It’s hard for me to describe the mixture of pleasures and pains, both of them quite intense, that I feel reading Holy Terror.
The pleasure tends to be artistic, primarily visual. The pain tends to be political, and it’s enough to make me wince.
Often, that reaction changes page by page. Occasionally, it even combines in a single panel.
Holy Terror begins this before the story even starts. Its inside covers consist of a bold image of nails, obviously from a bomb, against a red background. It’s only an inside cover, but it’s a tremendously strong visual, instantly recalling the horror of the homemade bomb, strapped with nails to do more damage to civilians. This is a horror with which we’re all too familiar today, and it’s horrific enough to make our minds stagger to take it in. Hence the red background and the chaotic sense of nails, themselves little more than short, thick lines, scattered against this red. The image immediately puts the reader in the position of someone standing near a nail bomb, and this effect is so powerful that, if I stare at the image, I find myself feeling the urge to duck.
Alan Moore’s recently spoken out against Frank Miller’s statements about the Occupy movement, and I couldn’t agree more with what Moore’s said. But the image recalls the idea Moore used in his own 9/11 story, “This is Information.” There’s no doubt that story, while tremendously moving emotionally, was far more intellectual and more nuanced than Holy Terror. But its central motif, that the fall of the World Trade Center towers produced a loss of information, is reflected in Miler’s image too. There’s a loss of information being depicted here, in which the world goes red and all that matters are these little lines, now imbued with deadly power, flying at the reader.
It’s not the strongest visual in Holy Terror, but it’s remarkable in its power, which is directly proportional to its extremely minimal composition. The mind quickens at the thought of what the image represents, only to reassure itself that this is only ink, only lines and splotches against red.
On the other hand, we soon get Miller’s notorious opening quotation. It’s impossible not to see immediately how this seems to equivocate all of Islam with terrorism. The same sort of quotes may be found for Judaism or for Christianity, as Colin Smith has eloquently reminded us. In fact, studies have shown that the majority of Americans, when read such passages from the Bible and asked to identify the religion from which they stem, wrongly believe they must come from the Koran — which speaks volumes about their underlying Islamophobia, as well as their lack of knowledge of their own religions. Miller’s opening quotation should therefore immediately send red flags to the reader.
The story’s opening three pages each consist of a single image, and they’re immensely powerful.
The first is a close-up of weather, of wind and rain and snow, reduced to streaks of white against a black background. Starting with an essentially indecipherable close-up is a brave choice, in a narrative work, but it’s also one that focuses the reader on the artwork immediately. And there’s a beauty to the image, even on its own, abstract terms, in which white splotches overlap grey streaks. We yet don’t know what we’re looking at, but we should already understand that, at least visually, this is something bold and beautiful. It also connects with the earlier nail imagery, by beginning with the most minimal.
From here, Miller gives us the traditional establishing shot, showing Empire City and its Statue of Justice. His technique, rendering the image in nothing but blacks and whites without any grey, is familiar for those who have read Sin City, but it’s still powerful. The image’s minimalism, in which the details of buildings on a black background can be rendered simply by the absence of white, is phenomenal, and this helps to make those skyscrapers feel volumetric and heavy upon the page. This effect is remarkable, because it manages to achieve more with less: we feel the mass of those buildings, their floors stacked upon each other, far more than we would in a traditional rendering. And there’s the sea, violently chopping behind the statue, turbulent. The image is itself beautiful, a masterpiece of minimalism, but it also conveys Empire City — and by extension, America — as something battered, under siege by Nature herself.
In the third page, Miller shifts to a close-up of the statue’s face. It is, as a work of art, a titanic accomplishment of minimalism, suitable for framing. Perhaps most remarkably, despite this minimalism, it looks like a statue. That’s not easy to pull off. It even looks large and imposing, even if we haven’t already seen the statue on the previous page.
