War Between Worlds

Last night we left my daughter at Girl Scout camp, then stopped off at a thrift store and picked up a few UFO conspiracy books that we will give to a friend of mine, then we went to the cinema to view the destruction of the East Coast by tripods from space.

It was a renewing experience.

First, I’ll say that War of the Worlds was one of the most riveting, compelling movies I’ve seen in a while, and certainly the best of its (questionable) genre. For comparison purposes, I found Independence Day to be a steaming load of crap, ditto Deep Impact and all the rest of the “End of the World” epics that have been produced of late.

In fact, I find the genre somewhat ridiculously gratuitous, in that it feeds an unhealthy fascination with our own mutual assured destruction–whatever the metaphor being employed.

I believe War of the Worlds fundamentally different and groundbreaking in its treatment of the idea of worldwide terror. Here’s why.

1. Immediacy and the individual as witness to events: Rather than be dismayed, as some have been,  at the linearity of the storyline, I felt the choice to tell the complete tale from the point of view of the Everyman was a brilliant one for the subject matter. The as-yet unattainable goal of these movies has been to make us feel “we are there,” to identify with the characters that are going through this nearly unimaginable horror. Yet past directors gave us, to a man, the incredibly tired pastiche of “stock” characters, each “dealing” with the situation in their own way. (The young woman with a child, the brave soldier, the down-and-out guy with a heart of gold, the scientist who “knows,” etc.) But in the space of two hours, with the destruction of the earth to also address, it’s difficult–impossible, actually–to fully develop 12 characters anyone can believe in or, more importantly, care about. It’s hard enough to do in a regular movie, which can devote most of its time to this task.

What Spielberg did was focus the timeline and the action like a laser on Cruise’s character. He is in virtually every scene, and every event is seen from his point of view. This immediacy creates as much “reality” as can be had in a completely implausible situation. True, Cruise’s “nature” or personality is not deeply explored–but that too has its purpose, in helping allow us to imbue him with whatever qualities we require of our own personal “everyman.” His is in part the blank slate on which we write our emotions. He is compelling in how he reacts, how he survives, how he evolves into a survivor and a preserver, not in “who he is”, which the director wisely leaves aside in favor of telling the story. This is a morality play, not a character study.

2. Plausibility: Let’s keep in mind the whole thing is a fantasy. None of it would happen. We found ourselves discussing a lot of this–why the aliens would go to all the trouble of planting the tripods a million years ago rather than taking over Earth right away; how they would know where future major population areas would be; why, if they are so advanced, they did not do an environmental study on possible contagions before “dropping in” with their full invasion force, etc. But this movie is by no means about plausibility–who thought it “likely” that terrorists would fly jet liners into the World Trade Center before it happened? Not me. So we are offered events that “come out of nowhere,” just as the real attacks have come, and events whose purpose we cannot immediately discern, just as we did not immediately comprehend why anyone would want to destroy the WTC and Washington. And here–here–is where the director triumphs. Note the first scenes of this film. Rather than the hour or so of terminally boring exposition that these films tend toward (to “build suspense” which never gets built), Spielberg instead presents a quick introduction to the main characters (for basic dramatis personnae purposes), then immediately throws the situation into chaos. If we think of the terror allegory, this is exactly how it happens. We did not have a “buildup” to 9-11, or Bali, or Madrid, or the Chechen massacres–or London. They happened out of the blue, caught us off guard, with our pants down. As Cruise stands there gaping, impotent, in the face of the world literally cracking up under his feet, I stood there with him, in my memories, agape at the cracking up of my own world.

And though some might deem it hammy, I thought the emergence of the tripods from “below,” rather than raining fire from above as usual, was a nice touch. Enhancing the metaphor on terror, society was literally being attacked by the “seeds” of terror come to fruit, seeds that had been planted long before.

3. On terror. Spielberg hammers the idea of terror, of the shock and unreality of it, right home, quite amazingly I thought. When Cruise finally shakes off his initial shock and realizes he must leave–leave now–he goes to his friend’s car repair shop and proceeds to take possession of the only working vehicle in the city. As his friend stammers about how he’s got a business to run, it’s not my car, the guy’s gonna come back, etc., Cruise repeatedly screams at him to “Get in, get in, get in the car!” His friend is fixed in the static world of normalcy, of past-present-future, of dependency. Only Cruise has realized that that world is instantly gone, that only the immediate peril matters. The parallels to reactions to terrorism are quite nicely evoked–I saw so many who simply shrugged on 9-11–on that very day–and said, “Oh well, I don’t live in New York.” I heard  people laughing about it. They did not see that the world as they knew it had just ended, that their world would now be shadowed by the pall of terror–forever.

