Back in the mid-1990s, in my book, The End of Victory Culture, I wrote the following about the adventure films of my childhood (and those of earlier decades):
"For the nonwhite, annihilation was built not just into the on-screen Hollywood spectacle but into its casting structures. Available to the Other were only four roles: the invisible, the evil, the dependent, and the expendable…. When the inhabitants of these borderlands emerged from their oases, ravines, huts, or tepees, they found that there was but one role in which a nonwhite (usually played by a white actor) was likely to come out on top, and that was the villain with his fanatical speeches and propensity for odd tortures. Only as a repository for evil could the nonwhite momentarily triumph. Whether an Indian chief, a Mexican bandit leader, or an Oriental despot, his pre-World War II essence was the same. Set against his shiny pate or silken voice, his hard eyes or false laugh, no white could look anything but good."
Having spent a recent evening in my local multiplex watching the latest superhero blockbuster, Iron Man, all I can say is: such traditions obviously die hard (even in the age of Barack Obama). The Afghans and assorted terrorists of the film, when not falling into that "invisible" category — as backdrops for the heroics or evil acts of the real actors — are out of central casting from a playbook of the 1930s filled with images of Fu Manchu or Ming the Merciless: Right down to that shiny bald pate, the silken voice, the hard eyes, and that propensity for "odd tortures."
It’s lucky, then, that, in the real world, the Bush administration has made the decision to expand our no-charges, no-recourse, no-courts, no-lawyers prison network in Afghanistan to hold such monsters. Give Eric Schmitt and Tim Golden of the New York Times credit for their recent front-page scoop: "The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to build a new, 40-acre detention complex on the main American military base in Afghanistan, officials said, in a stark acknowledgment that the United States is likely to continue to hold prisoners overseas for years to come… [the new prison will be] a more modern and humane detention center that would usually accommodate about 600 detainees–or as many as 1,100 in a surge–and cost more than $60 million." The real money quote in the piece, however, lay buried inside the fold. The reporters quote an anonymous Pentagon official speaking of the infamous older American prison at Bagram Air Base where some of those "odd tortures" have taken place: "It’s just not suitable. At some point, you have to say, ‘That’s it. This place was not made to keep people there indefinitely.’"