The statue isn’t only battered by the elements, but she’s blind. Of course, this is a traditional depiction of Justice, wearing a blindfold and carrying scales with which to objectively weigh the merits of any particular case. The scales go back to ancient Egyptian gods, and this trope was adopted by various gods of ancient Greece and Rome. The blindfold is far more recent, dating back only to about 1500, and is supposed to represent impartiality.
The statue, while representing Justice, also echoes the Statue of Liberty. Justice is typically depicted with a sword in her other hand, representing the punishment she stands ready to mete out. This statue, however, holds a tablet in her left hand, precisely echoing the Statue of Liberty. And of course, it’s located offshore of Empire City, much as the Statue of Liberty is to New York City.
It’s easy, at the point in the narrative, to dismiss this imagery as little more than an establishing shot, expanded with Miller’s typical artistic flair to three full pages. But opening images and sequences always set the tone for the work to follow, and Miller’s done so remarkably well.
Empire City is besieged by the elements, much as it is by the growing terrorist storm. Implicitly, this threat is as obvious as the weather is visible. Yet the city, implicitly like America before 9/11, is sleeping: the sequence occurs at night, after all, and there’s little sign of activity, outside of some lights (and some super-heroes, as we’ll soon see).
This is hardly a radical interpretation of history. In fact, the metaphor of waking a sleeping giant, once used for the U.S. about Pearl Harbor, was revived after 9/11. Osama bin Laden had already declared war on the U.S. and struck the U.S.S. Cole, without reprisal. And Bush, early in his administration, openly said that terrorism wasn’t a priority and further ignored warning signs of 9/11.
More disturbing, however, is the way in which this sequence reinterprets the Statue of Justice’s blindfold. To the extent that the Statue of Justice echoes the Statue of Liberty, which itself represents America, one can say that America, at this point in the story, is blind to the terrorist threat all around her — willfully blind even, since this blindness is the result of a blindfold and not a natural deficiency. This infuses that already stunning image of the statue with resonance and meaning.
Such an interpretation becomes troubling, however, when we consider that Justice’s blindfold traditionally represents impartiality, or equal treatment under the law. Implicitly, this blindness to the threat of terrorism is rooted in America’s desire to be fair. That may not be historically true, despite American rhetoric, when it comes to Muslim nations, but this sense of fairness is part of America’s myth of itself. And at issue isn’t only U.S. foreign policy, but cultural sensitivity. Miller’s not necessarily condemning that here, as a pre-9/11 mode. If anything, he’s praising it as an idealistic attempt to be impartial. But he’ll soon make clear that, at least in his opinion, this idealism cannot survive in the War on Terror.
That’s intensely disturbing, because it implies that Justice can no longer be blind. The text virtually demands that we read this as stating that Muslims cannot be granted, after 9/11, equal status under the law. That’s a radical statement, and one can certainly interpret this as a slippery slope, in which America loses the very sense of equality that makes it exceptional and even worth preserving. Taken too far, we could quite responsibly claim that Miller is rejecting the very notion of equality under the law.
But we should also be mindful that this same view sadly isn’t exceptional today in America, nor in American history. We certainly could extrapolate from Miller’s symbolism to say that Miller’s rejecting the basic principle of equal justice under the law. This could and has lead, for example, to suspension of habeus corpus to terrorism suspects, despite this being a right that America’s founding fathers explicitly fought for. As appalling as this is, it’s not unprecedented: we must never forget that the U.S. interned tens of thousands of its own Japanese citizens, following Pearl Harbor.
But while such troubling actions might be justified by what Miller’s symbolism, they’re not mandated by it. This same removal of Justice’s blindfold may also be seen in lesser measures, such racial or religious profiling in airports. Many experts don’t believe such profiling works, and it may easily become a substitution for real and careful detection. But the majority of Americans certainly support such measures, under the reasoning that the threshold for suspicious behavior ought to be somewhat lower for, say, an Arab or a person wearing traditional Islamic dress boarding a plane than the average Westerner.
I don’t agree with that, personally — a terrorist is probably more likely to wear a T-shirt than a burqa, and terrorist leaders explicitly tell their followers to blend into Western society, even pardoning wild drinking and employment of prostitutes under the guise of blending in.
