New York City has been invaded, its buildings blown up and its citizens slaughtered hundreds of times. The invaders come every summer, descending from the sky and under the earth. Sometimes they aliens or gods or monsters. They are, however, never Muslims.
The Dark Knight, the previous Batman film, contained an elaborate analogy to the War on Terror, a shadow version of the real war fought out by men in costumes proving that it was possible to release a big-budget movie supportive of the War on Terror so long as it was dressed up in the right costume.
Since then, and before, New York City has been attacked by meteors, ice ages, mythical skeletons, more costumed criminals, the year 2012, and every possible imaginary scenario that can be dreamed up. It just hasn't been attacked by Muslims because that's something that doesn't happen in movies. Only in real life.
The actual enemy rarely shows up in movies. There have been more movies made attacking the War on Terror than movies showing American soldiers and law enforcement officers fighting terrorists. After ten years of war there have hardly been any movies made about the war in Afghanistan and the most watched movie about the War in Iraq began with an anti-war quote, just so no one made any mistakes about where everyone involved stood. And all of these are a drop in the bucket.
Our cinematic world is a relentless barrage of anxieties; week after week, movie theater screens light up with depictions of civilization collapsing into chaos, overrun by hordes of zombies and monsters, our cities torn down, buildings burning, police and military forces helpless in the face of the enemy. These collective anxieties are packaged up and exported to audiences at home and around the world who sit watching our unacknowledged fears of invasion and collapse play out in movie theaters.
A culture's art, no matter how tawdry it may seem, is also its dreams. They are the stories we tell, and they are full of conscious and unconscious meanings. Legends are created by a culture to battle its unspoken fears. Its great hunters and warriors, whether born of a god, risen from the sea or wearing a cape take a society's terrors and defeat them in a story that is reenacted over and over again to bring courage to the people and remind that all obstacles may be overcome with a strong spirit.
No matter how degenerate a culture may be, its people still need such legends because they still have fears that need calming. The more troubled the time, the more they have need of such legends and the more they may even escape into them to find comfort against the coming of the long night.
The Islamic invasion is only dealt with through such legends where the enemy is reduced to metaphors, as the Soviet Union and the threat of Communism were in earlier generations. In earlier generations, we saw the Nazi on screen, and he is still a reliable villain, but the Communist is a more elusive fellow and the Islamist is more likely to show up in British movies than in American ones. Instead, the Communist became subsumed in stories of pod people and zombies, in depersonalized bombs falling from the sky and enemies with accents but no ideology. Even brainwashing was distanced as a technological trick in the Manchurian Candidate rather than an ideological practice.
If Communists occasionally showed up in movies, Islamists are as rare as white elephants. There is plenty of work for Muslim actors portraying unjustly accused men being persecuted by bigoted and ignorant law enforcement officers. But there is hardly any work for them portraying terrorists. Much as negative portrayals of Communists was Red-Baiting, negative portrayals of Muslims is Islamophobia. And it is better to be afraid of imaginary things than real ones.
Our political institutions, like our movies, prefer to deal with fictional threats as well. The CDC has issued an emergency preparedness plan for a zombie attack. It's easier to prepare disaster plans for something that won't happen than to prepare them for an Islamic biological warfare attack which might happen, but must not be spoken about.
The world we live in is stranger than fiction. It is a place where imaginary threats are constantly discussed but talk of real threats is silenced. No one complains when the NYPD releases a Zombie Patrol Guide, but a furor ensues when it investigates terror-linked mosques. The more imaginary a threat is, the safer it is to tackle it because there is no Zombie Rights organization to sue, whine and conduct interfaith rallies complaining that zombies are people too.
"With an host of furious fancies whereof I am commander, with a burning spear and a horse of air to the wilderness I wander," Tom O'Bedlam sings. "By a knight of ghosts and shadows I summoned am to tourney. Ten leagues beyond the wide world’s end – Methinks it is no journey."
We are led now by Bedlamites, feigned madmen running a society of feigned madness where it is fashionable to fight zombies and unfashionable to fight Muslim terrorists. A society in which a 100 million dollar movie that depicts Abraham Lincoln fighting vampires was just released. And if it isn't vampires or zombies, then it's monsters or aliens. We need our phantom enemies to fight and defeat; the knights of ghosts and shadows who call us to battle beyond the wide world's end of reality to avoid fighting the all-too-real terrorists of the Jihad.
To fight ghosts and shadows, zombies, aliens and vampires, is no journey at all. It can be done at home or at the movie theater. The lights go down and sound blares, adrenalin levels spike and pupils dilate, and, when the two hours are complete, the experience of confronting and surviving danger has been burned in and all the appropriate chemicals are swirling around in the body. While outside the terror grows.
More than ever, we are glutted on a feast of false victories against false enemies, while the true enemy remains nameless. While moviegoers in Times Square consumed cinematic fantasies about invaders from outer space, a real life invader from Pakistan, Faisal Shahzad, was plotting to set off a car bomb. Like so many invaders from outer space, Faisal Shahzad was able to blend in with the locals while plotting to destroy everything around him.
In movies, invaders from outer space escape notice because no one believes in aliens, but in real life invaders from Pakistan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia escape attention because it's unfashionable to believe in Islamic invaders, no matter how many times they have struck in the past. 36 percent of Americans polled believe that aliens have visited earth and 55 percent believe that most Muslims in this country are patriotic citizens. It is still unknown how many believe that little green men in UFO's are also patriots and wave the red, white and blue in between bouts of cattle mutilation.
Reality isn't a consensus, but responding to it is. If enough people stop believing in gravity or if acknowledging gravity as an invention of a bunch of dead white men becomes politically incorrect, then the rate at which objects fall will remain unchanged but the rate at which people jump from buildings expecting to fly will increase. If we don't believe in Muslim terrorists, they will still go on blowing themselves up and taking us with them, but our authorities will courageously go on ignoring them while jokingly issuing zombie warnings.
And yet reality can't be ignored. The very act of ignoring it builds up unacknowledged tensions that must be discharged. The average citizen working through those anxieties sits in a darkened room watching the end of days unfold, sees his cities fall and society plowed under and steps out of the air-conditioned theater into the warm sunshine feeling a temporary lifting of unspoken fears.
With the dollar low, debt high, terror everywhere and freedom nowhere; anxiety isn't hard to come by and even harder to escape. Most of the anxieties are the work of a political and cultural elite that likes to think that it is best fit to govern, when it is actually every bit as inept as the worst Ottoman and Imperial Chinese bureaucracies. It is especially dangerous to speak out against inept elites, because the inept kind are also the most insecure. Instead the anxieties must be sublimated, spoken of only in fantasy critiques of inept governments, corrupt cities, rampaging invaders and bold criminals who can only be restrained by assertive individuals.
H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" begins by drawing a picture of a complacent world of men who give little thought of what might be out there, who pay no attention to the "envious eyes" of the invaders that "slowly and surely drew their plans against us". We are aware and unaware of being at war, of passing men and women on the street who are slowly and surely drawing up their own plans against us. In the movie theater, we revisit that terrible knowledge that we are engaged in a war with no natural end under a hundred disguises. We recreate September 11 in our ten-dollar nickelodeons every summer and look to the sky. But it isn't aliens we are watching for. It's planes.