Deutsche Version

Bernd Scheffer

The Interplay of Fiction and Reality
9/11 and the USA as a part of Hollywood

Once again: Is Hollywood offering its audience unlimited inspiration for exercising violence, both publicly and especially privately? Striking similarities between numerous Hollywood movies and the considerably later events of 9/11 seem to confirm this, at least at first glance: In the final scene of “Fight Club” (1999), we see the twin towers collapse – as a result of a terrorist attack. In hindsight, large parts of “Independence Day” (1998) seem like a technically improved documentation of the factual attacks of 9/11, presenting images of burning and collapsing sky scrapers in New York. And in several movies, air planes do hit skyscrapers and create havoc.

The movies are always already there, not only as an anticipation of the real catastrophe, but also as an answer, as a highly suggestive instruction that the same (and thus no other) reactions offer themselves after the real catastrophe as those that are depicted in the movie. – In “The Siege” (1998), we watch a number of attacks perpetrated by Arab terrorists. Investigations yield the identity of one suicidal assassin, a student by the name of Ali Waziri, who flew in from Frankfurt shortly before his crime. Immediately after the first scenes of the film, an actor appears who is obviously intended to resemble Osama bin Laden. After a series of attacks by Muslim terrorists, a State of Emergency is declared in New York: All male Muslims between 13 and 60 years of age are deported by the US army. High-ranking officers torture and murder a suspected terrorist. – “Outbreak” (1995) by Wolfgang Petersen deals with the catastrophe of lethal bio-attacks. – We could enumerate a long list of catastrophic movies that set their apocalyptic scenarios in no other place than New York. Even the heroic self-sacrifice of New York’s rescue workers and fire fighters was modelled as a myth long before 9/11 in movies, such as “The Towering Inferno” (1974). At the end of that movie, the director of operations of New York’s fire brigades, played by Steve McQueen, sums up the two hundred casualties of that night as a relatively lucky outcome and predicts that a time will come in which burning sky scrapers will claim thousands of lives.
Hollywood’s importance as a part of the USA can hardly be overstated. But where would the reverse on that observation take us: What if we assumed that the USA were reduced to being a part of Hollywood, at least as far as the interplay of fiction and reality is concerned? Hollywood has played with such a confusability of the USA and Hollywood in several movies: “Wag the Dog” tells the story of the consulting staff of a President who finds himself accused of sexually assaulting an intern shortly before the end of his first term and enlists a Hollywood producer’s help in simulating a war with Albania in order to divert public attention – thus winning re-election. At the end of that movie, the Hollywood producer is murdered by government agents; he has to die because Hollywood’s rule over the USA must not officially exist.

“Just like the movies!"

"Just like the movies!" – that’s what many of us cried. How indeed should we separate the images we experience in reality from all those movie depictions (and their impressive realism) of which we saw so many, so often, that much earlier? In fact it is wrong to claim that the attacks of 9/11 were completely unimaginable. It would be more accurate to say that something that had long been imaginable and visible in movies had now appeared on an unexpected stage, albeit with lethally real consequences.

It does seem as if a reconstruction of the basic schemes from, say, James-Bond-movies could give us a quick impression of how some of the concerned politicians view the “situation”, and why they view the “situation” that way. Start with the allocation of causes and the profile of the perpetrators: We search and find one rich man with the central responsibility, who used a lot of money to purchase the necessary know-how and prepare the logistics and who engaged in religiously coated brain washing to raise himself an army of followers ready to die for his cause. Once “real politik” adopts this James-Bond-scheme, the model for the “one right answer” to the threat becomes readily apparent: As in James Bond, we send secret agents first and then follow in with the military, which demonstrates its cinematic adequacy and media compatibility by showing or feigning the successful realization of hastily promised revenge, “smoking ’em out!” (as Goerge W. Bush is fond of saying).

Hollywood the US’ Consultant?

