As the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 passes, we can begin to assess how the long war on terror affected the West’s cultural self-understanding. In strategic terms the long wars launched after 9/11 failed to achieve an outcome better than the status quo ante. Little attention, however, has been given to what two decades of media representation of jihadism, asymmetric violence and military intervention have had upon Western popular culture. The genres of film, the novel, art and popular music all addressed the long war on terror from a variety of perspectives, but the prevailing tone might be summarised as at best agnostic, at worst masochistic and self-loathing.
In the evolving cultural response to the war, few movies or novels took a positive view of the US government and its coalition partners’ decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) are perhaps the exceptions. They offer the most conventionally supportive treatment of the US military and intelligence agencies fighting the good fight overseas. So, too, did a number of country-and-western singers whose songs might, and occasionally did, serve as musical accompaniment to the fight “over there”.
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By contrast, the majority of US and European film-makers adopted a morally ambivalent and increasingly critical posture to the war and the Western democracies’ political response to terrorism after 9/11. On the domestic front, films and television series dealt tangentially with the home-grown jihadist phenomenon, focusing on the evolving surveillance state that manipulated “the politics of fear” to impose and extend already authoritarian state controls. The British film V for Vendetta (2005) set the tone. Located in an alternative future, the masked anarchist V subjects a paranoid and racist government in the UK to asymmetric attacks. Subsequently, drama series like Bodyguard (2018) and The Informer (2018) present the UK government and the shadowy apparatus of the security state manipulating putative Islamist terrorists to promote a fascist political agenda.
The writers of these dramas nonetheless struggled to differentiate their approach to the surveillance state from series like Homeland or The Bureau which experienced less difficulty in representing Islamically motivated terrorism. The progressive mainstream press, somewhat predictably, criticised all these series, irrespective of nuance, for “their cliched description of modern Islamic terrorism”. Depicting Islamists from Asian backgrounds as terrorists committed the original critical sin, namely the hate crime of “Islamophobia”.
Progressive condemnation notwithstanding, the Western genre of film and television occasionally offered an intelligent dramatic response to the moral and political dilemmas raised by the long war on terror. From United 93 (2006) to Homeland (2011–20), The Bureau (2015–20) and Eye in the Sky (2015) some films and series thoughtfully explored the difficult moral terrain that the long war imposed upon the liberal conscience.
The novel, by contrast, offered only a relativist uncertainty about 9/11 and its aftermath, evident in Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) or Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2005). Meanwhile those novelists who engaged directly with the jihadi character offered merely crude stereotypes like Bassam al Jizani, longing for Shaheed, in Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days (2008). Meanwhile, novelists who found the war on terror a government-engineered conspiracy to spread domestic fear, like Richard Flanagan in The Unknown Terrorist (2006), Mohsin Hamid in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and John le Carré in A Most Wanted Man (2008), either considered the jihadist character an invention of the security state or a somewhat complex but sympathetic character, like le Carré’s Dr Abdullah and Hamid’s Changez.
If the literary response was equivocal, the popular music response was ephemeral. Patriotic country-and-western singers supported the war until it seemed pointless, whilst protest music after 9/11 adopted a radically pacifist posture. Whilst C&W artist Toby Keith sang: “You’ll be sorry you messed with the U.S. of A. / ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way,” the Left Coast band Green Day condemned the war in Iraq: “I don’t want to be an American idiot / Don’t want a nation under the new media / And can you hear the sound of hysteria?”
The visual arts, together with academia and the mainstream media, offered even less insight into jihadist motivation. The liberal arts establishment affected a “balanced” approach to home-grown terror. The fact that video artists like Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali or the Jyllands Posten and Charlie Hebdo cartoonists might suffer assassination or death threats for satirising Islamist fanaticism failed to trouble this Olympian pursuit of neutrality.
What, however, became evident in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings in 2015 was that the official, progressive post-9/11 mindset had difficulty in portraying Islam as anything other than a peaceful religion. This unwillingness to question, interrogate or criticise reinforced an evolving media, academic and artistic climate of self-censorship.
Empathy, Islamophobia and the prehistory of hate speech.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo affair, therefore, the mainstream media along with European and US political elites endorsed, in the name of a fashionable commitment to diversity, a minority practice of religious intolerance. Tolerating intolerance as a response to blasphemy legitimated a growing and widespread condemnation of statements or artistic representations that might cause offence on British, European and North American campuses. Hate speech, trigger warnings and no-platforming campaigns were the inevitable consequence.
Curating the Imperial War Museum’s 2018 exhibition Art in the Age of Terror, Sanna Moore told the New York Times that the show reflected how the West has changed, and not for the better, through “mass surveillance … and detentions without trial”. The “age defining” artwork on display explored not only personal reactions to 9/11, but also the manner in which Western civil liberties had been “compromised and security and surveillance amplified”.
