Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Christine Corcos




Coordination between public health officials and various police forces is the aim, but Hollywood often portrays it as an uneasy alliance. The scientists and physician heroes are presumably interested in the preservation of life and prevention of harm. Law enforcement and security forces aim to contain the harm and bring the perpetrators to justice.


by Christine A. Corcos

The recent outbreaks of anthrax infection and exposure, and the current lively discussion over wholesale smallpox vaccination, whether or not they are linked to the events of September 11, 2001 are both horrific and strangely reminiscent of some of the kinds of biological screen destruction that Hollywood has imagined for us over the past fifty years. Television brought us scenes of New York City and the Pentagon, and the crash in Pennsylvania that seemed both unbelievable and eerily familiar, life imitating art, partly because we are used to seeing (imaginary) scenes of destruction on the screen. The continuing media coverage of the hour by hour investigation of attempts to terrorize us recreate for us the real-time anguish of watching friends or loved ones undergo injury or illness. It also recalls for us the frightening stories we are familiar with from many movies. It follows a familiar pattern: the revelation or speculation that weapons of mass destruction exist, that a national enemy is deliberately manufacturing and stockpiling them, and that it plans to use them against us. We see public health officials and law enforcement (including the military) go into action, often fighting over turf and the proper procedures. We see the press (usually personified by an aggressive reporter) announcing information dramatically, bit by bit, seeming to want to inflame the public. The films familiarize us with certain health protocols, to the extent that we are now hearing real-life victims of the attacks criticize the CDC and others in authority for failing to act quickly enough, that is, with the kind of organized, mass approach that we see in films such as The Andromeda Strain. Indeed, we recognize the fellows in the HazMat suits from television; in their elaborate white costumes they seem quite unreal and quite inhuman.

The enemy may be from outer space, as in films such as War of the Worlds (1953 and remakes) or Independence Day (1996). It may be the result of human-made experimentation that results in accidental escape into the environment or intentional destruction, as in Night of the Lepus (1972), creating not viral plagues but plagues of mutated animals or insects. It may result from outer space contamination of the atmosphere, as in The Andromeda Strain (1971). Or it may, as in some of the scenarios created for us by media commentators and government officials, be the result of malicious tampering, either by a foreign power or by disaffected individuals among us. In every case, however, Hollywood presents us both with an imminent biological or chemical threat and speculates about the ability of the government to deal with the public health and law enforcement crises that result.

Coordination between public health officials and various police forces is the aim, but Hollywood often portrays it as an uneasy alliance. The scientists and physician heroes are presumably interested in the preservation of life and prevention of harm. Law enforcement and security forces aim to contain the harm and bring the perpetrators to justice. As far back as 1950 the classic Panic in the Streets, set in New Orleans, features an Army physician (Richard Widmark) as the hero; in tandem with a local police officer he tracks down a killer suffering from bubonic plague. His first mission is to locate the sick man; unlike the police he is not necessarily interested in bringing him to justice. He and the police officer work well together, however, sending the message that all government workers have the welfare of the public at heart. Although the title of the film implies that the city's residents are suffering from mass hysteria, the movie actually demonstrates how public health officials endeavor to promote calm and explain the procedures necessary to protect the citizenry's health. The movie was remade in 1973 as Killer By Night (also called The City By Night). The physician hero has become a civilian, the plague is diphtheria, the sick man is a cop killer, and the doctor has a more difficult time convincing the police officer that public health is the first priority. Much of the film, as the title suggests, takes place at night, unlike Panic in the Streets, which is characterized by daylight scenes. The changes in attitude and ambience track the anti-government, anti-police notions of the period.

Preventing the plague, accidental or intentional, that biological weapons could cause is the theme of many films and television episodes. That prevention almost always takes the form of covert action on the part of U. S. national security organizations, as in Avalanche Express (1979). American operatives try to facilitate the escape of a Soviet general with information about the USSR's biological weapons program. The possibility that a foreign government is stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and may plan to use them against the U.S. is often dramatized. Indeed, the short lived television series The Burning Zone (UPN 1996-1997) postulated a top secret group of biologists whose sole mission is to track down and prevent the human race's destruction by a group known as "The Dawn." Obviously, regular law enforcement is powerless to save us from this threat. The unintended consequences theme is obvious in films such as Deep Space (1987) in which an American satellite armed with a biological weapon crashes to earth, accidentally letting the weapon loose among the unsuspecting populace. Again, the local police must deal with the problem.

