Monday, March 19, 2012

William Mastrosimone, On His Play Cat's-Paw

This essay from playwright William Mastrosimone appears in the acting script of Cat's-Paw.

I wrote Cat's-Paw in 1984. It was s time when I could not help but admire the sheer nerve of the environmentalists who confronted the seal pub harvesters on Arctic ice floes. Many of these unsung heroes felt the blunt force of the hunters' clubs. Other environmental groups pounded 12 inch nails into trees, nails that would fragment loggers' chainsaw blades sending shrapnel through the hair. Many loggers were injured. One lost an eye. That's when I took a step back. Not long after, a pipe-bomb injured two environmentalists before they could deliver it. Bulldozers were burned at a construction site on a mountain top where a ski report was planned. A splinter group of Greenpeace filled the hull of an old freighter with cement and sailed the seas ramming, and sometimes sinking, whaling ships. There was a clear escalation, from the need to bear witness to the willingness to destroy property, to the willingness to kill for a cause. What were some thinking when they took as their mottoes: "Back to the Pleistocene!" and "Visualize industrial collapse!" Why, in an open society, where change is possible, were activists resorting to violence? What makes a good cause go bad?

What if there were a cause so vital to human existence that no one could deny support? If these remarkable activists held such a universally supported cause, say, clean water, and had exhausted all peaceful possibilities for change, would terrorism be justified in that case? That's how the play began.

But that is only a third of the story. Fast forward - past 9/11, past the Spanish and London train bombings - to April 2007 at Virginia Tech University. A student went on a rampage killing 32 people before taking his own life.

The next day NBC network received a package - a video tape made by the killer. The video consisted of a self-glorifying killer who chose a power costume - a tight black T-shirt and double shoulder holsters - that might have been borrowed by some Hollywood body-bag movie. Turing his face into a mask of blind rage the killer screamed threats at the camera. It wasn't enough to take revenge on the world; he needed to be understood by the world.

Experts warned that showing the tape might result in copycat incidents. NBC faced the choice: be exclusive or be responsible. NBC chose to be exclusive claiming free speech and the public's right to know. In truth, the showed the tape because that's how ratings are achieved, and the higher the ratings as per the Federal Communications Commission, the more an entity is allowed to charge for advertising.

And what does it say about the media that the killer entrusted them to his last will and testament, his video, his claim to immortality? He knew they could be counted on to show it over and over and over again. It's a perfect symbiosis. Both parties benefit from terror. The terrorist gets publicity, the media gets viewership.

But that's only two-thirds of the story. What does it say about us that we need to see the video? Information is what enables us to make good decisions in a democracy - right? but the truth is that most of information is repetitive or useless; turn is most of us have a morbid curiosity that needs to be satisfied. By giving in to our need to see mayhem, we give more power to the terrorists. We are all part of the deadly triangulation between the acts of terror, the media coverage, and the viewing.

During her tenure as P.M., Margaret Thatcher advanced a thought that we have not heeded: "Democratic nations must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of oxygen of publicity on which they depend."

Until we figure out how to stay free and still report the news, terrorist acts will involve two explosions. The primary explosion kills innocent people in the street. The secondary explosion occurs in the viewer's mind, over and over again, as a neural pathway is created. Ring bell. Bring food. Dog salivate. News is not just reported anymore; it is designed for effect. The story is edited, parts subtracted, associations established with editing in other stories and/or expert opinions or carefully chosen public reaction. The fear we felt when we first saw the event on television can be conjured again and again, at will, in video replay, as news and entertainment slowly merge. Fear is reinforced. Fear makes us malleable, and caught between the act of terror and media coverage, we exist for a time in a state of impaired judgement.

The terrorist thinks and acts in symbols, and the media appreciates the economy of image. It's not just the Twin Towers that fell but America's economic power; not the Pentagon but America's military power; not just London trains, but Britain's sense of order and peace. Terrorism and media share a capacity to inflate or flatten people. On the television screen, the fruit-fly is magnified into an eagle; the mid less thing becomes a martyr; the crime becomes a myth. And so the collaboration goes. The terrorist in his faraway cave can rest assured there are eager unwitting allies waiting to put the finishing touches on the event.

Ring bell. Dog salivate.

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