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Friday, September 17, 2021

September 17, 2021: Domestic Terrorism: Cultural Representations

[This past weekend marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a terrorist attack that occurred on American soil and was perpetrated by attackers who had lived in the US for months if not longer. Whether and how it qualifies as domestic terrorism is a topic I’ll focus on in the weekend post, after AmericanStudying a handful of other domestic terrorist histories and contexts.]

On three cultural texts that reflect three different visions of domestic terrorists (some SPOILERS in what follows).

1)      The Dark Knight Rises (2012): The villains in many action films (or at least their sinister plans) could be described as domestic terrorists, but that’s never been more accurate than it is for Tom Hardy’s Bane in the final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Bane doesn’t just start his culminating attacks on Gotham City with a series of domestic terrorist bombings; he also weds those attacks to an anarchist philosophy that makes clear that he sees himself as a terrorist in the most overtly political senses of the term. While Hardy’s talents, combined with the usual depiction of Gotham as a deeply troubled place in need of serious reform, make his perspective (if not his famously muffled voice) at least somewhat understandable, he is still clearly a villain—and, we eventually learn, one whose domestic terrorist acts are actually undertaken for the benefit of a greater villain who cares nothing for his philosophies. This is what we might call the 21st century comic book film vision of domestic terrorism: somewhat thoughtful and purposeful, but ultimately villainous and in need of heroic opposition.

2)      Fight Club (1999): David Fincher’s film adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1996 novel features many twists and turns (most of which I’ll try not to spoil here for the few who don’t yet know them), but its culmination is an elaborate, highly orchestrated act of interconnected, domestic terrorist bombings against the city in which its characters reside. Like everything else in the film, and doubly so given the stunning revelations about those protagonists that have immediately preceded it, that set piece is ambiguous in tone—but in my reading, there’s no question that we are meant to watch and appreciate the bombings more as a beautiful crescendo (as our hero and heroine do) than as a disturbing or villainous act of destruction and mass murder. At the end of the day, Fight Club is the story of a boring, constrained everyman in desperate need of shaking free from those shackles—and those bombings, like the character of Tyler Durden who orchestrates them, represent the potent culmination of his successful escape. That’s a heroic, or at the very least an entirely sympathetic, vision of domestic terrorism.

3)      American Pastoral (1997): As I hope this week’s series has made clear, somewhere in the shades of gray between villainous and heroic lie most of the acts of domestic terrorism in our nation’s history: sometimes more toward the villainous side (such as Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing), sometimes a bit more toward the heroic (as with the environmental terrorists I highlighted yesterday), but always part of the fraught and contingent realities of political, social, individual, and cultural contexts. As I trace in that hyperlinked blog post above, few literary works engage those complex contexts with more depth and power than Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, a novel with a Weather Underground-like domestic terrorist bombing at the center of its multi-layered narration, structure, chronology, plot, family, and depiction of 20th century American history. As I wrote in this post, I agree with the critiques of Roth around themes of gender (among others); but at his best, he’s one of our greats, and American Pastoral is his best novel and one of our best cultural representations of domestic terrorism.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other histories of domestic terrorism you’d highlight?

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