A visitor to the exhibition would have quickly discerned that the civil liberties at stake were those of Muslim minorities after 9/11, not those of cartoonists or film-makers assassinated for having an “Islamophobic” reaction that deviated from the prevailing progressive norm. Wandering through the rooms devoted to “Art Since 9/11”, the spectator would struggle to find any reference to Theo van Gogh, Jyllands Posten or Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons or “the complex issues” they might have raised. Instead, the show addressed four themes: the artists’ critical responses to 9/11; the intensified levels of state control after 2001; advancements in weaponry, particularly drone warfare; and the destruction caused by conflict that has “turned homelands into wastelands”.
Nowhere, however, were the actions or the images of those who perpetrated either the 9/11 or London 7/7 attacks represented. The artwork curated by the Imperial War Museum instead gave visual endorsement to a radical, but critical, terror theory. This fashionable perspective, which found traction on university campuses after 2005, held that Western interventions created instability abroad, and jihadism and a surveillance state at home. Its critical tolerance of Islamist intolerance silenced the secular right to blasphemy and cancelled viewpoints on campus or in exhibitions deemed Islamophobic, or, as this woke argot extended its remit after 2016, racist and colonialist.
The visual arts, museum collections and exhibitions, like the university departments of the arts, humanities and social sciences that promoted this attack on the Western practice of national security, are the most heavily state-subsidised institutions of Western cultural life. However, they somewhat hypocritically embraced a “reflexive” empathy with the non-Western other, in the shape of the jihadist, that informed, in time, a self-lacerating assault on the history and institutional legacy of Western democracy.
Critical theory and its impact on Western self-understanding, after 2001, thus offers an important insight into the queasy agnosticism that recurs throughout the novels, music, film, visual arts and academic responses to the war on terror. The deconstructive political agenda that informed French postmodernism and the neo-Marxist Frankfurt school at the end of the Cold War, that formed the key elements of critical theory, deconstructed not only language but also social action. This mixture of a nihilist assault on liberal democracy combined with an “ethics of responsibility to the terrorist other” corroded the Western cultural response to terror.
As the political philosopher Leo Strauss inquired of the evolving relativist tendency he first observed in the Cold War practice of American political and social science, “Is such an understanding dependent upon our own commitment or independent of it?” If it is independent, Strauss observed, I am committed as an actor and I am uncommitted in another compartment of myself in my capacity as a social scientist. “In that latter capacity I am completely empty and therefore completely open to the perception and appreciation of all commitments or value systems.” As a relativist, I go through the process of understanding in order to reach clarity about my commitment, because only a part of me is engaged in such empathic understanding. This means, however, that such understanding is neither serious nor genuine, but histrionic. It is also profoundly dependent on liberal tolerance. Ironically, it is only in an open society that questions the values it promotes that the possibility of empathetic identification with another culture could arise.
Wokeness, terror and the rise of the revisionist powers
Home-grown Islamists cleverly exploited the liberal empathy paradox that Strauss identified. Jihadism used the sanctimonious liberal pursuit of social justice and condemnation of Islamophobia for its own illiberal politically religious ends. Meanwhile the progressive media embraced the empathy paradox, exploring it in all its woke equivocation in the aftermath of increasingly violent attacks on Western cities between 2011 and 2018. By the second decade of the long war on terror, revisionist regimes of an illiberal or totalitarian hue, observing the confusion that the Western cultural and political response to the war evinced, also sought to exploit it for their own geopolitical ends.
During the Trump administration and after Brexit, the long wars and terrorism fell into desuetude, but their legacy lingered, mutating into a virulent, critical academic and mainstream media campaign on the West’s darkly imperial and colonial past and institutionally racist present.
The constituting incoherence that now beset the progressive mind dramatically manifested itself in the first direct encounter between the Biden administration’s foreign policy team and China’s top diplomats in March 2021. The Chinese delegation dismissed American attempts to question its human rights record. Its senior diplomat Yang Jiechi observed: “I don’t think the overwhelming majority of countries in the world would recognise that the universal values advocated by the United States or that the opinion of the United States any longer represents international public opinion.”
From Beijing’s perspective, the US no longer exerts either soft power or global influence. Instead it seems a pit of condescending hypocrisy. Citing the Black Lives Matter movement, Yang noted, patronisingly, that the “challenges facing the United States in human rights are deep-seated”. “It’s important,” he stated, “that we manage our respective affairs well instead of deflecting the blame on somebody else in this world.” A new Democrat administration promoting democracy, a liberal international order and human rights abroad whilst selectively denouncing its own racism and social injustice at home does indeed appear hypocritical. Why, in the course of the war on terror, did America and, by extension the West’s global influence, become so tarnished. What went wrong?
In the postscript to his 2010 autobiography, Tony Blair, the key architect of a progressive, Western-led, “third way” of government, and enthusiastic advocate of the Iraq war, wrote, “For almost twenty years after 1989 the West set the agenda to which others reacted … the destination to which history appeared to march seemed chosen by us.” “We thought,” he reflected, “the ultimate triumph of our way of life was inevitable. Now it is in shadow.”
Obviously, the mixed legacy of globalisation and the financial crisis it unleashed after 2008 undermined the economic foundations of the progressive project. However, it was the moral and political shortcomings of the long war on terror that played a seminal role in the widespread loss of faith in a universal liberal institutional order as the culminating moment of world history. In particular, the war on terror and the ambiguous political response both at home and abroad gave force to an otherwise academically obscure critical theory that from the outset viewed the West and its open societies and civil liberties, and not the jihadist, as the problem for world emancipation.
