Pop Culture and Terrorism in America : An Application of Social Control Theory in post-9/11 America
*This is a college paper I wrote from 2003, when I was still a bit of a liberal twit*
In the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, America was attempting to return to a sense of normalcy. Confused, bewildered, and grieved, America had a difficult time trying to find something to distract themselves from the terrible tragedies which had occurred in New York City and Washington D.C.. An answer was given to those seeking comfort however. Return to the things you loved before the attacks. Watch your professional sports, listen to your pop music, go out to your local movie theater. Forget the troubles that have just happened and continue your life in a normal way. This piece will attempt to examine different aspects of America’s pop culture and how the various channels of pop culture were used as social control tools on a country that was on the brink of all-out panic and disaster.
In any time of crisis, music does seem to be an incredibly powerful healing and coping tool. Because of it’s inherently emotional nature, music is an appropriate outlet for feelings of grief and anxiety. In the weeks following 9/11, music was used to comfort and console a stricken nation. While performing this function, music was also used to rally the American people for the oncoming military conflict that would be occurring in Afghanistan. Two of the most illustrative examples come from country music. The first, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning), by Alan Jackson, was a direct response to the 9/11 attacks. The second song, “God Bless the U.S.A.”, by Lee Greenwood, has become a staple for rallying the American people during times of trouble.
Jackson’s song was a powerful and emotional response to the attacks on America. With lyrics like “Did you burst out in pride for the Red, White and Blue/The heroes who died, just doing what they do”, this song had a powerful effect on the people of America and their mentality and thoughts towards armed conflict. In his book, “Communication and Terrorism”, Bradley S. Greenberg discusses the functions of media in times of crisis. Most notably, he brings to light the idea that mass media is a”tension reduction” and “comfort” tool for society during times of crisis. Applying the ideas of tension reduction and comfort to Jackson’s song, one can definitely say it served in both capacities. Also, Greenberg discusses the idea of solidarity function of mass media, and Jackson’s song also fits nicely into that category.
Since Jackson’s song does seem to serve the three media functions in society, it can be easily reasoned out that this song was a powerful form of social control in the aftermath of 9/11. This song helped Americans deal with their grief, their anger and their anxiety. It also helped the country rally around the idea of patriotism, an occurrence any government during a time of crisis would gladly have happen. In a subtle way, one could make the argument that this song definitely framed America’s thinking to readily accept armed conflict. By the massive airplay and popularity this song gathered, America was constantly reminded of a terrible day and those people who made that day so terrible. In effect, this song somewhat ensured that America wouldn’t forget or forgive for the attacks of 9/11. It effectively controlled a society that had been disrupted for the first time in decades.
Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the U.S.A.”, first became popular during the Gulf War in 1991. An all out tribute to America and patriotism, Greenwood’s song has an almost narcotic effect on the American people during times of war and crisis. The chorus of this song is indelibly imprinted on the memories of anyone who lived during the Gulf War or 9/11. The chorus is as follows:
And I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free
I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me
And I’ll gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today
‘Cause their ain’t no doubt I love this land, God bless the U.S.A.
This song stirs powerful emotions in the American psyche. It brings to mind the high-minded ideals this country was founded on. Freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Couching these ideals in images of conflict and war, this song persuades and directs Americans. Who are these foreigners to say our way of life is evil and corrupt? Who are these people to attack us in such a terrible and cowardly way? Our country is founded on the ideals of liberty and freedom, and we will not be defeated! Since you attacked us, you will have to pay the price for the defense of our freedom!
Once again, Greenberg’s book comes to mind. This song fits the media function of building solidarity very well. Rallying the American people around the flag and the idea of patriotism, social control is achieved. This song directs Americans to be proud, be strong, be resilient. It bolsters the majority and marginalizes the minority. During the months after 9/11, the agenda was an armed conflict response. Using the media and songs like Jackson’s and Greenwoods, the government maintained and controlled the status quo of armed response.
As already discussed, music is a powerful vehicle during times of crisis. One, it helps people cope with grief, sadness, anger, anxiety. Two, it reinforces dominant social values and ideals. Three, it is an incredibly persuasive medium that reaches an extremely large audience. Take those three ideas into consideration, and one can see how music is a powerful tool for social control .
Television could possibly contend for the most powerful form of social control ever created. With the combination of moving pictures and sound, there have been few creations, ever, that have had such a powerful effect on society. In post-9/11 America, television became an even more powerful tool for social control. Never before had there been such an expansive medium during a crisis like the one experienced that September day. The use of television after 9/11 appears to try and serve two functions. One is to comfort and console, while the other is to remind and direct. Perhaps the line isn’t even that clear, and both functions were served simultaneously with television shows and specials.
