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Popular Culture and the Discourses of Fear: Legitimising the US War on Terror

Updated: Oct 25, 2023


In this essay, I’ll reinterpret American popular culture as a site of anxiety and fear post-9/11. I’ll examine how popular culture helped forge a collective national identity revolving around the discourses of fear by systematically studying how mass media, news reports, advertisements, TV series/ shows, Hollywood movies, video games, consumer markets, etc., promoted fear since “the US discovered international terrorism”. I’ll investigate how the popular culture legitimised the War on Terror, and used the Hobbesian passion of fear as a means to the end of achieving the political ends of mustering domestic support for PNAC (Project for the New American Century), a grand plan for aggrandisement and crystalising US preponderance– or, euphemistically, hegemony. Finally, I’ll examine how popular culture embraced 9/11, enabled the making of the war and bestowed it with the much-needed legitimacy.

Keywords: 9/11, fear, Hollywood, mass media, popular culture, The US, TV, War on Terror, video games

“Being certain that they and I

But lived where motley is worn:

All changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.”

Easter, 1916; William Butler Yeats

Let me open this essay with the words of my professor– when the virtu of the founding fathers is all but spent, and ordini, that hitherto bound the nation together faithfully, develops cracks, the nation will look for an effective mucilage, an effective adhesive that could bind the civilisation together and stabilise the society. And for the hegemonic US that suffered from an imperialistic nostalgia of the Cold War times, which was just stepping towards the dawn of the twenty-first century with a plummeting economy with extremely disenchanting growth rates, a magical thread was the need of the hour to bind the disillusioned society together.

A favourable stroke of serendipity– the 9/11 attack– conferred the US elite coterie with that magic wand that wove the necromantic thread which recreated a new national identity for the crestfallen US with a chagrined economy– a national identity revolving around the discourses of fear– the fear cultivated by the popular culture, which was made a quintessential part of everyday life (Altheide, 2016). And this fear, as I’d argue, was used to further, in the words of David Armstrong (2002), the US ambitions to “rule the world”, to neither be “more powerful” nor “most powerful”, but “absolutely powerful”. The ineptitude of the Bush administration to promise candied economic growth, therefore, made it ground its legitimacy in the bastions of a new national culture– the new ordini– based on fear.

Though wars begin in the minds of men, their legitimacy flows from popular culture. The same holds for the US War on Terror– though it began in the minds of men, Bush and his associates to be more precise, its legitimacy poured from popular culture. Although Kant’s perpetual peace theory denies the possibility of democracies breaking into a state of war, especially because public opinion guides democratic decision-making, which will always be inimical to the prospect of war, Americans actually endorsed the US War on Terror. For instance, a 2002 CNN survey reveals that 53% of Americans favoured US ground troops marching into the sovereign territory of Iraq with the intention of a regime change. Moreover, a Gallup poll suggests that 87% of Americans were satisfied with how Bush handled the War on Terror. In addition to that, a December 2001 Gallup survey reveals that 92% of Americans were satisfied with the progress of the US military in Afghanistan.

So, why did the Americans support the war? The answer is quite simple– popular culture became a site of anxiety and narratives of glorification of war post-9/11, where fear became the foundation of dominant narratives (Glassner, 1999). In this essay, I propose four such areas– or domains– where popular culture became a war legitimising force that cultivated supportive and patriotic but disillusioned citizenry. They are– one, the mass media promoting fear; two, the Hollywood and the TV series attempting a cultural depiction of what Nilges (2010) calls the “aesthetics of destruction”; three, video games which became “sites where post-9/11 dreams of victory and nightmares of fear are embodied” (Annandale, 2011); and four, the civil-military consumer interface, which militarised the very modes of being (Milburn, 2005).


