‘Harold and Kumar’ Don’t ‘Snuke’ Around 9/11

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks drastically changed American society. National security became the foremost political issue, a new war was started and the nation’s consciousness was forever altered. As with all great changes in society, the world of entertainment was also affected.
Immediately following 9/11, a number of movies, such as “Men in Black II” and “Spider-Man,” were edited so as not to include the World Trade Center. Several songs were removed entirely from the airwaves. The sequel to “True Lies,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger was set to fight terrorists in the Middle East, was outright cancelled.
Following the immediate shock of 9/11, Hollywood would not begin to weigh in on the event for several years. The first major step toward open discussion in the entertainment industry was Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” in 2004. Two years later, the films “United 93” and “World Trade Center” were released.
These films failed to deal with the most important part of 9/11—its aftermath. Movies have been almost entirely limited to sobering looks at one of the worst days in American history. The true impact of 9/11 cannot be measured by the number of bodies or dollars of damage, but by how the event has affected our culture and perceptions of the world.
Only productions on the fringes of mainstream popularity have tried to tackle these issues. South Park has made numerous attacks on post-9/11 paranoia, most notably in the episode “Snuke,” where Cartman prevented an attack on the United States using racism. “Arrested Development” took numerous shots at the USA Patriot Act and the paranoia surrounding Iraq, in an episode in which a picture of a character’s testicles was enough to put the entire country on alert. Now, in perhaps my most nerdy reference yet, “Battlestar Gallactica” was an allegory for Afghanistan and the Iraq War.
Hollywood stopped testing the waters and dove in with “Harold and Kumar: Escape from Guantanamo Bay.” The movie follows a Middle Eastern and Asian-American stoner team as they try to board a plane to Amsterdam. They are singled out because of their bong and quickly sent to Guantanamo Bay, successfully lampooning American post-9/11 racism and paranoia.
The movie has done well in theatres and will probably perform even better on DVD since one cannot bring a pipe into the theatre. It shows that at least a portion of America is ready to laugh at what their society has become. The story of Harold and Kumar is not that outlandish in a world where an old lady who donated money to the wrong charity was considered an “enemy combatant” by a government lawyer. Harold and Kumar do not live in a universe all that different from our own, and we have grown comfortable with laughing at our post-9/11 fears.
Our political and social landscape is defined by paranoia. Hillary Clinton boasts that in a national crisis, she would be the best person to trust. There was a famous commercial, featuring a scared mother and daughter, running in Pennsylvania as votes became precious. Of course, this campaign method implies that there absolutely will be a national terrorist crisis in the next four years. The fervor surrounding the suspicions of a terrorist attack reached a comedic climax with the color-coded warning system. Every morning, we would wake up and be told that there was going to be a terrorist attack somewhere, somehow, with no particular degree of certainty.
With the fear of attack came racism. The face of the terrorist was forever solidified as a Middle Eastern man between the ages of 18 to 30. Suddenly, this entire demographic became suspect. They shifted from our stereotypical cab drivers and Quick-E-Mart clerks to the shady characters in the shadowy alleys of America. Later, as fear of attack from foreign invaders increased, Americans grew suspicious of Korea, drastically increasing paranoia of immigrants.
The adventures of Harold and Kumar touch on both of these facets of American life using over-the-top humor. The duo’s ethnicity is constantly brought into question, as people around them suspect them of terrorist activities. The suspicion and its consequences may have been blown out of proportion for the sake of comedy, but its basis is firmly in reality.
Hollywood needs more movies willing to take a humorous look at the post-9/11 world. The only movie besides Harold and Kumar to take a comedic look at change in culture since 9/11 was “Team America: World Police” over four years ago. The entertainment industry has displayed a serious lack of commitment to discussing the issue of race and how stereotypes have changed in the last seven years. Harold and Kumar are an important step toward opening dialogue and portraying the world in a different light.

Kevin Pease is a third-year psychology and social behavior major. He can be reached at kpease@uci.edu.