The US Army has turned to Hollywood in its battle against terrorism
The success of the 11 September terrorist attacks depended on the failure of the military imagination. Half trained, poorly armed fanatics were able to turn commercial airplanes into bombs that collapsed the Twin Towers and blew a hole in the Pentagon because no one had ever seriously imagined that they could, or would, do such a thing.
Now that we know they can, and will, the US Army is busily trying to imagine other movie-like scenarios that might occur in real life: anthrax delivered by the US Postal Service, a crop duster spraying poison over a World Series game, a nuclear explosion in Manhattan, and so on.
To that end, it has convened at the University of Southern California what it is calling an 'ad hoc group' of Hollywood screenwriters and directors.
The group, according to the entertainment trade magazine Variety, is headed by army brigadier general Kenneth Bergquist. It includes the writer of Die Hard, the creator of the television series McGyver, the director of the film Being John Malkovich and a lot of other people chosen seemingly at random from the Hollywood talent pool. (The director of The Delta Force has been in on the talks but so was the director of Grease. Go figure.)
Variety reported that the purpose of the group was 'to brainstorm about possible terrorists targets and schemes in America and to offer solutions to those threats.' In other words, sit around and pitch disaster movies to each other for the benefit of the brigadier general.
On one hand, you have to wonder if this is a good use of a brigadier general in a time of war. On the other hand, why not give it a shot? American life right now feels a bit like a disaster movie and our problem with terrorism has a Hollywood logic to it.
The terrorists are in the business of creating dramas, preferably televisual dramas, that capture the American public imagination. At this point, they don't need to do very much at all to trigger mass hysteria, and they probably know it.
The US Army, to defend against terrorists, needs to imagine these dramas before they occur. But the sort of person who is good at imagining dramas is unlikely to work in the military or intelligence services. He's much more likely to be making B movies and television shows. Spectacular terrorism isn't like just any old movie; it's like a bad movie.
What's more, the Hollywood people with a special gift for dreaming up stories to frighten an audience, and perhaps even for imagining how terrorists think, have more time on their hands than usual. Just when the Army wants badly to imagine every conceivable terrorist plot, Hollywood studios are avoiding anything resembling a terrorist plot.
It's odd that at precisely the moment when such acts of the imagination are more seriously useful than ever, the market for them has vanished. But then, the world is an odd place and Hollywood is an even odder one.
What I don't understand is why the Army brass are limiting themselves to movie and TV people. Why not novelists? Why not, for that matter, Wall Street people? It's now clear that the terrorists have a special taste for financial targets. Why not consult the people with the deepest feeling for those targets: the targets themselves?
Wall Street traders may not be as good at dreaming up scenarios as Hollywood script writers but they have the advantage of knowing their own story. I very much doubt that a terrorist could think up something to do to you that you couldn't think up yourself.
In that spirit, I'd like anyone who has imagined a terrorist plot to write a short paragraph describing it, together with ideas for foiling the plot, and send it to me over Bloomberg's message system.
Ask yourself: if you were a terrorist, what could you do to disrupt the financial markets? What could someone do to make you even less interested than you are at the moment in doing your job? I'll collect all the ideas in a future column.
The US Army has pointed the way: imagining the things we most fear may be the first step to preventing them from ever happening.
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