For Hobbes, fear was the greatest of all human passions, and for Machiavelli, this passion can be channelled, albeit shrewdly, to meet certain political ends. The US government, as I mentioned elsewhere, capitalised on this fear constructed by the popular culture post-9/11 to seek legitimacy for a decade-old US project to be the world hegemon, which already had regime change in Iraq as one of its prime agendas almost ten years before the US invented international terrorism. The Hobbesian passion of self-preservation based on the cultivated discourses of fear of the ‘axis of evil’ and the immutable possibility of another 9/11 was, yet again employed by the US government, for a shameless ex post facto justification of its PNAC, or the Project for New American Century– a document which delineates the course of action that ought to be adopted by the US government to be a world hegemon– a Leviathan– in the truest sense through a series of measures, including overseas military expansion, ballooning the defence budget, withdrawing from major treaties, engaging in pre-emptive strikes, inter alia.

Altheide and Grimes (2005) claim that Vice President Dick Cheney, who was part of the caucus that framed the PNAC blueprint, knew that the regime change in Iraq was the motif principal of the project. And 9/11 became the pretext for seeking legitimacy for this grand project, which masqueraded as the US War on Terror. The post-9/11 mainstream media rhetoric supporting the War on Terror, grounded on the politics of fear, patriotism, consumption, and victimisation, helped forge a national identity (the new ordini) by integrating fear into the everyday lives of people (Kellner, 2004), and muster public support for the war (and therefore, the PNAC).


Since the US discovered international terrorism in 2001, mass media has been ferociously promoting fear through multiple means, attempting to seek legitimacy for the PNAC agendas of an unprecedented global US military expansion, a groundless growth of unparalleled expanse in the US military budget, regime change in Iraq, invasion of Afghanistan, etc. One of the common methodologies employed for the same was spreading misinformation through Public Relations firms, for instance, Hill and Knowlton, which was involved in deliberate disinformation activities to muster public support for outmanoeuvring Saddam Hussein, for example, by claiming that Saddam’s troops killed babies in Kuwait (Stauber and Rampton, 1997) during the first Gulf War.

Nevertheless, post-9/11 media became more aggressive in propagating the narrative of 9/11 as an attack on all Americans, the American culture, and the US civilisation itself (Altheide, 2006). Since all Americans were victimised by the attacks, all were expected to contribute to the cause of toppling the source of fear– the ‘axis of evil’ (Garland, 2012). Media now began to act as the action arm– or the propaganda puppet– of the government, where newscasts were draped in flag colours. Patriotic sloganeering became a ritual in news podcasts and the reporters started employing the politics of linguistic collectivism– they started using words like ‘us’ and ‘we’ while reporting, reinforcing the narrative they wished to propagate– 9/11 as an attack on the US civilisation itself.

The advertisement industry also played a major munus in mustering legitimacy for the War on Terror. For instance, in an all-advertisers’ industry meeting chaired by the Advertisement Research Foundation on 18th September 2001, a resolution was passed in consensus, which transmuted as an overarching framework for commercial advertisements– “to inform, involve, and inspire the Americans to participate in activities… [that could] help win the war on terrorism”. For instance, businesses like General Motors started employing patriotic slogans, for instance, ‘keep America rolling’, and baseball fans started singing ‘God bless America’.

Moreover, the images of destruction propagated by the mass media further helped cultivate legitimacy for the War on Terror in the hearts of the Americans. For instance, the destructive depictions of 9/11 victims fuelled financial aid worth $2 billion in the form of charity at the interpersonal level. Children jumped into this exercise by raising money for the starving children in Afghanistan, victimised and relegated to impoverishment by the evil regimes. The images further stirred patriotic spirit in the hearts and minds of the Americans, which can be corroborated by the fact that the flags were out-of-stock in most of the US stores for at least a year following 9/11. Moreover, everyday lives started assimilating this fear narrative in the day-to-day language, for instance, phrases like ‘since 9/11’, ‘how the world has changed’, etc., started propping up in wonted conversations.


This popular imagery promulgated in the mass media took the form of what Yeats (1989) called “terrible beauty” in the cultural depictions of destruction in the visual arena. Hollywood movies and TV series became the sites of constructivism, where dominant discourses– the perpetual threat modelled based on the politics of fear, a celebration of patriotism and the demands of “silence and unquestioning fealty in the name of fear and patriotism”, and the mythology of the American captivity narrative– were aesthetically engineered and projected onto the visual medium (Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell, 2011).