The first method of television being used as a method of control can be seen in the Concert for NYC, broadcast October 20, 2001. This show was a four-hour long, commercial free charity event that drew some of the biggest names in music and movies.
The show was full of emotional, bittersweet performances. Songs of sadness, of hope, of love, were all performed in response to, and in tribute of, the victims of 9/11.
Once again, the pop culture aspect of mass media was used as a tool for social control. This concert served the tension reduction, comfort and solidarity building functions of media. This broadcast served as an outlet for pain, served as a way to tie people together, while still directing and controlling with an All-American message.
Also, in a strange way, it gave Americans an almost righteous feeling. Here were some of our best and brightest performers playing for no money at all. An altruistic feeling seeming to be associated with the show, and that in turn united America more than ever. Here we are, celebrating and mourning a terrible loss of life. Here we are, helping the families and loved ones of the victims of 9/11. Here are our celebrities, one of the things these terrorists hate most, contributing their time and energy for no money. Here we are, being Americans. Here we are, we won’t give in.
For a country and a government that had been teetering on the edge for a month and a half, this concert was a great method to unite and control the American people.
Another example of a television special being used to control a society can be seen on CBS’ “9/11″. This was the documentary of the film that the two French filmmakers had recorded during the initial hours of that day. In fact, the brothers were with the fire station that responded first to the attacks.
This documentary showed the first plane crashing into the Towers. It also had footage inside the Towers as they were burning and collapsing. The sound of people jumping to their deaths was caught on tape. All in all, it showed what the situation had truly been like during the first frantic hours of the attacks.
Applied to the functions of the media, this documentary probably falls in to the building solidarity function. Having a major news network re-air footage of the attacks reminded Americans of the terrible crime that had been committed. By the time this documentary aired in March, it had been six months since the attacks. In conjunction with that, America had already had a successful campaign of deposing the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the first whispers of deposing Saddam in Iraq were being heard.
But, by this time as well, there seemed to be growing discontent with Bush and his administration. Many Americans probably felt the ousting of the Taliban was sufficient for our purpose and that we would stand down somewhat. But, with Bush and the War on Terrorism being the dominant political agenda, the country needed to be reminded why we will have to keep fighting this fight. By revisiting our grief and pain, it could be argued that the intent of the documentary was to strengthen our resolve and maintain the agenda of armed conflict with any nation we deemed necessary.The media was used as a tool of social control, and it seemed to have worked.
Fortunately, other examples of pop culture in response to 9/11 weren’t so painful and emotional. But, because it wasn’t painful and emotional, didn’t mean that it still didn’t act as a form of social control. One of the most interesting avenues of control was comedy, namely the cable channel Comedy Central.
With it’s position as a cable channel, Comedy Central has an unusual freedom that most other networks don’t share. With programs like The Daily Show, South Park, and Comedy Central Presents, the cable channel allowed for different ideas and takes on 9/11 to be expressed. However, even though the ideas and views on Comedy Central could be considered a little (or a lot) left of center, the channel still successfully promotes dominant social ideals and values.
The show South Park dedicated an entire episode to Osama bin Laden and the search for him in the mountains of Afghanistan. Titled “Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants”, the episode treated the issue of bin Laden in a vintage way. This particular episode was very much in the vein of old Looney Toons cartoons. The character of Cartman during the episode is very much like Bugs Bunny from the Warner Brothers cartoons of years past. At one point in the episode, Cartman dresses in robe and veil and seduces Osama (only to inflict bodily harm on Osama in the end), much as Bugs Bunny would do to Elmer Fudd in those cartoons of yesteryear.
This episode works on a number of levels for social control. One, it comforts because it’s humorous. Humor is one of the hallmarks of the American psyche, and it’s reflected very deeply in our pop culture. Another, more subtle way this episode gives comfort is through the use of the Looney Toons theme. By hearkening back to an era where the world seemed to make sense and good would overcome all evil, this episode gives a sense of hope and belief that America can prevail in the face of a nameless, shadowy enemy.
This episode also works to build solidarity. By focusing on bin Laden, it reinforces the idea that he is the enemy America seeks. By watching him be foiled in a cartoon, it strengthens the belief that America can win this war. It brings America together by giving them a common enemy, and showing that the enemy can be defeated.
Once again, this is an excellent example of mass media outlets being used for social control. By making America laugh, it comforts; by parodying the enemy, it strengthens belief. With reassurances like those, it insures that most Americans won’t question the government, won’t question the political agenda. As long as the enemy is out there and America can beat them, the American people are behind their government all the way.
Another example from Comedy Central comes from their series, Comedy Central Presents: . This is a half-hour long special that is devoted to one comic. One of the best comics that has ever been on the show is Lewis Black. Known best for his grumpy, almost maniacal, ranting style, Black was a good outlet for expressing thoughts and feelings about post-9/11 America.
