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American ‘Twilight Zone:’ Snipers, monsters and the Other

Each day brings a new string of tragedies – many stemming from America’s stubborn insistence on protecting “gun rights”

Jon Letman

Published: Updated:

Nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, although “American Sniper” lost out and only won for best sound editing, it tells the story of “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” In just one month since its nation-wide release, it has become the highest ever-grossing war film, earning over $316 million to date.

Despite having read criticism that it was Pentagon-fueled propaganda celebrating a man credited with 160 (and possibly more than 250) kills in Iraq, I decided that if I was going to write about it, I needed to see it so I went to my neighborhood theater on a Saturday night and paid nine dollars for my seat in the packed movie hall.

For all the hype, I found American Sniper unremarkable. It was 134-minutes of slickly produced Hollywood clichés steeped in adulation for a military hit man. If shooting people from a rooftop is your thing, you’ll probably enjoy the film. I found it woefully lacking in context and the incessant trigger pulling was gratuitous. As a film, it assumes little sophistication in its audience but worst of all is the film’s one-dimensional portrayal of Iraqis as little more than expendable props to be shot at and despised for their treachery.

The most memorable part of American Sniper for me had nothing to do with the movie itself, but instead was an unexpected short film shown before the main feature. As the theater filled to capacity, the projectionist ran the black and white American TV classic “The Twilight Zone.”

The episode, called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” originally aired in 1960. It’s the story of a typical small American town that succumbs to fear and chaos after a mysterious meteor-like object passes overhead. When all electronic and mechanical devices suddenly stop working, the town folk gather in the street to discuss the inexplicable failure of their cars, radios, telephones and lights.

They’re different from us

After a youth named Tommy recounts a story of aliens who infiltrate earth disguised as humans, the town’s people begin to eye each other with suspicion. They quickly find a scapegoat in Les Goodman, the only man whose car still starts.

America has devolved into a semi-permanent state of lock-down. Suspicion and mistrust drive a national narrative that is fueled by an abundance of guns and ammo

Jon Letman

“It seems the general impression now holds that maybe there’s a family that isn’t what we think they are – monsters from outer space or something different than us,” says level-headed neighbor Steve. When darkness falls, suspicious neighbors surround Les’ home to keep an eye on him until a fear-monger named Charlie suggests that Steve may in fact be the monster they fear.

“You’re all desperate to point a finger at a neighbor!” admonishes Steve. “Believe me friends, the only thing that’s going to happen is that we’re going to eat each other up alive.” The neighbors, now seized by fear, watch in terror as a human form approaches from the shadows. It only take the utterance of “it’s a monster!” to spur Charlie to grab the nearest rifle and shoot down the figure. The mob is shocked when they discover the victim was a trusted neighbor who’d gone for help.

“He came out of the darkness...How was I supposed to know he wasn’t a monster or something?” Charlie pleads. “I was only trying to protect my home. I didn’t know it was somebody we knew.”

When the lights suddenly turn on in Charlie’s house the neighbors turn on him. Someone hurls a rock at Charlie, prompting him to accuse Tommy of being the monster. Soon the lights on Maple Street begin flickering on and off and the neighborhood erupts in a frenzy of panic and violence.

Windows are broken, guns are fired and chaos ensues. As the camera pans out from the wanton fighting, two real aliens observe calmly from their spaceship parked in the distance. One says to the other: “Throw them into darkness for a few hours then sit back and watch…The pattern is always the same...They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find and it’s themselves.”

The episode closes with the words of the steely voiced narrator: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children.”

Between fear and knowledge

It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate opener for a movie like American Sniper than this episode of the Twilight Zone. The former tells a twisted version of a war that was falsely sold to the American public as an urgent measure to protect the homeland from an alien attack. In the twelve years since the U.S. launched a war that, despite America’s withdrawal, never really ended, the U.S. has been tunneling itself deeper and deeper into a fear of its own monster-self.

Each day brings a new string of tragedies – many stemming from America’s stubborn insistence on protecting “gun rights” over human rights. In a society awash with guns, prejudice and fear – o f the sort depicted in the Twilight Zone – America has devolved into a semi-permanent state of lock-down. Suspicion and mistrust drive a national narrative that is fueled by an abundance of guns and ammo.

America now suffers an endless stream of shootings by ordinary citizens: the angry loner seeking “revenge” on campus; a homecoming prince gone bad; the crazed fanatic shooting up a theater; a self-appointed neighborhood watchman; an angry man in a parking lot, or the religion-hating neighbor with a dozen guns and ammunition caches stashed away in a sleepy college town.

Incidents stemming from a fear of “the monsters among us” involving our overly-militarized police who shoot first and ask questions never in recent cases are too many to list, but include cops in a dark stairwell, inside a Walmart store, a city park, a train platform, a convenience store, and in small and large towns from Ferguson and Phoenix to Denver, Chicago, New Jersey, South Carolina, Los Angeles, New York and all over Albuquerque. This month, in the town of Madison, Alabama police violently tackled and paralyzed a non-English speaking Indian man after a frightened man reported “a skinny black guy” walking around his neighborhood.

All of this is happening in a country where hundreds of millions of dollars are being pumped into a cinematic celebration of a “true American hero” – the American Sniper.

Two weeks after watching American Sniper I returned to the same theater to see a very different film: Selma, which tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle for African-American voting rights which culminated in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama by a population that knows all too well what it means to be attacked as “the other.” The film, a portrait of bravery and non-violence, was brilliantly executed I thought, but sadly, even on a Saturday night, the theater was mostly empty.

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Jon Letman is an independent freelance journalist in Hawaii. He covers the environment, militarism and society in the Asia-Pacific region. As the U.S. pursues its ‘Asian-Pacific pivot,’ Letman is reporting on the impact of the U.S. military on people around the region. Follow him on Twitter @jonletman.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.