The death of Osama bin Laden doesn't mean the end of terrorism. But it will mean less lazy storytelling about terrorism, for a while at least.
Science fiction has always trotted out cliches about terrorists, but especially in the past decade it's been a go-to plot device for media SF. While some people have offered thought-provoking, clever takes on the idea (Battlestar Galactica), all too often it's been trotted out as a cheap way to seem topical and "gritty."
Here are 10 tired terrorism storylines we'd like to see put on the scrap heap.
To be clear, most of these ideas can be done well, and have been done well in the past. We're just ready for them to go away.
10) All dystopian futures have loads of terrorist attacks
Somehow, when film-makers and other media storytellers want to convey "oppressive dystopia," they show terrorists blowing shit up. One way we always know that a future regime is repressive is that we see the horrible lengths people go to, to fight back — and at times, this can become a lazy storytelling tool. Dystopias from Sleeper to Brazil to Children of Men have depicted terrorism as a symptom of dystopia, and in more recent years, we've seen terrorism=dystopia in Equilibrium, Aeon Flux and other movies.
9) Terrorist cells are ridiculously easy to infiltrate.
Just ask Sayid in Lost — although he, at least, has a friend on the inside already, Essam. Also, all you need to do to join the Fifth Column on V is just show up for one of their weekly donut socials, or stop by the church and ask for Father Jack.
8) Sleeper agents who don't actually know they're terrorists
Battlestar Galactica, obviously, was full of sleeper agents, including poor Boomer who didn't know she was a Cylon. People are also mind-controlled into being terrorists in Greg Bear's novel Vitals. And there was a recent TV show or movie where a braindead, mind-controlled person walks into a place with tons of explosives strapped to his/her body, but none of us can remember what it was.
7) Foreign or alien terrorists are secretly being funded or supported by an American businessman
This trope was done well in Max Barry's Jennifer Government, where corporations stage fake terrorist attacks as a marketing tactic. And done quite well in Iron Man, where the Afghan nasties are secretly being propped up by Tony Stark's pal. And then there's The Event, where one of the dozens of confusing storylines involves Hal Holbrook's rich dude sponsoring terrorist acts.
6) The terrorists have a super weapon.
In real life, terrorists are making do with some C4 and a cellphone, or whatever they can lay their hands on. But in the world of science fiction, they frequently have access to some biological weapon that can turn a whole city's worth of people into goop in seconds. Like in the forthcoming video game Deep Black, pictured at left. Or a super-bomb, or giant laser. Terrorists are often way better equipped in movies and television, unless...
5) We are the terrorists.
What would it take for good, right-thinking people like you and me to resort to terrorism? This crops up a fair bit, and is done quite well during the "New Caprica" arc on Battlestar Galactica. It's done less well on V, where the Fifth Column becomes a terrorist organization without any clear rationale. There's a pretty great list of other examples of this one over at TVTropes.
4) People fake a terrorist attack against themselves
I feel like this happens a lot — it happens on V a fair bit, including the fake attack where "V" is carved on Lisa's face. It also happens in Civil War, where Iron Man hires one of his old enemies, Titanium Man, to launch a fake terrorist attack to help push through the Registration Act. The lack of the squid in Watchmen makes the ending more of a fake terrorist attack, and less of a fake alien attack.
3) Are we justified in ending civil liberties? Or does that mean the terrorists have won?
The best example of this type of story dates from before 9/11: the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "Home Front," in which a Shapeshifter attack causes Starfleet to impose martial law. But there's also BSG, and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother... and then of course the aforementioned Civil War, in which superheroes are forced to unmask after a terrorist attack. Don't superheroes have rights too?
2) The race against time before the bigger attack
For some reason, terrorists always start off with a smaller attack as a test, before they launch the bigger attack that will bring society to its knees. (You would think they'd launch the big attack first, before they get caught.) This sets up a ticking clock, because our heroes know (thanks to their intel) that the terrorists are planning a bigger attack — they just don't know where, or who, or when. The best recent example of this is the movie Source Code.
1) When is torture justified? When when when?
Seriously, when? Maybe someone should write down the answer, so we can look it up the next time this question arises. This comes up on BSG and V, plus HRG considers torturing one of the terrorist carnies in Heroes. And then there's Sayid on Lost, of course — although it's debatable whether the Others whom he tortures are terrorists. Once again, TVTropes has a great list.
Additional reporting by Annalee Newitz.