‘Live free or die’: has Hollywood made suicide bombers heroes post-9/11?

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Think Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Christian Bale, then think of 9/11. No? Haven’t drawn any parallels yet? Then there’s one recurring theme in the film industry you may have missed out on.

In the 12 years since the September 11 terrorist attacks against the U.S., movie directors have zeroed in on the concept of suicide bombings.

But while we’ve seen the Arabs and Asians in their terrorist garb wreaking havoc on Western interests, there’s also been another type of suicide bomber depicted on the silver screen – and it’s not the “evil” kind.

“We’ve seen several different trends. One of them is the suicide bomber as the apocalyptic kind, wanting the downfall of America. But the other is a heroic figure, a self-sacrificing individual,” Haroon Moghul, an author and a fellow at the center of national security at the New York-based Fordham Law School, told Al Arabiya English on Tuesday, ahead of the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

“I think the fact that no one talks about this, and yet it’s so prominent in many different movies, is interesting.”

So, what kinds of films feature these self-sacrificing suicide bombers, which appear to be celebrated within the narrative?

Tom Cruise is perhaps one of the latest culprits of the seeming trend, starring as an action hero in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Oblivion (2013). Cruise plays Jack Harper, who ends up believing the only way he can save humanity is by sacrificing himself.


It’s not a new theme, but Moghul believes such storylines have been churned out by Hollywood left, right and center post-9/11.

“We use art subconsciously as a way to work out so many things going on around us. We have been at war since 9/11. For a lot of Americans, and a lot of the audiences who we would assume are now younger, this is all they really know of American politics, history and global affairs,” says Moghul.

“On a rhetorical level, we talk about good and evil, but I think what we’re really talking about is questions over what kind of violence is permissible and what isn’t. Inseparable from that is the question; what is it permissible to give your life for?”

Hollywood has certainly given an assortment of examples.

One was a sacrificial death in sci-fi flick Pacific Rim (2013), which was described as “Christ-like” by critics.


The hero “dives into the belly of the beast, he goes through the dimension of this dark underworld and then he pops up in a sort of resurrection scene,” said Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film and Television Coalition and Editor-in-Chief of Movieguide, in an interview with U.S.-based The Christian Post in July.

In ever the macho show of bravery, the hero ejects his copilot, and romantic interest, so she can survive, and goes on to destroy villainous aliens. The sacrifice is similar to the seeming death of Iron Man in “The Avengers” (2012).


“I think that movies are part of the process by which societies renew themselves. They ask themselves questions and they pose answers and if the answers are compelling enough, then the movie sells a lot of tickets. These movies are all asking, what does it mean to be a human being? What is it acceptable to die for? What is it acceptable to use violence for? And what makes a good death?

“I think these are all questions that are beneath the surface of the American psyche since September 11,” said Moghul.

“The movies touch on a lot of anxieties for Americans in the post-9/11 age. One way to look at it is seeing how “Oblivion” is about drones. For many, it’s impossible to watch that film without thinking about American foreign policy, especially in the past few years.”

In the latest installment of the Batman franchise, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), the audience is led to believe that the caped crusader dies to protect Gotham City. Again, martyrdom finds its way into silver screen narratives. But, in a twist of fate that only Hollywood could conjure up, Batman survives due to a painfully obvious software glitch in the character’s vehicle.

“Film has been a means to attempt to understand what could have been the motivation to attack us and understand the psychology of the people who carried out 9/11,” U.S.-based author and graphic novelist Willow Wilson told Al Arabiya English.

Another example is Will Smith’s thriller “I am Legend” (2007). He plays Dr. Neville, who sacrifices himself in order protect his companions from infected zombie-like predator beings.

“Certainly, we have seen more films and TV series that feature suicide bombing as a plot point. 24 and Homeland are good examples of series that fit this theme, with a greater focus on terrorists and terrorism; where they live and how they think,” explained Wilson.

“There was a similar existential angst for Arab cinema as well,” says Mahmoud Kaabour, a multi-award-winning Arab filmmaker behind “Being Osama,” a documentary on the lives and times of six men in North America sharing Osama bin Laden’s first name in the post-9/11 world.

Along with Hollywood, Arab cinema found the 9/11 attacks rich in cinematic material, particular after the U.S.-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq.

“I followed six Osamas for years and surveyed their experiences post-9/11, but at the same time, used this to paint a larger portrait of the Arab diaspora in North America, showing the integration of people from different walks of life and of different beliefs.”

“What remains with me from that experience is that cinema became an answer for Arab filmmakers or a tool for them to fend off stereotypes. It was a cinema that was constantly trying to react to an accusation,” Kaabour added.

But, likening the self-sacrifice seen in recent Hollywood flicks to the terrorist suicide bombings seen in “real world” attacks is not a comparison without flaws.

“I’m not entirely certain that the self-sacrifice of the heroes in those films is directly analogous to a suicide bombing,” says Wilson.

“In the cases that have been mentioned, the ‘threat’ is very immediate and external, it’s more like the hero is throwing himself on a bomb rather than setting the bomb off.”

Wilson notes that in the case of the Dark Knight Rises, for example, Batman takes a bomb way out to where it won’t hurt anybody and in doing so, sacrifices his own life.


“Now we’ve been in two horribly long wars and we went into war under false pretenses; the threats we thought existed were exaggerated, or in some cases falsified, and so I almost wonder if it’s an attempt to justify our reaction to a suicide bombing rather than the suicide bombing itself,” adds Wilson.

Still, she believes that the common thread of self-sacrifice in film since 9/11 cannot go by unnoticed.

“One film, which comes out and says ‘sometimes you need to blow up something so symbolic and consider killing yourself’ and justifies this, is V for Vendetta.”

V for Vendetta (2005) portrays a bold, enigmatic freedom fighter, attempting to ignite a revolution against a brutal fascist regime. It was originally based on a book that pre-dates 9/11 by almost 20 years.

“Even though the book was written much earlier, the movie creators clearly updated the psychology of the political atmosphere for a post-9/11 world,” said Wilson.

“When the movie came out, the people who were on the receiving end of this authoritarian regime were Muslims and gay people. It was a more modernized ‘enemies list’ for a post-9/11, 21st century, Britain and the U.S.

“That movie said yes, there are times in which the destruction of a building – even if there are innocent people inside – is worth it, if helps a greater [goal] of authoritarianism collapse,” adds Wilson.

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