“Four Lions” (2010): the First Time as Terror, the Second Time as Comedy? by Mahmut Mutman

 

Can terrorism be depicted or represented in a comic way? Any such attempt would be risky, to say the least. Chris Morris’s Four Lions (2010) takes the risk. And despite the boycotting by the families of the victims of 7 July 2005 London Bombings, it received high praise from the critics: “a cheerful, scornful black caper about extra-stupid suicide bombers” (Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian); “best film about Islamic terrorists … pitch-black satire” (Sophie Gilbert in the Atlantic). On the Internet site Critical Muslim, Claire Chambers gives a fine summary of the plot:

It is the story of the five would-be martyrs, who are soon reduced to four after their bomb-making specialist, Fessal, trips over a sheep and blows up. The remaining jihadis are led by Omar, the brightest member of the group and the only one shown to have a family and steady employment. His followers are the public school ‘wannabe’ Hassan (‘the Mal’) Malik; Omar’s best friend, Waj, who is described in the script as being twenty year old ‘and built like a fridge’; and the white convert Barry, the closest thing the film has to George W. Bush’s description of ‘pure evil’. Following Omar’s and Waj’s ignominious militant training in Afghanistan (which is actually filmed in Andalucía) and various argument and rifts, the group decides to stage suicide bombing at the London Marathon. The attack don’t go to plan, and what begins as a hilarious sequence of accidental detonation set piece becomes a chilling and thought-provoking reflection of what happens when an intense combination of religion, politics, and friendship spiral out of control.

The movie makes numerous references to real events and real terrorists, but this is a kind of referencing which aims to undo its object. It can be read as the key to the narrative strategy and moral message of the film. Chambers gives two major examples. The first one is a conversation, in which Omar mentions a certain “stupid nutter Muslim, who blows a bagful of nails into his own guts.” This seems to be a reference to Saeed Alim, who injured himself by his homemade nailbomb in Exeter in 2008—a direct reference to the failure and stupidity of terrorism. The second example is a better instance of the film’s narrative strategy: the kind of video our “four lions” recorded prior to the attack is common practice in jihadist terrorism. Chambers reminds us more specifically Muhammad Sidiq Khan’s famous video broadcast on Al-Jazeera several months after the London bombings in 2007, for both Khan in his video and Waj in the film have a common statement: “I am going to talk to you in a language you can understand.” (Of course, this is not a reference to the rest of the video but a reference to the action announced in advance. “Language you understand” is violence. Let us remind in passing that exactly the same statement can be found in the press releases of the U.S. State Department.) But, unlike Khan’s succesful message and action, our four lions’ video shooting is a big laugh, a completely amateurish mess. Is terrorism undone, therefore?

Morris’s comic strategy depends on the human weaknesses of his confused protagonists, narrated by slapstick, automatism, parody (which read like the pages of Bergson’s Laughter). They are basically “people like us,” only a bit more stupid than usual. This is also where the so-called British (or European) aspect enters the narrative scene, lovingly emphasized by Chambers: they are just angry, confused kids from Bradford and Sheffield, speaking a heavy migrant working class accent, with very little knowledge of Islam indeed. With the sad ending in which they destroy mostly themselves, we cannot not sympathize with them. And yet, since the human weakness is left to slapstick and parody, we remain in the dark as to why they are so confused and reckless.

But blaming the film for not being able to give the reasons for terrorism may not be good criticism. One may well focus on the stupidity of terrorism. The question is how. What makes me ask this question is an advice I have frequently come across with, when I googled the words “comedy” and “terrorism”: “use comedy as a counter-terrorist strategy” in the scientific words of Psychology Today. Some of the praise Four Lions received is because of its “cathartic” structure, releasing our repressed emotions. Such a solution however, especially the sense of relief, might be ideological, if we follow the best of the discipline of film studies. This is the moment the question of “how” becomes important. In conclusion, one might refer to two problematic aspects in the narrative. First of all, the Four Lions is not a comedy of terrorism, but of the terrorist. Although Morris refers to a number of police comedies as inspiring him, there is not a single instance in the movie where the police or the government are laughed at. They never become objects of humour. Secondly, we have loveable, funny, “human, all too human” terrorists who do not even know Islam, but what about the representation of Muslims in the movie? The only other example we have is Omar’s brother. Innocent as he is, he cannot look at women, wears strange garb and is hopelessly fundamentalist. Does this not mean that the lives of millions of Muslims in U.K., not to mention Europe or the world, are simply sidestepped by the film, that the British or European director, fixed on the stereotype, cannot perceive them, that they cannot enter his frame? Oh, I almost forgot that it is only a comedy! Laugh at them and relax.

Check the trailer here: http://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi441779225

Fight fire with fire! Revisiting the Torture Problem by Robert Imre

When it comes to war, terror, and political violence, fighting fire with fire only makes you fight in a burning house. Decades of research tells us that it makes no practical sense whatsoever, when engaged in a violent contest with terrorists, to use torture.

Intelligence organizations themselves say that they do not use torture to get information as it is unreliable and the 9/11 report confirmed that no reliable information was gleaned from the use of torture. In the hysteria following the 9/11 attacks, parts of the US intelligence community chose to ignore what they knew about torture, and mistakenly thought they might gain an advantage by attempting these practices. The disappointing complicity of the American Psychological Association made the practice even more problematic.

The utility of torture is to be found elsewhere and this is why dictators can use torture to keep people in line, not to glean information (Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s). Torture one person randomly, then do a series of random house searches and take away political prisoners, and then threaten to torture people some more. This is a process as old as dictatorships and totalitarian regimes themselves. But torture usually has the opposite effect on committed terrorists and/or insurgencies.

Once a group of people see a common cause and are motivated enough to enact forms of political violence, through hopelessness, criminality, stupidity, or perhaps even just pure evil, torture becomes a mere theatre of destruction. The question of torture being raised again might demonstrate the frustration that people might feel with unresolved political issues that lead to violence. If we want revenge, and we seek to make that vengeance public and carnivalesque, then torture functions just fine. But it does not get us reliable information on our enemies, and it entrenches a victim mentality that terrorists can continue to use to get people to join their cause. ‘Crackdowns’ on political violence have limited effect as in Northern Ireland and numerous other examples.

We know from decades of examples that there must be some form of political accommodation, and some redress of political grievances. This must be done through intelligent political leadership. Without that the violence continues.

The solutions must be political solutions. Torture itself has never been a tool that does anything beyond two things: entrenches political grievance forever so that victims of torture always have a legitimate reason to enact violence on their aggressors, and gives dictatorial powers to political leaders seeking to control their own people through fear. Torture does not work in terms of stopping terrorists as individuals or terrorist organizations.

There are a number of other problems associated with torture, and especially as linked to terrorism. In terms of fighting terrorism, torture is not effective in gathering intelligence and information that might give authorities an upper hand.

Dr Robert Imre is currently Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at The University of Newcastle, Australia and a Fellow with the Space and Political Agency Research Group (SPARG) at the University of Tampere.