barbershop” fame.

The plot and cast thus offer up a “good” Muslim as counterweight to the “bad” Muslims, and the producers have further hedged their politically correct bets by making most of the Islamic terrorists Europeans and Americans, rather than Arabs or Asians. “Sleeper Cell” is likely to generate plenty of heated controversy, as did Fox’s long-running TV series “24”, which starred Kiefer Sutherland as counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer.

In one episode last March, an American Muslim terrorist group gains control of a nuclear plant, causing a meltdown. In the course of the operation, the group’s leader fatally shoots his own wife, tries to kill his own son, kidnaps the U.S. secretary of defense and tries to behead him on live television.

After strong protests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Sutherland gave an on-air “clarification,” to the effect that the American Muslim community had denounced terrorism.

In the theater, often the first venue for probing examinations of burning issues, there appears to be a dearth of plays by major writers exploring the terrorism issue.

In “Romance,” David Mamet takes a largely farcical look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but without getting deeply into terrorism.

Some of the most intriguing work has been done by the British playwright Robin Soans, whose London hit, “Talking to Terrorists,” uses the verbatim observations of terrorists and their families to try to get inside the head of the fanatic. Soans used the same technique in his earlier play “The Arab-Israeli Cookbook,” performed recently at Hollywood’s small Met Theatre. Despite the innocuous title, the work delves deeply into the motivations and price of terrorism.

In Israel, where artists and writers are more willing to examine the raw wounds of the conflict, the play “Plonter,” or “Tangle,” is forcing viewers to examine the grievances and miseries of both sides.

Between Sept. 11, 2001, and this year’s subway bombings in London, British and American novelists had tried to fathom the emotional and civic impact of terrorism on their societies and peer into the future. Their prophecies are hardly encouraging as they portray a world of sharply curtailed civil liberties and constant alerts.

To paraphrase the turn-of-the-20th-century journalist Lincoln Steffens, these writers “have seen the future, and it doesn’t work.”

In a recent overview of the terror-themed genre, The New York Times recommended four works of fiction: “Saturday” by Ian McEwan; “Incendiary” by Chris Cleave; “Specimen Days” by Michael Cunningham; and “Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now” by Patrick McGrath.

A fifth recommendation harks back to an earlier terror attack, the London blitz of World War II, the atmosphere of which Graham Greene captured in “The Ministry of Fear.” The Times describes the book as a “template for today’s anxieties.”

Readers have a wider selection among nonfiction books. lists some two dozen works on the subject of the suicide bomber, with titles such as “Dying to Kill,” “My Life Is a Weapon,” “What Motivates Suicide Bombers” and “Dying to Win.”

Judging by reviews, readers have liked “The Road to Martyr’s Square: A Journey into the World of the Suicide Bomber” by Anne Marie Oliver and Paul Steinberg. Oliver and Steinberg lived in Gaza for some six years, starting with the first intifada in 1987, and managed to interview some of the top Hamas leadership.

The co-authors trace the history of suicide bombing from medieval times through Japan’s kamikaze pilots in World War II, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, to the present Middle East and worldwide proliferation.

Suicide bombers’ motivations are diverse, they say, including “religion, nationalism, grievance, fame, glory, money.” In addition, the book notes, “they have to have an entire system that supports their actions.”

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