People too young to remember, or too cocky to admit the truth to themselves, may claim that terror cannot change their world, a la John Lennon. They are wrong, wrong, wrong. It has changed their world whether they recognize it or not. This is not to say, “Everybody panic.” Far from it. It just states the fact of it, that local insulation will not change global reality.

This brings up the other major theme of this movie, one I think others of its type have squeamishly avoided or sidestepped. The car becomes the metaphor for escape, and of course it becomes an object of envy. With respect to the way humans conduct themselves during “real” world-shattering events, the way the car is handled in the movie speaks to the darker side of our natures. Rather than everyone “pitching in” to fight the bad guys, when people finally realize that there is a good chance they will be exterminated, their community spirit goes right out the window. It becomes, literally, every man for himself. It should not have seemed over the top when Cruise pulls a gun on the crowd, gets a gun to his head, he and his son get beaten to a pulp by the panicked crowd, over possession of the vehicle. And when the gun-wielding carjacker is himself blown away by another, in cold blood, this should not be a surprise. As Art Spiegelman’s father says in his Holocaust allegory Maus–“Friends–huh, put you all in a room with no food for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see how many friends you have.” In these scenes, Spielberg evokes the real horror of such terror that strips people of their humanity and turns them against one another–against their own better natures–in a desperate bid for survival. In this way Spielberg invokes visions of another movie he made about world-shattering wars of aggression and terror.

Yet–the notion of kill or be killed to survive one more day is also undercut by the action. Spielberg cannot resist his trademark bid for humanity for humanity’s sake. As noted, the man who takes the car at gunpoint is himself gunned down–he sacrificed his humanity in vain. And note that Cruise finally kills Tim Robbins’ character in his own bid for survival–but is immediately afterwards found by the tripods and captured anyway. It was a waste. To kill another who threatens you is one thing, but to kill only because you fear that person’s existence might threaten your safety–that is one step too far, and not coincidentally is the step that the U.S. (and Britain) have wrongly taken in their paranoid reaction to terror.

About the end – this was indeed a bit hard to swallow. But I took it, like most of this film, metaphorically. I was mostly surprised at the survival of the son, who if I recall was last seen walking into a wall of flames. But note that there is no dialogue–it is a surreal scene. No one speaks, no one interacts, except for Rachel to yell, “Mommy!” They are all “there” as human beings, but–grant me this–not necessarily alive. The “family” has been preserved–the family of man–though some have died. To me, this is the message of this scene. Sacrifice, in the name of preserving who we are–we are families, by the way, not nations or races or religions–does preserve us, even if we die. It preserves our essence, our souls, if not our flesh.

4. Film-making. In the end, what most impressed me about this film was the flawlessness of the cinematography, effects, sets, pacing, editing and all-around film-making. This is one beautiful apocalypse. The tripods are gracefully, terrifyingly menacing, like omnipotent archangels of death from on high. Their prowess in killing, their pitiless wielding of that prowess, quite evocative of the bafflingly inhuman, murderous efficiency of terror cults–or imperialist armies, if you like. Their foghorn of death is rattlingly disturbing each time it sounds, a sickly send-up of Gabriel’s horn. The foggy, ashen landscapes cut by the searching lights of the tripods are beautiful, awe-inspiring in their grandeur. The destruction is so real, it was not hard to imagine I was watching a documentary. Understand, I like to work at suspending disbelief – if the director is trying, I’ll help out all I can with my imagination. But I felt I had no work to do at all. I felt as if I were watching real events unfold, in real time. No ”movie” cuts to this little house or that Oval Office scene, no attempt to provide a “world afire” vision encompassing the globe and every possible reaction–just the immediate surroundings of one man, whose immediate surroundings keep getting more and more surreal, more dreamlike, more hopeless with every scene, and his reactions. But because I follow him into this world, progress with him into horror, I find it believable no matter how bizarre it gets.

The film is not perfect, not a film for the ages, perhaps not even great. But it’s good. It’s a film for now, for us, to help us examine how we perceive our world now, in its new wrapper. As someone on the radio said the other day, “We all live in Jerusalem now.” We all will live with exploding buses, exploding people, every day now. Safety, always an illusion, will become even harder to conjure up. We will have a permanent spot, in the back of our minds, reserved for the horror when it comes again.

And it will come again.


Vote Wrong and Die

As an American, do you feel threatened? Because you are being threatened. There are elements in this world who want to frighten you–to terrorize you, so to speak–into voting their way. They want you to make your choice in November based not on a sober assessment of the candidates but on fear for your safety.

These international thugs know that a rational decision process will not favor their agenda. They seek to spread fear and insecurity among Americans in order to sway the election and help their cause. Their cause is not one of freedom and sovereignty for the world’s nations. Instead, they envision a global transformation, where all governments adopt their idea of God’s prescribed government, culture and way of life. And as we have seen, any nation that refuses to adhere to their new global order will face the consequences of a doctrine that has established unprovoked attack as a legitimate weapon to wield against perceived enemies, regardless of whether they are a threat to peaceful nations.

