question of the day: Is it okay to make fun of terrorists and terrorism?

The new film Four Lions opened in the U.K. last weekend, to great box office: £609,000 from just 115 screens, for a per screen average of £5,292, “the highest of all the new releases, and double most of them,” notes Charles Gant at the Guardian’s Film blog. (Its average was second for the weekend only to Iron Man 2’s: £3.2 million at 522 locations over its second weekend, for an average of £6,159, according to the UK Film Council.) The film is a comedy about a bungling group of British-born Islamic terrorists, and the reviews are overall very good: it’s 80 percent Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes from British critics and those who reviewed the film when it was at Sundance earlier this year.

Last week, Jon Stewart on The Daily Show downplayed the recent attempted bombing in Times Square, likening the cascade of screwups by Faisel Shahzad — whom Stewart called the Wannabomber: “he’s not just a terrorist, he’s a moron” — to those of the Home Alone burglars:

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I haven’t heard any objections about Stewart, but some, such as David Cox at the Guardian, don’t see the humor in Four Lions:

To pretend that Islamist terrorists are merely buffoons is self-delusion, not satire

How should we deal with Islamist terrorists? Thinkers of the harrumphing school have long known the answer: in their view, these people are clearly idiots. We shouldn’t let them frighten us; we should just laugh at their boneheaded notions and bungling escapades. That’d show ’em.

I haven’t seen Four Lions, so I can’t tell whether that’s a fair reflection of what the film depicts. I can certainly imagine a film in which the real threat of terrorism is not dismissed while at the same time that film makes fun of those who would terrorize. (Stewart usually manages that balance, though he isn’t facing the demands of satisfying storytelling at the same time.)

Is it okay to make fun of terrorists and terrorism?

I think so. I think anything can be the subject of humor: it all depends on how it’s handled. And I certainly don’t think that saying that we shouldn’t be able to laugh at terrorism and terrorists would help in any way. The object of terrorism isn’t to kill people but to terrorize those who witness acts of terrorism… and by flat out refusing to poke fun at terrorists under all circumstances sounds like giving in, if only in a small way, to terrorism’s aims.

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Wed, May 12, 2010 12:52pm

Short answer: yes.

Extended answer: especially when it’s funny.

Longer answer: The terrorists won when you stopped blogging about LOST. You caved like Comedy Central.

Wed, May 12, 2010 1:17pm

i say yes it is. all during the second world war, brits made fun of the Nazis, Hitler and the constant barrage of bombs and air raids. here in the States, we made mocking movies, radio was full of humor and jokes about conditions in europe, about stalin (until he came over to our side) and Hitler and all the other Nazi government officials. if the brits could make fun of their enemy all the while having bombs exploding over their heads, sending their children to the countryside, with strict rationing and sleepless nights — we should be able to mock and make fun too, and we should do it. a sense of humor, or mockery, can often make faint hearts a little stouter.

i also could swear that about 3 or 4 years ago, there was an US tv show about 4 arab young men who come to the US to plan some big terrorist thing… only to wind up being seduced by american baseball, television and food. it may have only lasted two episodes… because of the fear by networks, and outrage by audience (or the press – humourless bunch) but now i cannot find a thing about it on the ‘nets. anyone else have an idea, or was this a P9/11TSD hallucination?

Wed, May 12, 2010 2:14pm

The Allies did make fun of the Axis powers during WWII, but there was plenty of racism mixed up in the mockery, too. I see the way the Japanese were portrayed in the movies and animation and editorial cartoons of the time, and I just wince. Perhaps, as “racially sensitive” as we like to think we are these days, we’re trying to be careful to make fun of our enemies for their radical beliefs and actions, not their appearance or culture? Cox seems to think that this movie fails to make that distinction:

Four Lions might have been more amusing if it had made fun of the Qur’anic verses on which jihad is supposed to be founded. Yet religious matters are discreetly avoided, just as they were in The Infidel.

Instead, we’re invited to laugh not just at johnny jihadist’s idiocy, but also at his funny language, funny clothes, funny cultural practices and even funnier attempts to embrace our own cultural offerings. […] Let’s pit bigotry against terror, Four Lions seems to suggest. That ought to work.

And if the movie makes fun of the cultural differences of would-be terrorists but tiptoes around their religious motivations, then maybe this type of mockery isn’t courageous after all.

Mocking the enemy is important, but I’d like to see us be clear on what exactly we’re mocking, and try to avoid blanket racism and bigotry while we’re at it.

Wed, May 12, 2010 2:18pm

I sure as heck hope it’s okay, because I’ve been doing it non-stop for the past decade and aim to continue.

The problem with that schmuck from the Guardian is that he doesn’t realize that you can both make fun of inept terrorists and yet treat the threat of competent terrorists seriously.

I mean if you think you must studiously ignore the vast amounts of humor in the Underpants Bomber simply because the Madrid bombing was dead serious, then you have issues of the “deliberately lacking discernment” variety.

