February 11, 2014

TERROR: On the Screen/ On the Ground

Panelists compare terrorism on the screen and on the ground

By Phillomina Wong

Terrorism is a topic that extends beyond federal boundaries and the media. Films and television shows give insight to how terrorists operate and the potential dangers they impose on the public. Yesterday, the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) partnered with the USC School of Cinematic Arts to present how people on the ground and on screen approach terrorism. It was a full house with fans of the show Homeland and 24 and people curious to know more about terrorism.

Randy Parsons, Lawrence Wright, Erroll Southers, Bonnie Reiss, Alex Cary
and Evan Katz

Moderated by Bonnie Reiss, the Global Director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute, the panelists discussed how portrayals of terrorism in movies and films compare to real life.

Executive producer and writer forthe television series Homeland, Alex Cary discussed Nicholas Brody (Damian Lewis), a character on Homeland, as a terrorist, father and person. Brody is a Marine who returns after being held captive for eight years. But, an intelligence officer believes he has turned into a terrorist.

In a clip shown at the panel, Brody experiences a flashback to his time in captivity when he is in his own home. Cary said, more than anything, he was interested in the the psychological and emotional effects the character was experiencing at the time. “This [scene] was the first time Brody is on screen in a domestic, pressurized situation. I wanted to see two sides of his emotions,” Cary said. However, the scene also begged the question: was Brody a terrorist?

Cary said his experience in the military drove him relate to the process. When he was serving in the military, Cary recalled someone telling him to “find a human body” to defeat terrorism and to ultimately stay grounded. 

FBI Counterterrorism, SWAT and USC professor, Dr. Erroll G. Southers, said the objective for other terrorists is to turn someone. But what he found interesting was the process Brody experienced. Southers said he never thought of torture as a method of turning someone and making someone sympathize with fellow captives. He said, “Pain is usually not part of the process.”

Director of Security at the Port of Long Beach and FBI veteran, Randy D. Parsons said it is important for the public to help the FBI notice specific behaviors that may lead to acts of terrorism. Parsons also said that Brody, as a character,is a good way of raising public awareness about real terrorists’ behavior. He said the public must help in identifying problems.  “The FBI can not do this alone,” Parsons said. “We need to keep this kind of thinking in the forefront of our minds.”

When writing stories dealing with terrorism and counterterrorism, playwright and screenwriter Lawrence Wright, always keeps in mind those who are going dealing with terrorism in real life. “We’re very aware and conscious,” said Wright. “You have to be true to the story you’re telling.”

Another topic Reiss brought up in the conversation was the interrogation scene. The panel showed interrogation scenes from Zero Dark Thirty, The Siege and 24 to compare it to real interrogation processes. One of the questions that come up is: is risking one life worth it to save many? 24: Live Another Day executive producer and showrunner, Evan Katz, told the audience most people feel it is fair to inflict the same amount of pain onto others, but it still remains a contentious topic. Katz said at the time of the show, “We didn’t realize we were involved this huge debate.”

A looming fear about terrorists is suicide bombers. Parsons said many of the acts terrorists commit are acts they believe to be altruistic or the only right thing to do. The common misconception about suicide bombers is that the acts are driven solely by religion, when in fact it is a hybridization of ideologies. Nowadays, the types of terrorists that exist are becoming more complex for anyone to pinpoint.

“Hearing from both the on the ground people actually involved in that life and on screen, there was definitely a lot of very interesting insight,” said Zachary Kennedy, a student and fan of law enforcement shows. “The idea of the new type of terrorist--that I think was striking, and that we won’t get a handle on it for many generations to come. It’s terrible, but it’s probably true. It’s going to be awhile before we get a grip on that.”