These ideologues will stop at nothing, for they are driven not by a desire for justice and equality but by a narrowly defined ideology. Faced with the prospect of a democratic election in a nation divided by war and competing ideas, they have chosen not to enjoin the democratic process in a fair contest but to undermine the mechanisms of democracy by spreading fear and mistrust among the populace. Their goal is clear: to distract the voting public from issues that are important to them with violence and the threat of more violence to come. In effect, their message is, “vote our way, or you will be attacked with even more ferocity than before.”

Not all who follow these groups are as fanatical as their leaders. Many are merely following the same leaders who promised to help their common cause in the past. They have not yet come to realize that as their leaders preach morality they practice an immoral war; that as their spokesmen call for the “truth” about their enemies they spread unfounded deception designed to distort that very truth; that even as they seek to convince us of the honor of their cause, they cannot hide from the dishonor of their actions past and present–which are characterized not by the brave valor they seem to value but by bullying, fear-mongering, deception and lies.

But America is still, for now, a democracy. We do have the right to choose. So please remember, when you make your choice, that no one can bully you into choosing their way. Remember that you have a right–a duty–to make the choice that you feel will best serve the country and the peaceful nations of the world. And that choice should be based on a rational weighing of the facts, not on suggestions of cataclysms to come should you make the “wrong” choice.

After all, it is our greatest patriots, the fathers and mothers of our nation, who sacrificed the prospect of personal safety to stand up to those who would deny us a government based on fair representation, a government “of the people.” Don’t let those who have no concept of such a sacrifice deny you the power to make an informed and rational choice for the candidate you believe will help lead us in honor and in courage against those who would threaten us into believing we no longer have that choice.

Safety and Politics

It’s tax time in America. The time when we fork over our dough to the elite ruling class, so that they may distribute it among themselves – the corporate welfare, the pork projects, the subsidies and the arms deals that make this country great. Never mind that the bridges and schools are falling apart, or that the parks and libraries are closing due to lack of funds. Those limos don’t pay for themselves!

But that’s all the ranting I’ll do about it. In principle, I don’t mind paying taxes at all. But when we have to pay more and more for less and less visible results, it gets frustrating.

What’s really on my mind is a kind of “Eureka” moment I had the other day. My wife asked, rhetorically, why it is that we can’t even determine whether — forget about “why” or “how”  — anyone in the government screwed up in failing to protect the country from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Although I had been following the 9/11 hearings, I hadn’t been dwelling on that angle. But she was right. No matter what happens, you can be sure that no one of any consequence will be “blamed” or held accountable for what did or didn’t happen in the weeks and months prior to the event. And because no one will be blamed, no “fault” will exist.

Instead, the blame will go to “policies” and “structures” that did not allow the otherwise competent folks in the government to get the job done. They would have, the story will go, but their hands were tied by the restrictive operational rules of their respective agencies. The solution? My guess will be a long-term, costly “revamping” of this or that agency, with no accountability down the line to see if it actually did any good. Memos will be written, departments will be restructured, policies will be retooled — and none of us will be any safer than we are now.

So my answer to her was, “Because there is no one left in this country’s government who can look at anything from a point of view that is not shaped by politics.” In other words, even though the 9/11 hearings are seemingly meant to address the gravest, most serious threat to America’s future since World War II and help the nation overcome that threat, no one participating in them sees them that way. They truly do not. They do understand that is the contextof the hearings (or, for the more cynical among them, the pretext). But they are also acutely aware that the important stakes for these hearings are political, and will be won or lost on November 2nd.

The next general election–rather than the next terror attack–is what drives the majority of participants’ responses, their analysis, their very thought processes in preparing to testify or question those who testify.

It’s unfortunate, but I believe we are at such a point. We have reached a state of politicization and polarization that does not allow for any situation, however much it may endanger the populace, to override the single guiding principle of all activity in Washington today — which is to preserve power (for those who hold it) or to gain power (for those who do not).

What this means in the context of testimony and questioning at the hearings is equally straightforward: no testimony means anything, because its meaning is interpreted by virtue of which side you’re on. It’s akin to Orwell’s true definition of doublespeak: you say one thing, believe an entirely opposite thing, and yet can embrace both concepts as inherently “true” because one is “objective” truth (for example, that the war against Iraq was a war of choice) and one is “political” truth (the war against Iraq was a war of necessity).  Take Condaleeza Rice. The pundits have been batting her testimony around for weeks, and if you read the analysis you come up with two perfectly opposing versions of what she said.

