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The Blockbuster Effect

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“We have a visual on Geronimo,” says the CIA director. Face-to-face with the supervillain, a Team 6 man shoots him twice: one in the chest, one through the forehead.

“We got him,” the president says.

There are no American casualties. Also? None of the children were harmed.

As he prepares to address the nation, America’s first black ­commander-in-chief is briefed on the body’s disposal—cut to a shot of a weighted bag being dropped into the Arabian Sea from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, with a title card: CARL VINSON, SEGREGATIONIST CONGRESSMAN, 1883–1981. From outside the White House, he hears a gathering crowd break into song. And among the jubilant youngsters we see an 18-year-old girl we recognize from the beginning of the movie, when she was 8 and sobbing on September 11.

Tom Clancy–preposterous, right? Complete with an exceptionally long (and thus finally all the more gratifying) Joseph Campbell–esque “road of trials” on our hero’s journey. Which is why 24’s wish-­fulfillment counterterrorist Jack Bauer was immediately trending on Twitter, and why the little Kathryn Bigelow movie in development about SEAL Team 6’s pursuit of Osama is suddenly a ­superhot property. And why the press coverage quickly devolved to determining how much Hollywoodish dramatic license the administration initially took in describing the “firefight,” which actually consisted of one guy firing on the two dozen arriving super-SEALS.

Niggles and quibbles. The story is true and, because the totally familiar fictional archetypes clicked in for the final act, deeply satisfying.

And I don’t think it’s crazy to think that those pop-­cultural archetypes not only frame the public understanding of the events but actually shaped the events themselves. Days after 9/11, we all remember Bush saying, “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ ”He surely never saw such a poster in real life: Like the rest of us, he knew it from old movies and shows. And the yearning for a satisfying finale after 9/11 helped drive the U.S. to invade a country that had nothing to do with the attacks.

President Obama obviously gets the power of storytelling. After publishing his first book but before recommitting to politics, I’m reliably told, he thought of changing careers to become a novelist, a writer of Scott Turovian thrillers. Minimizing civilian casualties and harvesting intelligence aside, he knew that a commando raid, if it worked, would make for a far, far better last chapter.

The stories we tell and retell—­fictional, nonfictional, hybrids of the two—really do inform important choices we make. They matter.

Americans think that bin ­Laden’s execution will make Americans more vulnerable to a terrorist attack, but they’re nevertheless thrilled it happened—happy, in other words, to slightly increase their odds of being murdered in order to experience a gratifying symbolic charge.

Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda role for the last nine years and eight months, it turns out, was not merely symbolic, but the lunatic fantasies he encouraged—9/11 worked liked a dream, and the superpower couldn’t catch him because his success had been divinely ordained—gave him tremendous symbolic power. And now, maybe, the craziest Islamist dreams of inevitability will lose some of their crazy appeal.

None of the wars we’ve fought since World War II—Korea, Vietnam, Iraq—concluded triumphantly or unambiguously. The endgame in Afghanistan will surely be no different. As stories, as symbols, earlier wars’ most salient themes are very unsatisfying: wishful hubris, stupidity, bad luck, muddles. And ever since Vietnam and the rise of the Reaganist trope that “government is the problem,” Americans have defaulted to the idea that Washington is irredeemably feckless, incompetent, unable to stick with important projects for the long haul. The successful Javertism of bin Laden’s apprehension could help reduce people’s dangerous overinvestment in that idea.

The staying power of this story’s last chapter will never equal that of the first. But to the degree 9/11 “changed everything,” it did so not in some rational cost-benefit fashion. We coolly write off thousands of unnecessary American deaths and destroyed buildings every year. The trauma of that attack, for most of us, was the result of a symbolic assault. Which does not diminish its enduring historical significance. And to the degree that finally finding and killing Osama bin Laden is a symbolic victory, that just might prove to have enduring historical significance as well.

Have good intel? Send tips to intel@nymag.com.


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