This kind of official failure is the theme of George Romero's The Crazies (1973) in which a Pennsylvania town suffers the fallout from biological weapons. The Army is unable to contain the threat. Interestingly, the "biological/chemical weapons accident" is sometimes used to prevent the public from discovering threats of a different kind, as in the X-Files episode Fallen Angel. We are so well conditioned to understand that such weapons might accidentally be let loose and that the military might have to prohibit our access to the affected area that, the show suggests, we willingly accept such stories as an explanation (or cover story) for events that are far more sinister. Biological/chemical accidents are no longer something unusual and frightening; they are almost expected. The problem with the military's final report on Roswell ("really, this is the last time we will come up with an explanation for this, this really is what happened, unlike the last four times we gave you an explanation") is not that it didn't make sense, but that television and the movies have already convinced us that biological and chemical accidents (or military experiments gone horribly wrong) are regularly the cover-up for truths that our government doesn't want us to know. Interestingly, physicians and other health care workers are not automatically swallowing the government's demand that they provide smallpox and other inoculations for the general population. They have legitimate health care concerns about the dangers of smallpox vaccines. Will the rest of us begin, perhaps at the urging of the creative media, to consider other, more sinister reasons for such opposition?

Biological weapons in the hands of a foreign government, albeit an unfriendly one, is one thing. Foreign governments can and do react to political and military pressure. But biological weapons in the hands of terrorists is quite another, and it is the theme of films like The Berlin Conspiracy (1992), in which such weapons fall into the hands of terrorists. The threat to all governments forces the Western allies and the former Eastern Bloc to cooperate to prevent the sale of these weapons on the black market. This kind of fictional cooperation expresses the humanitarian hope that humans, whatever their political differences, will work together if the threat is great enough, and is to the human race as a whole. But it is usually portrayed at the individual level, demonstrating how human beings can learn to get along if they get to know each other. It rarely shows governments working together and overcoming turf wars and national security fears.

In the science fiction series Crusade (TNT/Warner Brothers, 1999), a followup series to Babylon 5, the military and the scientific establishment are engaged in trying to find a cure for a plague that aliens have loosed on the universe, after the military has failed to forestall the activities of followers of its alien enemies. Other post-apocalyptic films, in which biological weapons rather than nuclear ones have destroyed society and law include The Terror Within (1988). In movies such as War of the Worlds or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien beings themselves stand in for the biological infestation that will kill all human life. In War of the Worlds, the military is powerless to protect us against the threat. Only the happenstance of Terran biology destroys the invaders. In the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the physician (psychiatrist) who should protect his patients from the threat actually becomes one of the invaders. Those few humans who know the truth convince the authorities of the danger too late to save their friends. Even in such films as The Thing (1951) the original film with James Arness (who also starred in Them! a 1954 film about mutant ants) the danger from the alien being becomes a danger from within as the being takes over the bodies of various individuals in the story. The biological 5th Column theme appears not only in the remakes of The Thing but also in television episodes inspired by the story such as the X_Files ("Ice").

This lag between the identification of a potential threat and comprehension of its magnitude gives rise to a great deal of the terror that such attacks cause. If the police or military fail to protect us from physical invaders we can still buy weapons and mount a defense If a public entity, such as the CDC, fails to react appropriately or quickly enough, we are powerless. Even without conspiracy theories as an explanation, we are so conditioned to believe in the incompetence of government officials and the insensitivity and ignorance of bureaucrats that we question whether we need to start manufacturing Cipro in our basements. Further, our lack of medical knowledge leaves us at the mercy of health workers at the very time that the government and the media ask us to wonder about their motives and their commitments to us.

In some cases, of course, the scientist is the evil doer, and because of our national committment to individual freedoms, the police can step in only after a crime has been committed and death or injury occurs. The ebola virus, first described to us in books such as Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, becomes the plague of choice in Airboss II: Preemptive Strike (1998) and Virus (1995); in both films the protagonist discovers a plot on the part of the government and other officials either to spread the virus or to prevent treatment. Conspiracy runs rampant in these films, so that while we have not yet heard suggestions that the anthrax outbreak is the work of some government agency, we are hearing criticisms from certain sectors that some affected segments of the population, most notably Congress, are getting better medical care than others. The suggestion that those in charge care more about their own class than about the general population strikes at the very heart of the notion of American democracy. It is exactly the kind of class warfare that feeds on panic caused by national disaster. And, given the common film images of corruption among government bureaucrats, we should expect to hear more of it.

Television and movies have set the standard very high for officials attempting to deal with the current biological threat. We are so familiar with the legal and medical procedures that we believe are routine that we watch with a critical eye to see if they are followed. The cautious statements of real life officials seem to hide sinister truths; we sense they must know more than they are divulging, because we've seen in the movies that the government always covers up the truth in an attempt to control the public. Our familiarity with a real biological attack comes from the many fictional ones we have seen on the screen. We know how things should be; the government should have contained the problem by now, or some heroic journalist should have given us the truth so that we can defend ourselves. That they have not demonstrates the extent to which life does not imitate art and adds to the uncertainty and terror of our times.

Posted January 30, 2003

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