If you’re anti-Bush: Rice spun the facts and misrepresented the nature of pre-attack warnings from intelligence agencies to cover for Bush’s and her own inability to effect top-down control over security agencies in the face of clear warnings and evidence of impending attacks.

If you’re pro-Bush: Rice acquitted herself and the administration admirably, providing a solid basis for her assertion that there was no “actionable” intelligence for the administration to act on and that no one could have predicted the time, place and scale of attacks prior to the event based on the intelligence at hand.

Can both versions be correct? Probably not, but each are effectively “true” for the equal halves of the country that believe each version. Does the truth inhabit some “middle ground” between the two partisan interpretations? Possibly, but not necessarily–the moderate answer is not more true by virtue of its being  non-partisan. It may simply be a wishy-washy interpretation of baldly partisan rhetoric.

And the result? Paralysis. Since it cannot be determined which version is “empirically correct” without access to an independent evaluation of the evidence (as opposed to the conclusions of a “bipartisan” committee, which can be painted as political by those who don’t like them), the result for politically dispassionate observers is a kind of circular syllogism of cause and effect:

If A is true, it follows that B is true
A may or may not be true
B may or may not be true

To put it in the context of 9/11:

If our leaders were warned of impending attacks, they should have done something to prevent them.
Our leaders may or may not have been warned of impending attacks;
they should or should not have done something to prevent them.

And so on, forever. So we might as well get used to the terror attacks–while it may be theoretically possible to prevent them, it’s become politically impossible to figure out whose job it is.

Merry Christmas – Happy New Fear

I very much would like to tell Tom Ridge what he can do with his orange alert.

I guess it’s just not the Holidays here in the good ol’ US of A anymore without a healthy dose of fear courtesy of Uncle Sam. Just when you thought you could perhaps relax a little, shift the weight of the world from your shoulders a little and take a small amount of comfort in what remains to you in this fractured, soulless society – namely, family – along comes our beloved, rumor-mongering officials with yet another cry of wolf, another announcement that the sky is falling, another whimper into the pillow.


Eventually they will be right, just as I would be if f I step outside every day and say, “Today it will rain.” But that doesn’t make what they are doing right. On the contrary, they have already squandered their stock of credibility on the parade of orange alerts that have come and gone with no disaster. Their message may be an authoritative warning in their eyes, but to me and everyone I know it is heard as a pathetic excuse for a spectacular failure to fulfill their mission to protect this nation.

When Tom Ridge speaks, this is what we hear: “We are incompetent and impotent in the face of this small band of loosely organized thugs. After all, we’re just the United States of America, but these guys are fanatics with e-mail. They frighten us. Aside from announcing the coming strike, there’s really nothing we can do except await the next blow from these half-mad, unarmed, rag-tag outcasts of society. Because despite a $400 billion defense budget and the combined resources of the wealthiest nation on earth arrayed against them, they remain one step ahead of us at all times. After two years on notice that they are out to destroy us, we continue to scratch our heads and wonder what to do.”

Here’s the tally on the U.S. versus al Qaeda:

  • They attacked New York and Washington, so we attacked the Taliban
  • They remained a threat after the Afghan war (because we let them run away), and Osama remained alive, so we attacked Iraq

We know where the leaders are – always have known – but even though they have no arms to speak of, no tanks or missiles or even significant numbers of men, we can’t go get them. The reason? Simple – they are in a “lawless mountain” region. Again – $400 billion a year, the most sophisticated equipment in the world, half a million soldiers – but we just can’t hack it in those mountainous, lawless regions. So we wait for them to strike us again.

But in contrast to the fatalistic hand-wringing of Tom Ridge, at least we have General Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who the other day provided us with this confidence-inspiring analysis in the press:

“There is no doubt, from all the intelligence we pick up from al-Qaida, that they want to do away with our way of life,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”

“And if they could use another catastrophic event, a tragedy like 9-11; if they could do that again, if they could get their hands on weapons of mass destruction and make it 10,000 (deaths), not 3,000, they would do that.” (my emphasis)

So, for reasons that can be known only to himself, General Myers has in effect handed our enemies the recipe for victory against the United States. Myers–the supreme commander of U.S. military forces–either believes that we cannot withstand an attack of such magnitude and will crumble, as a society, in the face of it, or he is simply thoughtless enough to appear to say so to the world.

It’s unfortunate–Myers probably meant merely that “they would do that” (kill 10,000) if they had the means, not that “they would do that” (succeed in doing away with our way of life) if they could pull such a thing off. But it’s too late now to clarify. The gaff–the latest of so many–belongs to the spinners now. In the East, it will be interpreted as the former, not the latter.

But in light of the season I close with unequivocal words of wisdom: Peace on Earth, good will toward men.