Wed, May 12, 2010 4:24pm

Chris Morris is a goddamned genius – why the hell wouldn’t Four Lions be funny?

Wed, May 12, 2010 7:58pm

FMITCTAJ, I always say when I’m making up acronyms. Once they start censoring your humor, they’ll move to your politics next. I just wish they would do it the other way around.

Wed, May 12, 2010 10:17pm

I make fun of Republicans and Evangelical Christians. Isn’t that the same thing?

Tom Harris
Tom Harris
Wed, May 12, 2010 10:55pm

This is the kind of thing that Chris Morris excels in. His paedophile special of Brass-eye was extremely controversial whilst simultaneously being very well received.

I am surprised to see this come from the guardian, as i’d generally expect this kind of sillyness from the Mail. Personally I think that anything is fair game for humour as long as as it doesn’t go too far. Us British folk have done comedies about the stupidity and ineptitude of our own armies (see Blackadder, Edmund), so why not make a little fun of terrorists? Living in perpetual fear of them helps no-one.

Now had he done a satire of 911 or 77 then yes, that would be tasteless, but this is a bit of fun. Cox should probably step down from his high horse and enjoy it for what it is. Plus how is making fun of the beliefs upon which the terrorists motivations are founded any less bigoted than laughing at their funny cultural practises?

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Thu, May 13, 2010 12:26am

Well, people have been making fun of terrorists as long as there has been terrorists. Remember the pre-credit sequence of the first Naked Gun movie which was an obvious parody of anti-terrorist movies? Or the SLA parody that appeared in Network? Or the sequence in John Cleese’s The Strange Case of the End of Civilization which not only derived humor from a sniper(?!) but from the would-be targets’ less-than-competent response to said sniper?

Unfortunately, not all such movies are all that entertaining. If they were, we’d all be singing the praises of American Carol and the last Scary Movie and that’s just not going to happen.

Moreover, even if the movie was more well-intentioned than American Carol, there’s no guarantee that the final result will be all that funny. Take, for example, American Dreamz, which has a more sympathetic view of its Muslim characters than American Carol but really wasn’t that entertaining.

I agree with Bluejay that the world doesn’t really need more bad Arab jokes–which is what we usually get in the way of terrorist-related “humor”–but a comedy about terrorists that manages to be both funny and genuinely insightful on the subject could be amusing. Of course, it would probably take a John Cleese or a Ben Elton to pull it off but still…

Der Bruno Stroszek
Der Bruno Stroszek
Thu, May 13, 2010 2:45am

I second bronxbee’s comment on WWII humour – some of which, yes, was racist, but a lot of which was specifically targeted at Hitler while he was organising a bombing raid modern terrorists could only dream of. I’ve never heard of anyone being offended by it at the time.

Having seen Four Lions and laughed long and hard throughout, I really don’t recognise David Cox’s description of it. “Funny language [and] funny clothes” are never part of the satire – most of the jihadis and their families don’t wear any sort of recognisably Islamic clothes, and whereas they do come out with some bizarre statements and neologisms, that’s not because they’re Pakistani – it’s because they’re in a Chris Morris script. When he told a black drug dealer that a friend of his was “triple jacked over a steeple hammer and jessop jessop jessop”, was this an obscure racist attack on black British dialect? No, it was some silly nonsense.

The standard right-wing line on cultural responses to terrorism is that we should be unafraid to make fun of Islam, but the actual act of suicide bombing should be ring-fenced. This seems to me to be precisely the wrong way round. The dangers of attacking Islam in a Western democracy are absurdly overstated – for every Theo van Gogh there are hundreds of right-wing tabloid hacks who make a safe daily living out of Muslim-baiting, and ultimately they’re just kicking a minority, which is hardly brave. Specifically targeting extremists who are willing to kill for their cause – now that is brave, and it takes away the extremists’ power and mystique at the same time. No wonder the cowards and bullies at the Mail and the Express are so against it; they need terrorism to be scary for their social agenda to work.

But it’s perhaps unfortunate that Four Lions has to bear this weight. It is, ultimately, a superior farce, and should be judged on its writing, performances and humour before its politics are engaged.

Thu, May 13, 2010 9:12am

Terrorists want to inspire terror – the only sane response is to take the piss.

Thu, May 13, 2010 10:32am

@Lisa: Beautifully said. Mockery is the most effective weapon against zealotry. The zealots themselves are going to hate us one way or another, so we might as well sit back and have a laugh.

Fri, May 14, 2010 5:17am

That Guardian quote annoys me because the thing about Four Lions is that, while the bombers are portrayed to the audience as bumbling idiots, it doesn’t mean that that’s how the public will see them (the public in the universe of the movie, I mean) and in fact it seems perfectly possible they’d end up being portrayed by the media as determined masterminds whose plans go exactly as intended.