Black’s performance on Comedy Central Presents was something of a dichotomy. The first half of his act, he focused on the overwhelming expression of patriotism that was seen at the 2002 Super Bowl. In short, he was very critical of the overt manner in which the networks operated to express patriotism during that Super Bowl broadcast.
But, in contrast, he closes on a quiet, reaffirming note about America. Black discusses how the terrorists have lost their since of humor and or irony. Black believes that when a people lose that part of themselves, then things like 9/11 will happen. He then goes on to remind the audience to never lose that sense of humor, because that is what makes us a great people and nation.
Black’s performance works on two levels within the functions of media. Once again, the comforting function is served. His goal is to make people laugh and feel good, and he does that. Social control-wise, when a people still have the ability to laugh and have a good time, then they are sufficiently happy and under control. The medium of television ensures that Black’s message and reaffirmation of America reaches a large audience, thus effectively acting on a large segment of the population.
Black also builds solidarity with his closing bit. By telling the audience that they are better off because they can still maintain their sense of humor, he brings them together. Black reinforces the dominant social norm of American superiority, albeit in a subtle fashion.
As already stated, television is perhaps the most powerful media tool for social control. With the immensity of the audience it reaches, television can perform social control functions through comforting, uniting and directing an entire society. In the aftermath of 9/11, it could be argued television was used to keep the fire burning in the American heart to fight a war that has no defined strategy and no defined end. With the aforementioned examples, it seems fairly easy to believe that statement.
Film, since it’s inception, has been a tool of social control in America. From WWII, with the overabundance of war films, to the present, with another overabundance of war movies,film has been used to direct and control the American people. The movie that will now be discussed is “Black Hawk Down”.
Black Hawk Down, released in 2001, tells the story of 123 Special Forces soldiers who were sent to Somalia to remove two two lieutenants of a warlord’s regime there. The mission quickly goes SNAFU when the unit loses two Blackhawk helicopters and their crews to the Somalis, and these 123 soldiers are then faced with fighting thousands of Somalis in one of the worst combat scenarios known, urban warfare.
In the end, the soldiers are rescued by other American forces in the area. But, the unit loses a number of soldiers, and special attention is given to two snipers who died. The duo were the first soldiers to have the Medal of Honor awarded posthumously, a fact the film focuses on in it’s closing sequence.
How does this movie work as a form of social control in the wake of 9/11? One of the first things it does is build solidarity. Showing images of soldiers fighting for their lives, it attaches a sense of nobility to American soldiers. Here are the men and women who have given their lives over to the protection of our freedom and liberty. In post-9/11 America, that is an incredibly powerful feeling. It unites America behind the military and gives justification for military action throughout the world. Why would anyone criticize the military and it’s leaders when they have the most important job in the world? This film definitely controls the American people by extolling the virtues and honor of the American military.
Not only does it deify the military, the film shows Americans in a desperate situation defeating overwhelming odds. Parallels can be drawn between the international situation of post-9/11 America and the film. In this time and place, America faces an enemy that can’t be seen, but has numbers beyond measure, and is also willing to do anything to defeat America. In the film, the soldiers are trapped in one block of the city, with the rest of the city being held by hostile forces whose only goal is to destroy the Americans in Mogadishu.
But, in the film, the Americans do prevail, even though they lose lives. A parallel that many would hope for in the real world. America is faced by a daunting task, but America will succeed.
Applying social control and media functions to this film, one can see that the film succeeds admirably. It creates a sense of solidarity. As long as America supports it’s troops, they will be successful. If the American people are united and have strength and resolve, just like the soldiers in the movie, then American ideals and values will always prevail.
Film is powerful, there is no questioning that. Black Hawk Down, with its messages of sacrifice, nobility and honor, and it’s subsequent financial success, show that movies are a powerful vehicle for social control, especially in the context of an attack like 9/11.
There is no doubt that pop culture has been used for social control in the time since September 11, 2001. Throughout all its different manifestations, pop culture promotes and supports the dominant ideals of America in a time where those ideals and values are being attacked with vigor by outside sources. With its reinforcement of those ideals, pop culture gives America a sense of security at a time when nothing no longer seems to be secure.
Unfortunately, pop culture being used as a social control tool may blind the American people to some things. With so many songs, shows, and movies reinforcing the rightness of the American government and military, it’s difficult for many Americans to even think of questioning the methods or reasoning behind our government and its military action.
But, in the general context of social control theory, that is exactly what pop culture is supposed to be doing. As said already, pop culture bolsters the majority and marginalizes the minority, and in so doing, ensures the continuance of the War on Terror and public support of that war. Is this a good or bad thing? No one knows, but as long as pop culture is used as a tool for social control, more people than not will believe it to be a good thing. That, in a strange way, is a frightening thought.