Terrorteens, Suburban Dreams

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

The rise of the teenager as a consumer was accompanied by a series of moral panics and an acute sense of crisis that, as Jon Savage has pointed out, was translated by the film industry into a sci-fi horror metaphor: "our kids are turning into (the) Martians (that we can’t admit to being)". Today, generation gap paranoia has been replaced with a general acceptance of teen vitality as the driving force behind social renewal – a utopian teen world in which youth is not only a role model, but a template. Its defining lifestyles, fashion and culture having been gradually absorbed into the ‘parent’ culture, the teenager is slowly disappearing. Even boredom, apathy and the political insensitivity that once defined punk as the last and ultimate teen rebellion have become so widespread in a political climate in which no one is interested any more in the ’adult’ responsibilities of democratic participation that the only alternative left for disaffected youth is to become more orthodox and conservative than previous generations – Christian rock fans, straight-edge skaters and new born fundamentalists all serve as reminders that today’s teens reject the careless hedonism of the past, long ago usurped by their ever-teen parents. And in the wake of the demise of what fed suburban parental nightmares of teenage transgression from the 1950 to the present - youth gangs, speed addicts, runaways, teen prostitution – a new evil, as abstract and alien as unruly teenage boys and girls, has emerged.

As Mike Davis demonstrates in "The City of Quartz" the same policing methods that are being used in "the War on Terror" were also in common in the LAPD's other uncompromising war, "on youth violence", during the eighties. Satellite and electronic surveillance, house to house searches through entire inner-city blocks and a general tendency towards abuse of civil rights have been applied against both Al Qaida suspects and poor black teenagers in Los Angles. The middle classes have always needed a symbolic enemy, crucial to balance the tendency of democracy towards expansion with the safeguarding of certain liberal rights, a negotiation between ideas of justice and equality, on the one hand, and notions of community, class, taste and respectably, on the other.

"It’s springtime again – we’re free", grumbles Grandpa Simpson outside the snow-cleared driveway to the Springfield elderly house, only to add a second later - "I don’t like the look of these teenagers". The symbolic enemy - be it a teen gang member, a serial killer or a Muslim terrorist - serves as a constant reminder to the public that there is a healthy tension between destruction and regeneration within the democracy system that creates its own negations and dictates the Modus Operandi of its worst enemies. "Looks to me that you’ve created here exactly what you were trying to escape from in the city" says the Texan car dealer in "Over the Edge", referring to the delinquent teenagers of the clean, quiet suburb from hell. The parents, assembled in the new highschool hall, don't understand what happened to their lovely kids, much in the same way that the American public was flabbergasted at 'the ungratefulness of the third world' on the unleashing of the terrorist attacks.

Gus Van-Sant’s Elephant, winner of the Palm D’Or at the 2003 Cannes festival and the best American film in years, is a brilliant illustration of this inability of Americans to break out of their own small, well-defined and safeguarded suburban bubbles. Empathy towards poor third world countries is, in the current American political discourse, almost as obscene as any sense of solidarity between alienated high school kids, organised within an oppressive structure into small social cells of geeks and freaks, jocks and cheerleaders, stoners and loners, abusers and victims and finally mass-murders and victims. When the film’s critics chose to condemn or praise the absence of an explanation for the violence that is the inevitable outcome of such alienation, depending on their political alignment, they all seemed to miss the fact that it was contained within the structural frameworks that are embedded in the film, from social groups to cinematographic fragmentation. What the film makes abundantly clear is that the only thing that cuts through the extreme form of fragmentary individualism that is the American high school and to some extent America in general is a violent catastrophe, only in blood, guts and explosives can the United States be truly united.

The European terror wave of the seventies, with its roots in juvenile Marxism and its appetite for destruction without a cause, had already transformed politicised teens into organised militants. Back then, terrorteens were already battling themselves. "In fashion as in everything else, capitalism can only go backwards -they've nowhere to go - they're dead" declares Communiqué 8 of the British Angry Brigade from 1971, denouncing the exact same thing that made the teenager what it was in the first place – autonomous purchase power. The surplus of hyper-consumerism of the fifties, the teenager, was already dead by the hand of the teenage terrorists in 1971.

The American student terrorists, The Weathermen, whose "infantile philosophy was an incendiary mix of Marx, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, lubricated by free love, LSD and daddy’s money" declared in March 1970: "Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks...". Tying together left wing radicalism with the traditional realm of the teenager – sexual liberties and narcotic substances. But now, the much-feared teenager has completely morphed into a terrorist. While in Africa 14 year old kids fight guerrilla wars, in Israel, many of the recent suicide bombings were carried out by teenage boys and girls, the youngest of which was not yet 15.

"We're just bored teenagers…when we're sitting watching the planes burn up through the night like meteorites" sang teenage punk sensations "The Adverts" in 1977, and in September 11th, 2001 the entire population of the West was transformed into bored teens watching burning planes on TV screens – participating passively in the spectacle of destruction and pathos. The sad reality about terrorism, though, is that no "war on" and no selective hits by guided missiles can stop it. Anyone can devise a home-made bomb with some crude D.I.Y. chemistry and very basic knowledge in electronics, the kind that bored teenagers can easily get off the internet in their bedrooms, the same fifteen year olds who nearly brought the internet to a standstill with their mutated worm viruses. Terror does not require infrastructures or commanding hierarchies, and needs very little organisation and expertise. It is war for non-professionals, just like three chords punk rock is music for non-professionals, played by amateurs at home and pressed on vinyl by bedroom labels.

International terrorism is a spectacle, not intended to throw away the powers it fights but to undermine it by exposing its vulnerability, its paradoxical conception of security and defence. Militant Palestinians will never commit a suicide bombing without leaving a messianic confessional home video tape. Famous suicide attacks will often be recreated as part art installations, part grotesque carnival rides in the Gaza stripe. Suicide bombers are perceived with the same mixture of reverence, horror and nostalgia that earned the great icons of teenage angst their t-shirt status – the Gaza martyrs, Sid Vicious, James Dean – all young and carefree and dead. The teenage gunboys of the Trenchcoat Mafia received the same treatment from the American Media, they were portrayed as both social outcasts – freaks, and oppressed desperados – revolutionaries. Perhaps the most adequate reaction to the mass shooting at Columbine High, up until the wonderful Elephant was Douglas Coupland’s art installation, which featured a digital conversation of ringing mobile phones, attempting communication from deep inside the guts of bloodstained school bags, alienated technological youth and hyper-mediated violence trapped within each other in a broken cycle of miscommunication.

Beneath the balaclava, the terrorist is like a twisted mirror image of the teenager. Although Eastern fundamentalism thrives in opposition to the Western decadence that gave birth to the teen-consumer, the same mixture of apathy and radical dissent unites them, a marriage of alienation and utopia. Whether disaffected teens are seen as folk demon threats, or terrorists unmasked as gun toting teenagers, their role as outsiders is always in proportion to the degree to which it is a reflection of the anxieties that define the society and culture which is the host to their parasites. If, in a sense, we are all teenagers now, is it then only a matter of time until we are all, as in J. G. Ballard’s Millenium People, embrace terrorism as the only remaining existential weapon in the struggle for a postmodern identity?