This is a post about 9/11 and Splinter Cell
I remember exactly where I was on Tuesday morning, the eleventh day of September, 2001. I was playing basketball in the driveway. My childhood dream was to play in the NBA; nothing was more important to me than taking 1,000 shots every day.
When my older brother came out, and said, “You need to come inside, someone just attacked New York,” I didn’t react much.
“Oh, OK,” I said, then took another jump shot. Swish.
“No, it’s serious, somebody crashed a plane into a building.”
Another jump shot. Swish. “A plane crashed or someone attacked?”
“Someone crashed a plane full of people into a building — on purpose.”
Another shot. Clanked off the rim.
He continued: “They say it’s bad. And that we might be at war.”
The ball bounced unimpeded, until it just rolled down the sloped driveway and into the street.
I was twelve years old. I didn’t really understand, not yet. The gravity of it all slammed on me then; the look on my brother’s face (only two years my senior), the sound of his voice. Watching the news, talking to parents and others, I would grasp the basic nature of what happened over hours, days, weeks.
But it would take years, and the slow unfolding of perspectives, the deliberate dissection of ingrained paradigms, before I would really understand what happened on 9/11.
The War on Terror
September 20th, 2001 — Again, my brother delivered the bad news.
We were at church this time. I was in the youth room with some friends. My family had gone over to help fix some part of the old church building that needed repairing. All of the adults were in the main sanctuary, and my brother — I imagined — had been perched somewhere out of sight, listening.
I’m not sure if there had been a TV somewhere they were all watching, or if the news had been relayed some other way, but the message was clear.
“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
– George Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001
My brother — with clarity and naivete of a pretty smart 14-year-old — put it simply, “The president said we’re going to war.”
I was a little bit scared. I had no idea what “going to war” meant. I’ve never served in the military, never taken fire, so in some respects I’m as naive of war as that scared twelve-year-old boy. But like everyone in my generation, even those of us who’ve not worn the uniform, I’ve grown up in the climate of this strange conflict.
Even with all the ignorance of childhood, I still had some suspicion of what we’d be in for, of what war meant. Maybe even the adults — maybe even the ones in Washington — thought they knew more or less what war meant. But for the past eleven years, I think we’ve all learned, together, what war means now.
Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell
November 17th, 2002 — Over a year after the attack on 9/11 a game called Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell was released for XBOX. My brother bought it, saying that he had heard “really good things” about it.
For a long time me and my brother played single player games together, side-by-side, tag-teaming levels and switching off when one of us failed an objective. So that’s how we played Splinter Cell. And we loved it.
By this point I was already intent on being a writer, so I was enthralled by the story. Though simple and contrived in hindsight, at thirteen I reveled in the dense, espionage-laden plot of Splinter Cell, the gruff, no-nonsense demeanor of its protagonist, Sam Fisher.
My brother I think just liked the parts where you sneaked up on people and threatened to break their arm if they didn’t tell you what you wanted to know. I liked those parts, too.
I liked the idea of fighting terrorists, felt little to no remorse over killing them. I enjoyed the power fantasy — lurking, crouched in shadows, then striking, making a bad guy whimper in pain until I got what I wanted.
I was thirteen. I wasn’t conscious of it, but I was being fed, and readily accepting, the idea that killing terrorists was easy, fun, and necessary. Moreover, that good Americans kill terrorists, and that terrorists are always the easily identifiable Arabs, Russians, Chinese, otherwise-Middle Eastern, otherwise Eastern European bad guys you would expect.
“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
– George Bush, addressing a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001
Is it such a stark distinction, president Bush? Even now? Even when there are allegations surfacing that under your administration CIA operatives tortured known opponents of Muammar Gaddafi, and then delivered them directly to the former leader of Libya?
Is it so easy a distinction to make if those prisoners were members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, itself part of the broader “mujahideen” group of rebels? Is it easy when the LIFG has been subject to allegations of ties with al-Qaeda that they constantly deny? Is it easy when the US supported the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan thirty years ago?
No, president Bush, it isn’t. These are murky, bloody lines, and they are painstakingly hard to make out.
But I didn’t know. I was thirteen. And I was being conditioned, that’s all.
“Why do they hate us?”
George Bush posed the above question, during his address to congress nine days after the attack on 9/11. He offered an answer equal parts convenient and terrifying — that terrorists hate freedom. A presumption of such raw, blanket villainy gave us a picture of a menacing, but uncomplicated enemy. It’s a notion that has stuck long after better intel and testimony have given us more complicated, but equally frightening clues to why something like 9/11 happened.
These are not easy distinctions to make. These are hard — painfully hard — things to consider. It’s comforting, and dangerous to simplify them. From the beginning politicians have tried to make them simple, digestible, easy. Mainstream media has, mostly, followed. And the entertainment industry has played in kind.
Ubisoft (a company based in France, with a business presence in 26 countries) was just trying to make a product that sells. A kitsch product like most video games are kitsch products. A game with a setting, theme, and objectives that are simple, digestible.
They were doing the capitalist thing, trying to make the best product (that is most viable in the market) with little thought of the moral implications, especially the subtle ones, especially the long term ones. That doesn’t make Ubisoft either good or bad. That’s another grayed, blurry line.
And they aren’t the only ones who have done it. Call of Duty, and Battlefield are the two major military first-person shooter franchises today and while they primarily draw their audiences through multiplayer, their single player campaigns often play a similar, digestible narrative that we’ve been seeing in film, TV, and books since well before 9/11.