Mathias Nilges (2010) calls such depictions of perpetual threat the “aesthetics of destruction”. Post-9/11 TV series industry was plagued by the general crisis and impotency of the white, male hero to successfully terminate the threats to the nation, making the threat of terrorism perennial, enduring, and permanent. These series confer a stamp of permanency to the discourses of fear, which, further, helps in mustering public support for toppling the source of such fears through proactive military intervention by the US. For instance, consider the series 24 (2001) starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. Though he successfully manages to counter the terrorist threat in every episode, it reappears at the end of every episode, often in fiercer manifestations, where the whole gamut of the terror is projected as the new normal, something which is now part of one’s daily life. What is interesting to observe is that, unlike his predecessors of the 80s, Bauer terribly fails to arrest the threat to the nation and the civilisation itself, as how much ever he tries to do that, all episodes end with the resurgence of terrorism.

Similarly, in Live Free or Die Hard (2007) starring Bruce Wills as John McClane, the protagonist finds himself trapped in an ugly middle position– a stinking limbo– where he not only fails to safeguard the US economy from cyberterrorism but also requires the help of a young hacker to get the hang of the things. Here, the white, male hero, who was previously an authority figure with a commanding agency as a defender, is relegated to the whereabouts of a comical sidekick– alluding to a rather pessimistic present plagued with uncertainties where only one thing is certain– another 9/11 may knock the doors of the civilisation anytime.

Nevertheless, in addition to grounding the populace with an impermeable cloud of fear, Hollywood had twin objectives– one, complementing the rise of the rabble-rouser authoritarian tendencies of the Bush administration, which included legitimising the operation of secret prisons, increasing surveillance of computer communication and the telephone, state-sponsored abductions, overaggressive police actions, etc.; and two, creating favourable conditions for inspiring the citizens to participate in the War on Terror, either directly, for instance, by enrolling themselves as soldiers or indirectly, for example, by the public display of patriotism. As Jack Valenti famously remarked on 27th September 2007, “We in Hollywood have to get on with doing our creative work … the country needs what we create”.

To substantiate the arguments I just made, I would like to consider the case of the 2003 film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a war story along the lines of the classical Anglo-French rivalry, which celebrates the triumph of an outnumbered English crew led by Commander ‘Lucky Jack’, fighting for the God and the country. The film, in the words of Birkenstein, Froula, and Randell (2011), is a “desirable narrative” that bestowed a serene stroke of legitimacy to the authoritarian tendencies of Bush– which may be read together with Bush’s own remarks while addressing a rally in 2000– “if the US were a dictatorship, it’d have been a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator”. In addition to lending support for the centralising tendencies of Bush, the film parallelly glorifies “patriotism, military valour, and masculine solidarity” – the basket of quintessential patriotic virtues– something which fuelled the spirit of patriotism among the Americans, clamouring for their support for the War on Terror.

Masugi (2003) calls Commander Jack in the movie en consideration a “benevolent dictator”, the God of the ship of England (as in the movie, he calls his ship, HMS Surprise, England; in his words, “… and though we be on the far side of the world, this ship is our home. This ship is England), someone beyond any question, beyond any reproach, flying like a mighty British eagle beyond all censure, transcending all reproof, yet cherished, idolised, and loved by his crew. His crew reposes unparalleled trust in him, yet he can even condemn them to death. This figure of an idealised commander, benevolent yet fierce, fighting for the country and God, for the sake of his people and his crew, anticipates Bush, who, like Jack, fights for the country, the American civilisation, and the people of America (Scott, 2003). And therefore, all citizens have to lend their support to Masugi’s benevolent dictator, raise him to a pedestal beyond reprove, and endorse the War on Terror, as “after all, the world has changed after 9/11” (Altheide, 2006).