This critical view that deconstructed the West’s commitment to liberalism and democracy was influential on its cultural response to the war on terror, particularly after the Iraq invasion. The dark enlightenment of the European and North American Left after 2003 fed popular cultural tropes. Islamophobia had long preoccupied critical theory. It subsequently came to inform the plots of films like Syriana (2005), Redacted (2007) and Green Zone (2010) as well as novels like The Reluctant Fundamentalist and The Unknown Terrorist.
The incoherent Western response to international terrorism, where governments prosecuted a war against Islamism abroad but tolerated its advocates at home, facilitated this morally ambiguous cultural response. In film, crime drama, novels and the visual arts the misunderstood or naively misled terrorist contrasted with the cynical government agents, serving selfish capitalist interests and covert agendas that dominated the Western response. This political and moral ambivalence informs intelligence-led dramas and novels about the war from Homeland and A Most Wanted Man to The Bureau and The Mauritanian (2021) as well as the art works on display at the Imperial War Museum.
In the visual arts the age of terror demanded self-censorship, no-platforming and the repression of imagery deemed sacrilegious or satirical. The response to the Charlie Hebdo assassinations and the subsequent silencing of any attempt to display satirical images of Muhammad and his message demonstrated how the West now complied with the intolerant strictures of Islamist ideology. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, some version of relativism became the default Western cultural position on terrorism. Even the more intelligent attempts to grapple with problems of asymmetric conflict, in films like Eye in the Sky or Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission (2015), accept or explore the limitations and failings of Western liberalism.
The popular cultural response to the war on terror peaked midway through the second decade of the twenty-first century. Thereafter terror and its threat functioned as a cultural marker intimating official stereotyping, and a plot line exposing the mistreated non-Western other. The West’s institutions, its police, militaries, judiciary, business interests and political parties are either corrupt, insensitive, morally compromised or institutionally and individually racist.
Continental philosophers from Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault to Adorno and Habermas had from the 1970s exposed the “false consciousness” that distorted the West’s capitalist self-understanding. The British and American epigone that packaged these writers’ reckless ideas for consumption across the Anglosphere came in the course of the long war on terror to influence popular and mainstream media as well as dominate the university humanity departments where this ideology flourished and displaced conventional scholarship.
Significantly, the Western media, which according to Herbert Marcuse, the godfather of critical theory, are the vehicle of a totalising one-dimensional modernity, translated this histrionic cultural relativism and deconstruction of secular liberal values into an accessible cultural commodity for popular consumption. By 2020, the prevailing popular media depiction of the West with its inherent propensity to violence and overt and covert racism placed it on a lower ethical plane than the terrorist whose resistance on behalf of the victimised deserved critical recognition. The two-decade encounter with critical theory and the long war undermined cultural self-confidence, making it impossible for the West to defend its values, let alone promote them, as Yang Jiechi recognised. What does this deracinated cultural response tell us about the overall state of the Western mind?
Apart from anything else, it shows the bankruptcy of progressive thought at the end of history. The dark enlightenment of the Left after 2003, like the liberal globalisers of the 1990s they succeeded, assumed world history moving towards a socially just, diverse but inclusive world utopia. Whereas the “third way” had assumed with Tony Blair that the West set this teleological agenda, the critical-theory-inspired woke Left saw the West as the problem. In its place the alter globalisation movement, consisting of transnational networks of NGOs, critical academics, radical pacifists, indigenous peoples, environmental activists and the odd jihadist, promoted universal liberation in order to overthrow the Western capitalist imperium. Such dogmatism is without foundation. It is the reckless effort of the critical mind and the culture it informs to escape being stifled by solitude or by nihilism. As Camus presciently wrote, “The end of history is not an exemplary or perfectionist value: it is an arbitrary and terroristic principle.”
The West at the end of the Cold War and in the first decade of the long war on terror had seemed certain of its liberal international purpose, a purpose in which all men could be united. The core lesson of the long war was the failure of this purpose to achieve progress towards a society embracing equally all human beings. This has engendered a moral and political crisis. The cultural response to the war on terror, the equivocation, relativism, moral ambivalence and self-censorship, defined this crisis of Western progressive faith. It also intimates, if nothing else, the need to return to a prudence that recognises that a political society remains what it is and always has been, namely a particular society whose most urgent and primary task is its self-preservation and whose highest task is its self- improvement. A distracted and confused democratic West needs, in other words, to reclaim its cultural moorings before it again foists its “universal” values upon the world.
 See https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/oct/16/beyond-bodyguard-can-bbc-informer-finally-subvert-the-muslim-stereotype-problem-on-tv
 Toby Keith Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (2002)
 Green Day American Idiot (2004)
 Leo Strauss, “Social Science and Humanism,” in The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), p.10.
 Tony Blair A Journey (London Hutchinson, 2010) p.664.
 Ibid p.665.
 See particularly H. Marcuse One Dimensional Man 1964