But all of this is present, explicitly or implicitly, in Miller’s first three pages. They offer powerful, even masterful visuals which also manage to set the tone and ideological stakes for all that follows. Their meaning and their artistry are complex matters worthy of serious discussion and debate.
But we can’t fail to notice that this introductory sequence, which sets up the terms of the narrative, is also about judgment. That’s what Justice’s blindfold represents: the ability to remain objective, to consider the case and to not allow one’s self to be biased by the person involved.
Holy Terror asks important questions about what constitutes justice. It doesn’t present both sides of the case. Rather, like any good lawyer, he presents his own side of the case in the strongest terms possible. He rigs the terms of his own narrative, eliding Islam with terrorism, much as advocates of torture lovingly present fantasy scenarios in which it might be used to stop an imminent attack.
That leaves us to decide, ultimately, whether to wear that blindfold or not.
Of course, we’re judging more than one thing. We’re certainly free to judge Holy Terror‘s politics. But we must also judge its artistry.
And here’s the kicker: if we fail to be objective, if we judge those artistic merits not based on the power of the text but on what we feel about its politics, or about Frank Miller personally, then we’ve ceded the most crucial argument.
That argument isn’t really whether all Muslims are terrorists. Such elision is absurd. It’s fear-mongering on its face.
No, the real argument, the more important one, is whether justice can be blind at all. Whether this experiment, in religious toleration and equality under the law, can preserve.
That experiment isn’t just America. It’s the entire West. It’s the Enlightenment itself, with its concern for religious and political toleration, with its emphasis upon science and logic over superstition.
At issue isn’t whether Frank Miller’s work of propaganda is true.
It’s whether propaganda is all there is.
I’d respectfully suggest that this is the real “clash of civilizations” facing the West.
Not whether democracy can survive the few thousand Islamic fundamentalists, scattered across the globe, who might actually have the power and the willpower necessary to do our nation harm. Regardless of what Frank Miller presents, that’s a palty and pathetic enemy. Capable of hurting us, yes. But defined by its impotence. Defined by its need to hijack Western technology, to bomb through suicide rather than with smart drones, precisely because it has so little power, relative to our own.
No, our way of life is under seige, but from within. We see it in those eager to use this paltry external enemy to overthrow religious tolerance and the civil liberties that so concerned this nation’s founding fathers. We see it in a patriotic and religious mindset that oddly echoes the Islamic fundamentalist threat it has hyped, like so many threats since, into another Hitler.
We see this in the Bush administration’s desire to move beyond “reality-based” foreign policy. We see this in Frank Miller’s statement (echoing many defenders of Fox News) that “news objectivity is a twentieth-century myth.” But of course, we see also this on the left, in the extreme corners of cultural relativism and in phony statistics (which it often ardently defended when caught) — practices that helped paved the way for similar right-wing arguments.
To those who deny that impartiality is possible, merely because it is difficult, we must respectfully say no.
We shall not defeat fundamentalism with fundamentalism. Christian fundamentalism is no antidote to Islamic fundamentalism. Nor is the fundamentalism of political correctness, which has its own orthodoxy and inherited wisdom.
So by all means, let us not fail to condemn 9/11. Nor honor killings. Nor any of the real-world horror Miller depicts.
But let us not, in our rage, strip away that blindfold and reject the very concept of fairness. If it’s not right to judge the son for the crimes of the father, it’s surely not right to judge an entire group for the crimes of a few.
Holy Terror is a story in which, in opposing Islamic fanaticism, the Fixer becomes virtually identical to those he opposes. To some, this means the terrorists win — and indeed, this was part of bin Laden’s intent with 9/11.
But for Miller’s critics, we must be careful not to do likewise. To forsake objectivity in addressing Holy Terror is to concede the underlying point.
It’s this test that Holy Terror‘s introductory sequence poses, knowingly or not. Like all propaganda, Miller’s answer to this test need not be swallowed whole.
But he’s indisputably right about one thing: we can’t afford to answer wrongly.