Moreover, television series became a site of constructivism– an arena where, says Faludi (2007), the “wild west fantasy of captivity and rescue” is aesthetically and cunningly constructed to attempt a Machiavellian paradiastolic reversal of the positions of the aggressor and the aggrieved. For instance, the NBC TV Movie Saving Jessica Lynch (2003) portrays the US invasion of Iraq as a defensive struggle to liberate the American civilisation from the barbaric savagery of the ‘axis of evil’. It narrates the capture (by the Iraqi forces) and the subsequent rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, limned in the movie as a hapless damsel-in-distress, waiting to be rescued by the American forces from the captivity of the Iraqi brutes. The US military, therefore, became the group which is besieged, and the Iraqi forces became savage, irrational, and brutish aggressors– logically necessitating the continued use of force.

This civilisation vs savagery war, built upon the fertile foundations of the Western captivity narrative, masqueraded the invasion as a humanitarian intervention– a rescue mission to save Jessica Lynch. The civilisation vs savagery rhetoric is fiercely reinforced in the film through the use of ‘contrasts’, as Kamla Das employs in her poem ‘My Mother at Sixty-Six’, where she contrasts the dismal and gloomy environs in the car with the alacrity of the sprinting trees and merry children outside. The film is interspersed with multiple flashbacks, which, similar to Kamla Das’s poem, contrast the gloomy war environs with the alacrity of Lynch’s home and family life. And the ample assistance provided by the US Department of Defence to the filmmakers might explain why the film vociferously propagates the American cock-a-doodle-doo of being an innocent civilisation besieged by wild savages, which further necessitates redemptive actions through righteous violence– which Stacy Takacs (2017) calls the “righteous ecstasy”.


When mass media and visual entertainment complexes emerged as sites of cultivation of fear and the virtues of patriotism emanating from it, video games embodied in them the dreams of success and the nightmares of the destruction of the War on Terror. Though real-life military technology is often compared to the beautifully engineered gears in any immersive video game, Boyer, Lee, and Pfister (2007) claims that video games capture the realities of life to the hilt. McKenzie Wark goes a step ahead to claim that the world outside the gamespace is an imperfect copy of the computer game, just as the Platonic world of senses, which is an imperfect copy of the world of thought/ forms.

This complex relationship between the simulated game space and the real world– or video games and actual warfare– opens new avenues of possibilities for engaging the participants in the actual war, for instance, the US military using video games to train and recruit soldiers. An online military recruitment ad read– “if you’re ready to stop playing games, we’re ready for you” – here, the military is acting as a conduit, which transforms the in-game experience of the player into a real-life war spree– the same enemies, the same values, and the same weapons– the military just magnified the scope.

Furthermore, the in-game values of obedience, loyalty, and discipline witnesses a cultivated spill-over, inspired by which a significant number of youngsters volunteer to join the armed forces to ‘defend the bastion of the American civilisation’, as the character Jessica Lynch claimed in the aforementioned made-for-TV movie, Saving Jessica Lynch (2003). For instance, consider America’s Army, a game developed in collaboration with the military, in which the soldiers (participants/ players) are trained in military tactics, handling and using Avant-garde military gear and sophisticated weaponry, and the virtues of discipline, loyalty, integrity, and obedience. The enemy is portrayed as brutal and mysterious and is to be dealt with by cold-blooded application of brute force, according to the orders of the commander.

Moreover, such games, by referencing the real world, often blur the distinction between fantasy and reality– and thus, the “aesthetics of destruction” portrayed in the games spills over to real life. For instance, consider Full Spectrum Warrior, a 2004 war game unfolding in the fictional country of Zekistan, located somewhere between modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China– and unsurprisingly, this fictional space is strikingly similar to the actual target location of War on Terror (consider the US invasion of Afghanistan, for instance). The game also accentuates the social fears of terrorism by depicting horrific scenarios– the “aesthetics of destruction”. Similarly, Rainbow Six: Vegas, a 2006 video game, also portrays the images of destruction caused by monstrous terrorist attacks and deals with righteous and necessary retaliation through the use of legitimate force.


