Saturday, September 11, 2010

No Crashing Planes!

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed the way Americans look at airplanes. It was just an average Tuesday, and then all of a sudden everyone was watching the news and seeing two planes crashing into the World Trade Center towers in an obvious attack pattern. Suddenly, ordinary commercial planes entered the public consciousness as terror threats. Every plane that passes overhead seems a potential danger (ironically1, I can hear airplane engines as I type this). I have to wonder if a similar thing happened back in World War II when the Japanese employed the kamikaze planes against the American navy, but I suspect there wasn’t the same effect because of the fact that the fight was out in the Pacific instead of in the country itself. After 9/11, the entertainment industry took a hit in what it could depict as certain things relating to the attack were now taboo or at least limited as to how they can effectively be depicted.

Jan: “Durga, he'll be fine. And frankly, you can't get into the clean room. What could you really do?”
Durga: “I don't know. Create a distraction? Crash a plane into the base, say?”
Jan: “That seems a little extreme.”
Durga: “Acceptable casualties are a part of every mission's calculus.”
Durga: “I'll create a distraction. Locating…”
Jan: “Durga, stop! No crashing planes!”

i love bees, Chapter 11: Heroes

The image of crashing planes as a form of attack is the strongest taboo generated by 9/11. Initially, all such imagery was taboo. No one could depict it. It was offensive to even think you could. A few years later, however, the imagery started showing up again with the limitation that it had to be depicted as bad. The imagery still gives people the chills, but that can work with morally questionable or evil characters.

An example of the former is in the 2004 alternate reality game i love bees, which had the war mongering character Durga seriously suggest hacking into a plane’s autopilot and crashing it into a base in order to buy time for Jersey to disable a device that may or may not do something world-threatening (it turns out that the device would have killed everyone in the galaxy). Though a protagonist, Durga is portrayed as unstable and is scary at times, so this is allowed. The audience identifies with Jan, alarmed at Durga’s suggestion, and with her as she insists “No crashing planes!”

An example of the latter is in the 2005 movie Serenity, which had the mad cannibalistic Reavers employ ramming as a battle tactic. Now, technically these are spaceships instead of airplanes, but I think they’re similar enough that the imagery is still basically present. The Reavers are zombie-like antagonists deemed utterly vile, who attack with a mismatch of advanced and primitive weaponry, and they sometimes slam their ships into Alliance ships. This works because the Reavers are to be feared, they will try to kill you any way they can, and deliberately crashing your ship into another ship can be portrayed as mad like the Japanese kamikaze have been considered by the Americans.

The image of crashing planes as an attack works now as long as it is portrayed negatively. People who grow up in post-9/11 America might be surprised to hear that pre-9/11 American media could portray crashing planes as an attack positively, even patriotically. I grew up in the ‘90s, and I can barely believe it sometimes. The most blatant example is in the 1996 film Independence Day, which has a climax evoking the Japanese kamikaze with a pilot crashing his plane into an alien ship to destroy it.

The plot has a giant flying saucer making its way toward the last major U.S. air base, at which the president and other important people have gathered. The ship’s main weapon has the destructive power of an atomic bomb, but is short-range and slow enough to get into position that the Americans have a fighting chance. As the ship is fired on, a bunch of smaller fighters come out to engage the air force. The main weapon starts to fire, and it’s speculated that firing on it with a missile will create an explosion to destroy it. Only one plane has a missile left, but mechanical failure forces the pilot to crash his plane to deliver it. The resulting explosion destroys the ship, and the movie ends with the pilot regarded as a patriot hero. This kind of thing just couldn’t be made nowadays.

Another example is in the 1990 Disney children’s cartoon TaleSpin, specifically the pilot movie “Plunder and Lightning”. TaleSpin is an adventure show about a cargo plane business set in an alternate universe that’s essentially the United States (in the south Pacific?) in the 1930s, but with anthropomorphic animals based off of characters from The Jungle Book. Originally, though, the show was to be a spinoff of DuckTales and star Launchpad, a pilot who crashes a lot. While Disney dropped that idea and brought in Baloo from Jungle Book, there is still a recurring element in “Plunder” of Baloo crashing his plane.

Baloo: “My flying is A+!”
Kit: “Yeah, but your landing’s a C-.”
–“Plunder and Lightning”

During the climax, Baloo battles air pirates (pirates with planes) in an aerial engagement. But because his cargo plane doesn’t have any weapons, he fights creatively and emerges victorious against the pirates in two ways that definitely would not be done post-9/11. First when the small planes start gunning for him, he decides to lose them in the city. That is, he flies around skyscrapers at high speeds and makes the pirates crash into the buildings. Wow. And then he attacks the Iron Vulture airship by crashing his plane into the lightning gun—its main weapon—causing his plane to break apart entirely. It’s a Disney cartoon, so no one dies, and it’s made pretty clear Baloo didn’t really intend to crash, but there’s no way this kind of thing would be made today, especially for kids.

To conclude, the events of 9/11 affected Americans to such a degree to change the standards of fictional media. The image of a plane crashing as an attack holds such of a disturbing vibe that now it is only likely to be successful if depicted as villainous. As is seen in the examples of Independence Day and TaleSpin, however, Americans could once accept crashing planes as part of the good guys’ tactics. Crashing planes is neither evil nor good, but rather it is a neutral tactic that can be perpetrated by anyone. What the American people need to focus on is the ideology behind crashing planes. While terrorism is not to be condoned, simple defense of citizens in a normal military context should be acceptable, whether or not there are crashing planes.

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