'24' is feeding off our fears

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Team America: World Police started it. Now the contagion has spread to 24.

Yes, folks, the American entertainment industry has begun to shift into combat mode.

The enemy of our current wartime nightmare is popping up on our pop culture radar.

In last year's marionette political satire Team America, creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker depicted evil in the form of Islamic extremists, puppets offensively rendered as literal "towel heads."

Now, on the Fox network's new season of its beat-the-clock crisis jamboree 24, America's evil du jour appears in the person of the jihadists next door. Inside a swell suburban home in America lurks a Turkish family whose hearts belong to an extreme form of Islamic fundamentalism. They may share your ZIP code, your paperboy, your cable line and your lawn-care specialist. But behind closed doors, they are plotting to bring America to its knees.

"This year we deal with it," the show's co-creator, Joel Surnow, told The New York Times. "This is what we fear -- Islamic terrorism. This is what we are fighting."

What is striking about Sur-now's comment is not so much its relationship to the truth, which cannot be argued, but its combat readiness.

Call it state-of-siege license.

In choosing to capitalize on Americans' fears of Islamic fundamentalists, the 24 creators have accomplished two things: One is to draw a critical outcry from interest groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The other is to lay claim boldly to America's (and the rest of the world's, for that matter) not-so-proud history of demonizing various ethnic groups for the sake of our national amusement.

Although the Turkish family and their partners in crime on 24 are given the dignity of being referred to as individuals with names and not by an ethnic pejorative, their treatment at the hands of America's entertainment industry thus far is not so different from what was accorded this country's enemies of yore.

In service to story lines calling for "bad guys," America's film and television industries have made cardboard savages of bloodthirsty Apaches, devious Mexicans, Japanese bomber pilots, goose-stepping Nazis and wise-guy Italians. Generations of actors have been cast not to play a character but mere emblems.

But that was then, and this is now.

Or is it?

Americans had only barely come to terms with ideas fostered by globalism when terror struck. And what a little fear can do.

As our government initiated a war on terror and created the Department of Homeland Security, screenwriters who struggled through the politically correct years of peacetime and who ritually demonized Nazis, aliens or monolithic corporations to avoid antagonizing specific ethnic groups suddenly have at their disposal a new face of terror. Ethnic typecasting is back in style.

The actors hired to play the villains on this season's 24 have Middle Eastern complexions. They have dark hair. Some speak with pronounced accents. The actors, including Oscar-nominated Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog), were cast as much for their talents as for their racial profiles. But they provide a visual link to the 9 / 11 hijackers, Osama bin Laden, the insurgents in Iraq and our imaginings of terrorist cell members who may be living among us.

In an age of multiculturalism, 24 is taking some heat. Aghdashloo, addressing critics recently in Los Angeles, said things are not always what they appear. There are suggestions that before the 24 season ends, some of the show's bad guys will redeem themselves and, therefore, the Muslims they represent.

But what of the meanwhile?

Each week, Americans are tuning in to see their biggest fears unfold in carefully selected colors. As the spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations worries about a show that is "casting a shadow of suspicion on ordinary American Muslims," Americans of paler complexion don't seem to mind too much. If they do, they are not speaking up very loudly.

The representation of Muslims in our popular culture is an exhibition of American insensitivity and bigotry, false antidotes to the climate of fear and retribution that have sprung up in the aftermath of 9 / 11.

The structure of 24 -- with its ticking clock and frenetic pacing -- is an unlikely format for a nuanced portrait of "the enemy." Even if the result of this 24 season is to balance the representation of Muslim characters, it can be argued that, culturally speaking, we are in retrograde.

What is in danger of being lost is a sense of fairness. In any honest story line, villainy almost always has more than one face, and human evil or error is never confined to one side, one faith or one skin type.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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