What is more effective than militarising the popular culture to secure the political ends of mustering legitimate support for the War on Terror? Jean Louis DeGay was right when he commented that “nothing speeds up the development of technology like war”. However, when this war technology penetrates the popular culture or the civilian mode of life, it turns into what Eisenhower once called the ‘military-industrial complex’– an unholy nexus between the industry and the military (Derian, 2009).

For instance, the consumer application of GPS, a military intelligence tool, is an example of the militarisation of civilian life (Kaplan, 2006). Also, after the Iraqi war, the US Army’s Humvee assault vehicle– the one in which Jessica Lynch was travelling– was transformed into the civilian Hummer. Similarly, Graham (2004) says that the names of civilian combat vehicles or SUVs, for instance, Stealth, Challenger, Warrior, etc., alludes to a militarised view of everyday life.

By militarising the daily life of the civilians, a confluence of the military, consumer, and civilian identities is woven, leading to the assimilation of military values– or aggressive virtues– like bravery, courage, strength, fighting, hatred towards the enemies (as Justine Toh (2013) interprets other cars on the road as potential enemies and the neighbourhood as a suburban combat zone vis-à-vis Hummer), etc., into the fabric of the society– which translates into the civil society’s unfaltering commitment and inexorable support to the US War on Terror.


The Westphalian state system links the institution of the state with the territory. Similarly, article 1 of the Montevideo Convention defines a state as possessing a defined territory, inter alia. However, tying down the institution of the state into a territory, or attaching the burden of territoriality to the institution of the state is problematic, as no state has ever limited its activity within the confines of its territory. Such contradictions in the Western International Relations theories make me look at Indian strategic thought with great awe. Kautilya, in his magnum opus Arthasastra, associated state with expansion, and not territoriality. His theory of rajamandala deals with the expansionist policies of the vijigishu to secure yogakshema. And the US is no exception.

The expansionist tendencies of the US through overseas military expansion coupled with a stratospheric defence budget align beautifully with Colin Powell’s statement in the House Armed Services Committee that “there’s no future in trying to challenge the armed forces of the US”. Moreover, it is de rigueur for the states to muster popular support for such aggrandisement (the PNAC), especially because the US is not a dictatorship as Bush lamented in a 2000 speech I quoted elsewhere, and Bush was simply not Lucky Jack of the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), where unilateral actions of war and peace would have been justified by the stature of Jack, which was beyond any question, beyond any censure, and beyond any respite. And popular support for the War on Terror masqueraded as the practical unfolding of the objectives of the PNAC was manufactured through deliberate attempts to weave the elements of fear and patriotic virtues into the fabric of popular culture.

In this essay, I investigated four such areas in the popular culture paradigm– mass media, virtual entertainment complex, video games, and militarisation of civil life– where fear and patriotism were consciously integrated into the daily life of the US citizens, with an attempt to muster support and legitimacy for the War on Terror.

In the first part of this essay, I explained how popular culture and mass media depictions of an omnipresent terrorist threat, patriotism, and victimisation helped forge a national identity built around the discourses of fear. In the second part, I expounded how the visual entertainment complex, including TV shows, series, and Hollywood movies attempted to capitalise on the “aesthetics of destruction” to propagate cultural images portraying moral and material superiority of the US, national mythology of the American captivity narrative and the civilisation vs savagery rhetoric, and of course, fear, to muster support for the authoritative and expansionist proclivity of the Bush administration.

In the third part of the essay, I demonstrated how video games, especially because of their immersive qualities, became sites of post-9/11 dreams of victory and horrors of destruction. I attempted to explain how the military-entertainment linkages attempted an intersection of video games and actual warfare– fantasy and reality. Finally, in the fourth part, I spelt out how civilian life became increasingly militarised through a confluence of the military, consumer, and civilian identities, and how the civilians, by baptising into a militarised mode of being, rendered their support to the War on Terror.

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