- Unethical Morality in “Documenting” Terrorism:Terror at the Mall, Nowhere to Run, Wolves of Westgate
The enemy must fear us. When this is over, there will be much more fear in the world. […] Give the government an ultimatum. Say, “This was just the trailer. Just wait till you see the rest of the film.”
The overhanging statement – which draws attention to troubling links interconnecting action cinema and acts of terrorism – is delivered towards the end of Dan Reed’s Terror in Mumbai (UK, 2009), an insightful documentary that unfolds a balanced enquiry into the November 2008 massacre by the South Asian terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (the Army of the Righteous). The film weaves hours of phone intercepts between a Pakistani handler and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba agents into a collage of recovered CCTV footage, live news reportage, survivor testimonies and interviews. The documentary also embeds alarming images from Mohammed Ajmal Kasab’s interrogation, the sole captured terrorist, as he describes his background, training, and the motivation behind his participation in the attacks. The mosaic film thus builds up a complicated three-dimensional story that offers viewers an atypical glimpse into and behind this phenomenon. The police interview with Kasab in particular sheds rare light into a dark world of hate, want, and ignorance lurking behind extremist violence; where war, poverty, destitution, death, exclusion, indoctrination and inculcated desires lead to desperate acts. These sketchy details immediately complicate banal one-dimensional tabloid narratives of Islamic terrorists being inhuman embodiments of pure Evil. Thus, contra the aphorism that proposes “if you do not understand why terrorists do what they do, then it might be because you are watching it on television” (Whittaker 91), Reed’s televisual documentary allows viewers to perceive these South Asian terrorists as flawed and desperate human beings who are forged in pressurized crucibles of poisonous socio-political forces, discourses, factors, and actors. At the same time, the film refrains from painting the inverse picture, wherein the West becomes the geopolitical straw man solely responsible for producing this growing army of anonymous ideological puppets. As such, Reed’s multi-perspectival treatment [End Page 66] of this complicated subject matter emerges as a thought-provoking ethical documentary about early twenty-first century terrorist violence.
However, as other documentaries such as The Control Room (Jehane Noujaim, US, 2004) make overt, because most peoples’ understanding of history and current global affairs are highly mediated nowadays, there is always already a shadow of Machiavellian doubt cast over the ‘truths,’ ‘ends,’ ‘politics’ and ‘motives’ of any news image covering acts of war and terror (see, for example, Briant). Yet within contemporary Western media ecosystems, documentary still has a privileged, albeit increasingly troubled (see Winston 181-2), relationship to notions of truth and knowledge. Indeed, as Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro explicate it in Crafting Truth, “documentary” is now a “style or an aesthetic” that is felt to evoke “the real” (32). As Patricia Pisters points out, if documentary images impact and influence how “perception 2.0” viewers think, feel, emotionally relate to, understand and interpret our world, it is because there is “an always-fundamental but not always straight forward relationship between the world, our brain-screens, cinema, and larger image culture, all of which interrelate in complex ways” (299-300). With specific reference to the extreme images of terrorism that increasingly clog our mediated ecosystems, Pisters recalls Jean Baudrillard’s observations during and after 9/11, that “Manhattan disaster movie” that fused together “the white magic of the cinema and the black magic of terrorism. The white light of the image, and the black light of terrorism” (Baudrillard 29-30; Pisters 302). Through the modulating images of the planes smashing into the World Trade Center, reality itself betrayed its envy of fictional images. The 9/11 event or “singularity” (Baudrillard; Doran) thereafter bore witness to the twisted consanguineous tryst between terrorism and Hollywood, Hollywood and terrorism. In effect, documentary images of reality thereafter began to perform as the chilling bonus-feature within screened images of terrorism, granting its spectacular remediation that “extra shiver” (Baudrillard; Pisters 302).
In this paper I turn my attention to chilling post-9/11 televisual news...