The first reports claiming that members of the US government had used top directors and script writers from Hollywood as consultants for battling terrorism after 9/11 are easily discarded as a bad joke, part of the usual fashion of rumours and conspiracy theories following in the wake of any event of major political importance. But now it seems that such meetings actually did take place. The American “Academy of Television Arts & Science” is proud to report that presidential advisor Mark McKinnon has subsumed the “USA” as a part of “Hollywood”. Visiting the Academy, he is supposed to have said: “We don't want to be in the business of telling the Hollywood community what to do. In fact, the Hollywood community has been way out ahead of us.” US generals applaud violent computer simulations and actually recommend their continued advancement – as a training tool for soldiers: “That's the kind of realism we're trying for!” says Brigade General Stephan Seay.

Is Hollywood teaching its audience a kind of cinematic way of thought and action for application in reality? Are presidents, governors and mayors acting increasingly similarly to actors? Many examples from history seem to confirm this, beginning much earlier than with Ronald Reagan’s candidacy (or German Saarland minister president Peter Müller’s explanation that politicians ought to be good actors). By now, everyone is aware that newscasts tend to present a choice of those images that best serve the audience’s desire for spectacular (movie-) symbolism.

There are more actual, not just metaphorical identities between Hollywood and the USA: When Timothey McVeigh was executed for his participation in the bombing of Oklahoma City, 250 persons, among them relatives of those that had died in the attack, were chosen to watch the death of McVeigh ‘live’, via TV. The very country we are used to regard as this planet’s prime example of freedom and civilisation indulges in very real imaginations of revenge and is the only country of the so-called “First World” to practice the death penalty.

Either way, there are many movies that propagate one-man terrorism as well as lynch law. The performers have all gained cult status: Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Silvester Stallone, Robert de Niro, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and many more. In catastrophic movies, redemption is gained by means of violence, fire and death. In such movies, any act of destruction is legitimate, is sensible, because it renders the situation more ‘clear’ at the end of the movie than it was when it started out: In the course of a brutal selection process, feats of mass destruction sift human chaff from wheat. It’s all only in the movies, of course, and that still does make an essential difference. “Fight Club”, a cult movie itself, offers – inside the movie – “pure fascism”, not just in the universal aestheticization of violence, but in explicit slogans: “It’s self-destruction that really makes life worth living!” and: “It's only after you've lost everything that you're free to do anything!”

While several movies also offer a clear, sometimes intense criticism of Hollywood’s or the USA’s violent fantasies, that criticism too remains contradictory: The criticised party gets in many a word, image and most of all deed, and it is not rare that the bad guys appear more attractive than the good guys and ultimately prevail.

Are Similarities Purely Coincidental?

One first possible explanation of the interplay of fiction and reality would be to claim that although seeming identities, or at least striking similarities between Hollywood movies and real events in the USA (as well as, meanwhile, in Germany) do exist, a closer look will reveal no real and especially no complete agreement, only some misleading, albeit frequent, superficial likenesses. Movies are one thing; real events another. All connections that we observe when comparing “Hollywood” and “the USA”, and most of all the many prophetic references, are always established ex post facto – and that part that does not fit into such connections and prophecies, which is often the largest part of the available material, is simply ignored.

When we tend to look exclusively for similarities, we will, for instance, ignore that the catastrophe in “Independence Day” is not brought about by Terran terrorists, but by aliens. In “Independence Day”, buildings will immediately collapse completely – and not endure for a vexing 20 minutes between hope and despair. – It is also in “Fight Club” that no Arab terrorist, but one lone schizophrenic, is responsible for the collapse of the twin towers. This is an almost unique demonstration of the selectivity by which our perception operates. But this explanation also denies all interplay of fiction and reality, and that makes it impossible to explain the enormous audience interest in violent media scenarios, as well as their apparent effectivity.

“It’s the Media’s Fault”

A second attempt at explanation, and one unfortunately all too popular today, claims that movies function as a kind of co-perpetrator, that “Hollywood” has its share in causing acts of violence which take place in reality following the model presented by the movies. There are some indications that the assassins and especially their suspected superiors not only had excellent technical equipment, but that self-made and pre-made videos played an essential role.

