Column: Terrorism is a two-way street

Column: Terrorism is a two-way street

According to the CIA’s Web site, terrorism is defined as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the word has permeated the American lexicon to such an extent that the meaning has grown to encompass so much more.

To Americans, “terrorists” are the bad guys, the villains, the universal Lex Luthers to our democratic Superman. They’re the “them” to our “us.”

Now, however, as we are deluged with instance after instance of “terrorist” activities, it’s getting harder to understand what separates “terrorists” from anyone else. It’s become a Salem Witch Trial, hurling accusations at every Goody this side of Sudan.

But there is another power intending to “influence an audience” lurking in today’s entertainment.

“V For Vendetta,” the sci-fi flick starring a freshly-sheared Natalie Portman, grossed $26.1 million its opening weekend, garnering its spot atop the box office sales. The film, portraying a masked man determined to overthrow a totalitarian government, is full of “radical” ideas of freedom and the lengths people will go to get it.

Along the way, central figure “V,” only seen in a mask resembling Guy Fawkes (you may remember him from elementary school history – he tried to blow up Parliament – and now his capture is celebrated as a holiday), plots to finish what Fawkes couldn’t. Unlike his historical muse, V doesn’t intend to murder the king, but wants to destroy Parliament to give the power back to the people.

The guys in charge of this futuristic world are none too happy with V’s activities and convince the country of his potential for danger. He’s a threat, he’s unpatriotic – he’s a terrorist.

And yet, in this film, V is the hero. As he espoused (quite eloquently) his violent conspiracy, not once was I afraid. Not once did I question his motives. And by the end, I was rooting for V and his cohort, Evey (Portman).

It all seems so counter-intuitive. We’re supposed to be afraid of the crazies with bombs; we’re not supposed to cheer them on. And yet, here I was, sitting in a dark theater, hoping V’s bombastic plot would be successful.

It’s not just in film that these themes are appearing; “terrorist” music is popping up as well.

Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. made major waves last year with her debut album Arular. It topped critics’ picks for best of the year and even appeared on an episode of “The O.C.” But with lyrics like “it’s a bomb, yo/so run, yo/put away your stupid gun, yo,” “that’s why we blow it up ‘fore we go” and “worry not, worry not/guerilla get trained now/look out, look out/from over the rooftops,” M.I.A.’s tunes are riddled with images of guns, bombs and war.

Her history plays a major part. Her father is a major figure in the Tamil Tigers – a militia formed from the minority Tamils in Sri Lanka and considered a “terrorist” group by the U.S. government. She left Sri Lanka because of the violence between the Tamils and the Sinhalese majority, but not before losing many of her friends and family in bombings and witnessing many acts of violence.

But to M.I.A., birthname Maya Arulpragasam, she’s not singing about terrorism, she’s singing about freedom. You hear the anger, you hear the repression and you hear the lengths people are willing to go to secure what they think is rightfully theirs.

So what exactly separates “terrorist” activity, our culture’s signature obsessions, from, say, the American Revolution, which is glorified in our history books?

The answer lies in perspective. It’s not a black and white issue, as it’s become today. Each instance is steeped in its own history, motives and means. These artists are portraying a side of the story we’re not getting. They’re showing us that maybe we’re not so far removed from these “terrorists” – maybe they’re more like us than we’d like to admit.

It’s not easy to reconcile the reasoning behind a seemingly senseless act of violence. It’s easier to slap on the bad-guy label and keep things simple.

Don’t be mistaken, I’m not saying “terrorism” is justified – I’m not in a position to make that call – but it’s interesting to consider: who is?

– Bobby Hankinson can be reached at [email protected]

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