Like in any other discussion about how games affect us, it’s the matter of agency that makes video games unique. It’s that I was Sam Fisher as a thirteen year old boy — me and my brother, killing terrorists for the good ol’ US-of-A. Killing terrorists isn’t bad, but the simplification of these issues, packaged, and retailed (in some cases to young adults or adolescents who haven’t taken the time or been afforded an opportunity to form a more educated opinion on world issues) is dangerous.
These are not easy distinctions. This is hard.
It’s hard to consider that blowback contributed to the events of 9/11.
It’s hard to consider that in places like Iran the attempts of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1980s to stir anti-western jihad didn’t really resonate; that not everyone in the Middle East is so eager to hate our freedoms.
It’s hard to consider that Osama bin Laden gathered support because of anger about US support of unpopular regimes in the Middle East, or American troop presence in the Arabian Peninsula.
It’s hard to consider that all the time, and money, and lives lost in Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or weapons of mass destruction, but instead bad intel, eagerness for war, and ultimately a Shi’a-Sunni islamic civil war that had little to do with us at all.
Nothing justifies the inhumane and cowardly acts of 19 terrorists on that Tuesday morning, but if we wish to prevent similar acts, then we’d be foolish not to carefully study all factors involved.
It’s uncomfortable or upsetting for some people to even consider these things. They will get angry, accusatory, and within minutes the “un-American” label is hurled with wounded fervency.
It’s hard not to consider that part of that response is because we now have a generation (my generation) that has grown up with war. This is a generation that has been conditioned — in some cases with the remarkable agency that we’re afford in games — to see these issues as black and white, well defined, easily distinguishable.
I believe, fiercely, that games should have the freedom to say whatever they like. But I think it’s important, like it always has been (even before 9/11), that as a medium of entertainment games take to these issues more carefully, more thoughtfully. They are matters steeped in gray, most adroitly handled with even handed objectivity.
We, as individuals, are responsible for what we think, and believe. We’re the guardians of our own perspectives, and we should be equal parts open and cautious to what we let in. But I was thirteen, and I was unwittingly conditioned.
Through education, study, and careful consideration I learned better. But sadly, games did not contribute whatsoever to that learning. They could have.
“What is expect of us?”
President Bush also echoed this question, which he posed as being from the American people in the wake of the attacks on 9/11. He offered this reply:
“I ask you to live your lives and hug your children. I know many citizens have fears tonight, and I ask you to be calm and resolute, even in the face of a continuing threat.
I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here.
“We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.
I ask you to continue to support the victims of this tragedy with your contributions. Those who want to give can go to a central source of information, Libertyunites.org, to find the names of groups providing direct help in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The thousands of FBI agents who are now at work in this investigation may need your cooperation, and I ask you to give it. I ask for your patience with the delays and inconveniences that may accompany tighter security and for your patience in what will be a long struggle.
“I ask your continued participation and confidence in the American economy. Terrorists attacked a symbol of American prosperity; they did not touch its source.
“America is successful because of the hard work and creativity and enterprise of our people. These were the true strengths of our economy before September 11, and they are our strengths today.
“And finally, please continue praying for the victims of terror and their families, for those in uniform and for our great country. Prayer has comforted us in sorrow and will help strengthen us for the journey ahead. Tonight I thank my fellow Americans for what you have already done and for what you will do.”
Nowhere in your answer, president Bush, did you say we’d be expected to give up our liberties. Nowhere did you outline how the Patriot Act would allow for warrantless search and seizure, phone tapping, packet sniffing, drone surveillance, and our children being groped by TSA agents at the airport.
Could you have imagined your successor, who ran and won espousing the need for peace, would order the assassination of an American citizen without arrest, trial, or conviction in court of law? Is that what’s expected of us? That we should sit by, silent, as the founding principles of liberty, which you exhorted us to live by, get trampled on?
I propose an addendum to your answer, president Bush. That we live with continual commitment to the cause of liberty. And that as part of that cause we commit to education and open discussion about the things that led to the attacks on 9/11.
For some people games are “just games” and I get that. I’m an avid proponent of entertainment for entertainment’s sake, sometimes. But I also believe games have a tremendous opportunity to instigate thought, and through agency and interactivity, analyze perspectives otherwise more unwieldy in other media.
At the end of Splinter Cell: Conviction, the most recent game in the series, Sam Fisher ends up in the White House, trying to save the president. The NSA division Sam used to work for in prior Splinter Cell games, Third Echelon, has become corrupt and has worked with a terrorist group to instigate acts of terror to leverage more power for itself within the government.
It’s getting closer, I think to myself as I watch the scene on YouTube, trying to refresh myself before writing this article.
It’s still cheesy, Hollywood-esque, riddled with cliches, and over the top dialogue — but it’s closer. Maybe someone at Ubisoft has thought about the kinds of things I’ve discussed today. Maybe they’re trying to be a truer, more honest, delve more into the gray.
Nineteen terrorists changed the world. I don’t think we can change it back. But games, like the other media, have an opportunity to challenge us, educate us, and instigate thought in a way that leads us to perceive what we didn’t before — the scary, complicated truths.
Nineteen terrorists changed the world. I said, I don’t think we can change it back. But we can change it. Grandiose as it sounds, I think games can help.