But such explanations have their own drawbacks: Although we acknowledge that this argument is all but completely immunized, we are not altogether convinced. Although there have been innumerable examples in which assassinations repeated a model from a Hollywood movie in every detail, the usually over-stated media reports tend to ignore dissimilarities and more or less systematically avoid mentioning that millions of other people watched the same movies and television productions and played the same computer games but did not turn into mass murderers. It is for this very reason that judges will always – and justifiably – have to refrain from holding producers and directors guilty of abetment in murder.

So what do terrorists and assassins do when they encounter certain movies, as has been established in several cases, and use them as a model for real murder? The minimal answer has to be that the movie will colour a deed that was planned in any case, that it determines the pattern of that deed within certain strict limits. The opposite cannot be proven, but we still ask the unpromising question whether a given attack would have ever happened if certain movies and computer games had not been perused excessively.

A thesis more easy to support would be that Hollywood, along with other mass media, is not the sole or direct cause for modern terrorism, but that this kind of terrorism would yet not exist if these media did not exist. A terror attack unreported by the media is useless for almost all profiles of perpetrators. But where does that insight leave us? The process of evolving media can hardly be reversed. Media, then, are blameless and yet to be blamed. We must find a more principal approach.

Interplay of Fiction and Reality is Inevitable

The first two explanations fail because they separate reality and fiction too easily. But fiction and reality have always been confusable. The interplay of fiction and real politics is not news: We know that there exists a long prehistory of real fabrication and simulation, of rumours and slander, conspiracy theories and self-fulfilling prophecies. Hollywood and the USA cannot but engage in such interplay on a basic level. In the USA as well as in Germany, we have long become used to speaking of real events as of “real satire”, of “hostage dramas”, and of the “spectacle” and “tragedy” of real murders. There is some critical explanatory power to depictions of Germany’s reunification as a “play” with several acts, with intrigue and betrayal, or as a burlesque, a comedy of (Stasi) errors, as a stage festival of reunification and (a little bit) as a domestic tragedy.

While we know almost every time – at least regarding the grand total of our media consumption – just what is part of a movie and what belongs to each of our own realities, and while nobody usually confuses a complete crime movie with an actual crime, movies and reality do share some important basic structures. In constructivism and system theory, epistemology must cope without an ontologically guaranteed distinction between fiction and reality. The less easy it is to ascribe that distinction to “the material at hand”, the more influence will belong to experiences with fictions (from literature or the movies) and to emotional, social and most of all aesthetic processes, given that that basically flexible distinction of reality and fiction is decided for each individual case. Beyond daily routine, it is constantly unclear where the exact boundary between fiction and reality is to be found. The most resistant and the worst fiction of all is the assumption of one objective reality’s potential to determine “adequate” or “just” actions. At the risk of overstating my case: Violent perpetrators don’t only suffer from the habit of realizing fictions in reality, but most of all, they are burdened with a problematic inability to fictionalize their own reality. They reify an alleged reality in a fundamentalist avoidance of flexibility. In an allusion to colloquial and originally to McLuhan’s terms, such a relation to reality is ‘un-cool’ in the extreme.

Interpretation-less Signs

Catastrophic signs are, like all signs, without interpretation in a certain respect. It is impossible not to react to them; so one must react, but no single reaction promises actual adequacy, much less “infinite justice”. The greater the dimensions of an attack, the less clear the dimensions of a middle and long term reaction. Catastrophes are catastrophic not least in the dramatic increase they engender in our desire to find an answer and to make sense of the whole thing. But that desire remains hopeless (We all keep asking: “Why, but why could that happen?”).

