Historians, poets and playwrights, pop culture creators all, are looking for the precise analogy, illuminating metaphor and dramatic scenario to provide insight for living in a world animated by Sept. 11. We look through a glass darkly, and nearly every perception is tinted by terror.
Historians, for example, seek lessons. Paul Johnson, the recondite English historian, argues that the current war against terrorism draws parallels with the wars against piracy of the 19th century.
A young United States initiated its first campaign against international outlaws, considered "enemies of the human race," by fighting the pirates directly and sending troops against those states that harbored them, such as Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.
"Pirates were the main reason Congress established a navy in 1794," writes Mr. Johnson in the Wall Street Journal. "In 1805, the American Marines marched across the desert from Egypt, forcing the pasha of Tripoli to sue for peace and surrender all American captives."
Most of us have forgotten the origin of the lyrics of the U.S. Marine Anthem: "From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." The more civilized local rulers of the 19th century who suffered from piracy eventually joined political coalitions (just like today) in attempting to destroy their enemy. European nations inevitably colonized some of the nations they defeated. Those who fought the pirates, writes Paul Johnson, learned that "suppression of well-organized criminal communities, networks and states was impossible without political control."
We can argue whether such analogies work, but at least they remind that terrorism is not unique in the modern world. On Halloween, little boys once dressed up like pirates with a black patch over one eye. This year the best-selling Halloween mask is expected to be one of Osama bin Laden.
If historians look for lessons in the way history repeats itself, men and women engaged in the arts are seeking universal meanings imbedded in classical mythology. Ancient poetry offers emotional equivalents for expressing timeless concerns for death and destruction. The Latin poet Ovid lived over 2,000 years ago, but his "Metamorphoses" (the stories schoolchildren of another time perused for sexual allusions) has been revived in a theater in New York with a thoroughly modern sensibility, drawing as it does on the eternal themes of suffering and loss. Instead of high-tech videos, it repeats images of emotional devastation in painful pantomime.
In an instant, Orpheus looks back and watches his wife slip from his sight, receding into the underworld. The actors play and replay the scene as the audience passively sits by, powerless to save her. A husband and wife live with a humdrum happiness until he leaves her to go off to sea. As he sails away, she is filled with foreboding, forever scanning the sea, knowing that dread will turn into despair and he will never return.
Perhaps the hardest job at the moment is the one confronted by comics who want to give some relief to the burden of grief, but who worry about hitting raw nerves. No comedy could have seemed as irrelevant as that of Jerry Seinfeld, whose television show epitomized the nonsensical nothingness of navel-gazing singles in the '90s. And yet, in an event Seinfeld organized to raise money for victims of terrorism, he delivered laughs to an audience hungry for the corny normality of his neuroticism.
Directors and producers are confused about what kind of movies and television shows will entertain while not offending. It's a particularly difficult problem for Hollywood, which is used to pandering to the most vulgar tastes in sex and violence. But sometimes prescience emerges in spite of itself.
Since the 1960s, it's been trendy for the movies to make the U.S. government the heavy. Patriotism, with a few notable exceptions, was an emotion for straights and squares, not to be indulged by creators of popular culture. But now that we've gone to war against terrorism, good feelings about our government have begun to resurface. A new CBS series called "The Agency," to debut soon, actually casts the CIA in a positive light.
The first episode (which I haven't seen) has been delayed because of the terrorism and portrays both the CIA and the MI-6, its British counterpart, attempting to break up a bomb plot in London by terrorists linked to Osama bin Laden. When Michael Frost Beckner, its originator, introduced his pilot to the press, he was greeted with skepticism that showed a lack of interest in the
subject. He no longer expects that kind of reaction.
If the popular culture doesn't lead public sensibilities, it sometimes catches up with it.