Because signs do not imply an adequate reaction themselves, any interpretations always operate within a large area of tolerance. Unfortunately there exists no circumstance that could really enforce the general realization of that tolerance. No catastrophe, no collapse will force humans to think or act differently. The only provably “wrong” action is one that leads directly to death; but in that case, all insight arrives too late anyway. Not even dying, but only perfected death is the one situation in which all fictional aspects of reality have disappeared without a trace. Suicidal assassins are unconquerable for that very reason. They are completely immune, because they have already closed themselves to the contexts of such first or final inescapably lethal insights.

It can be shown that Hollywood and the USA engage in a – we might well say: maladroit – interplay because they follow a practice of high semiotic negligence: Hardly a modern theory of signs will seriously claim that signs (as “evidently” factual as they may be) are connected to another “real world” or that they carry parts of that real world within themselves. The whole practice concerning signs in Hollywood and in the USA is thus fundamentally misrepresented. The interpretative claim is never relativized, the claim for global power never qualified in the necessary manner. It is only by assuming some basic mistakes of interpretation that one could explain an attempt on the US’ side to counter the interpretatory fundamentalism of the “Holy War” by duplicating it in the form of an “Operation Infinite Justice”.

The advantages of appropriate semiotic criticism include the chance to refrain from speaking as the voice of an inevitably questionable ethic or moral code and to anchor interpretation in a fundamentally tolerant outset. So this criticism would not criticize Hollywood and the USA for their interplay of reality and fiction (because such interplay is likewise inevitable), but go after a false theory and its consequentially false interpretatory practice.


Models involving allegedly clear challenges and adequate answers are not without alternative. Many younger people share a “coolness” engendered by modern media that offers some advantages for global politics in spite of its many simultaneous disadvantages. That coolness, that specific anti-fundamentalism, that basic flexibilization of reality, that ironic relation to realities, is a result of the media and can be observed in avid watchers, at least in rich countries. Avid watchers acquire the competence that comes from having watched this one thing, but always also that other thing which contradicts the first thing and renders it relative. “Coolness” proves to be the more intelligent and more humane practice of signs, at least from a theoretic perspective. It is set apart from an ever faithful retelling of holy fictions that are treated as if they were more real than reality. This outlook is regrettably “cool”, and yet gracefully neither fundamentally militant nor fundamentally militarist. The cool crowd have something going for them (apart from constant fun and the money to pay for it), for which it is worth living, but we should be grateful that they have nothing for which they are easily persuaded to die. In a way, they are the very opposite of suicide bombers and possibly not our worst answer to their lethal reality.
The much-maligned interplay of fictions and alleged realities proves to have not only disadvantages. On the contrary: It is only the principal, often productive confusability of each reality and each fiction that provides decisive impulses for cultural and societal change – independently, at first, from our decision to view that change as a change for the “better” or the “worse”.

No human can stand the “here and now” without interruptions. Such a case was never documented: that any man endured the “here and now” exclusively. That is why fictionalizations are always desired and their escalation is desired too. Perhaps this will enable us to explain, and better than we could before, why humans are out for media all the time (from technical media up to and including religious media and even those active in séances): media offer escalative fantasies, fantasies humans cannot apparently do without. Media offer escalation on all levels, and sadly it seems that nothing is more easily and effectively escalated than violence. And in that respect, there is little hope. But there is a lack of sense about any attempt to oppose fictionalizations and their escalations in general. Such an attempt would amount to a ban on thought, a terrorism of emotion and cognition, because any deliberation, any plan or experiment, and, most of all, any desire, day dream or real dream employs fictionalization.

This, then, seems to be our only chance: To constantly improve the understanding of the rules by which everyone plays. And if everybody is playing the game of simulation, fictionalization and virtualization, and if everybody knows that everybody is doing that, then a universally adopted game would adopt a new, albeit as of yet not universally known basic rule: It is then unnecessary to deal in lethal seriousness; reality in inevitable interplay with fiction does not demand such seriousness. Nor is it necessary to undertake enormous political and juristic efforts, all of which have proven somewhat useless in any case – one lesson a week in media studies would do just as well.

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