In Hurt Locker, an American bomb disposal team leads the audience into a day in the life of a US military insurgent where roadside bombs are covered with plastic bags and any Iraqi man with a cell phone is a security threat. “Every time we go out its life or death,” one soldier says to another as their Humvee leaves the American base for the center of Iraq (Bigelow, 2009). The film’s controversial subject matter, the Iraq War, inevitably scrutinizes the nature of terrorism; its stakeholders, its definition, and its elusive solution. However, Hurt Locker fails in that it simplifies rather than clarifies the nature of terrorism.

            Hurt Locker, very simply, divides the stakeholders into two parties, the American combatants and the Iraqis. There’s no argument that the movie firmly sets the American combatants on the higher ground.  Although they are not the most pleasant bunch, they are relatable. They harbor loved ones back home, relationship issues; they buy porn, they drink alcohol, and they want to have children (Bigelow, 2009). “This is about Americans who joined the military for their own reasons, out of necessity, preference, or obligation, and now find themselves out in the desert with little to nothing in the way of guiding principle” (Hill, 2009). Specialist Eldridge’s fear of death and Sgt. Sanborn’s desire for a son fleshes them out and makes them human, but markedly missing is their reason for being in Iraq or for being in the military (Bigelow, 2009). Similarly, the movie numbly counts down the squad’s remaining days in rotation (Bigelow, 2009). The New York Times says “[Hurt Locker] depicts men who risk their lives every day on the streets of Baghdad and in the desert beyond, and who are too stressed out, too busy, too preoccupied with the details of survival to reflect on larger questions about what they are doing there” (Scott, 2009). The American soldiers never ponder weapons of mass destruction, how the Middle East views the invasion, or whether their presence in Iraq is justified. What is most remarkable is how they are notably missing any principles or opinions about their presence.

            In sharp contrast, the Iraqi population in Hurt Locker is largely just a group of extras milling around the movie’s backdrop. The Guardian says, “…the mass of Iraqis are portrayed as largely mute, anonymous and threatening figures, seen away in the distance. Mainly Iraqis are just a danger to be feared, sometimes firing weapons and planting bombs but more often being shouted at or stopped, pushed or pointed at with weapons” (Adams, 2010). Very often in the movie, Iraqis are seen leering over roofs and out of windows to watch the bomb squad work. “All Iraqis seemed complicit in the violence, particularly since many were aware of the location of the bombs. Yet the bystanders said nothing — most likely because they feared reprisals from the insurgent leaders” (McKelvey, 2009).  But no Iraqi in the movie has a significant enough speaking rule to portray their point of view. The most sympathetic the movie gets is to show a small boy with a body bomb placed inside his corpse (Bigelow, 2009). But that doesn’t give the film balance. “On one side we find the savage cold blooded enemy who is there to victimize and brutalize. On the other is the lame and defenseless nobodies who are being preyed upon and used as bait, people who are being led to the slaughterhouse like lamb to the abattoir” (Rezazadeh, 2010). My pen pal captures the ethical problem with Hurt Locker’s portrayal of the Iraqi population in our correspondence, “It is easy to believe you’re fighting a good fight when your enemies are reduced to a statistic, a barbaric population that seeks to destroy the civilized world. But…Every state consists of a large plurality of opinions, beliefs and allegiances and for the media to frame a minority segment to portray their worst nature in order to justify killing them is downright unethical” (Wong, 2010). The movie makes no differentiation between terrorists and innocent civilians. Although this makes it easy to sympathize with the soldiers’ fear and their mistaken killings it’s not helpful for understanding terrorism. It’s an eerily similar situation to the one in Bloody Sunday, where the British Para’s lack of differentiation between civilians and the IRA led to an IRA recruiting spree; it wouldn’t be surprising if Al Qaeda saw similar results.

            It’s impossible to pin down a universal definition of terrorism. Looking at Hurt Locker as an isolated case, one would guess terrorism is the violent, indirect tactic of discouraging military insurgents. In that case, the terrorism in Hurt Locker is easily confused with guerilla warfare. “The primary task of the urban guerilla is to distract, to wear down, to demoralize the military regime and its repressive forces, and also to attack and destroy the wealth and property of the foreign managers” (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009). Through soldier’s eyes in Hurt Locker, the terrorists seem more preoccupied with harming insurgents than civilians. They shoot at the squad and set off the bombs the squad is trying to defuse. However, a crucial difference between terrorists and guerillas is that guerillas have a purpose to establish control over a territory (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009). Hurt Locker never addresses the purpose of the terrorists and this is a fatal flaw in the movie’s coverage of terrorism. It’s unfortunately similar to the American media’s coverage of terrorism which also fails to describe the terrorist’s purpose, “The implication of the stories, taken by themselves-and often in the aggregate- is that the violence has no proximate cause” (Moeller, 2009).  When the terrorist is portrayed as a senseless madman rather than a political actor pursuing an end goal, “terrorism seems inexplicable. Terrorists must be defined narrowly if there’s any hope of understanding them” (Moeller, 2009). Hurt Locker fails to provide a narrow definition of terrorism.

            Without a way to understand terrorism, there can be no effective solution. It’s no surprise then that Hurt Locker’s proposed solution to terrorism is traditional warfare. The Oscar-Award winning film borders on being a propaganda film. The main character is shown to be exhilarated with his work and his return to Iraq is marked with him walking into the Iraqi sunset while adrenaline-filled music plays in the background. “The film draws a sharp contrast between the tedium of American life, with its grocery-shopping, home repairs, and vapid consumerism, and the heart-pounding drama of the combat zone in Iraq” (McKelvey, 2009). In addition, on the class blog, Monica and her pen pal discuss the idea that, “The Hurt Locker could potentially have been a form of war propaganda, which further explains the high praise and attention it received” (Poore, 2010). While press coverage of the war is not portrayed within the film, the movie shares some similarities with American media coverage in that its patriotic leanings can be seen as propaganda. In describing the power the government has over the media through the information it selects and withholds, Moeller (2009) writes, “The media can become just another arm of authority, a propaganda tool to deceive, distract, and betray the public.” Hurt Locker disillusions the viewer in its suggestion for how to ‘solve’ terrorism.

            In this disillusionment, the viewer is left at the end of Hurt Locker either exhilarated at idea of enlisting in the military or in despair that the United States is going about defusing the threat of terrorism all wrong. A better approach lies in economics and studying the incentives that lie before the terrorists. Two economics professors at the University of Zurich argue that the solution to terrorism is to reduce incentives for political actors to “advance their agendas” through terrorism and encourage their incentives to advance through legal methods (Frey & Luechinger, 2002). Two ideas within their proposal are to reduce the attractiveness of committing a terrorist act and to raise the opportunity cost of committing a terrorist act (Frey & Luechinger, 2002). By decentralizing the political structure of a state, the centers of political and economic life lose their crucial importance to maintain operations and thus, lose their symbolic status; other centers can easily pick up operations without interruption (Frey & Luechinger, 2002). Additionally, in encouraging potential terrorists to visit foreign environments and discuss their intellectual ideas with those outside their isolated communities, they will be exposed to new information and contrasting beliefs which they would not have sought out on their own (Frey & Luechinger, 2002). The theory is, “Because of the high cost of discovering and verifying every bit of knowledge, people typically rely on sources of authority and the society in which they spend most of their lives. A person has also little incentive to acquire knowledge and beliefs that are at odds with the beliefs of the society he or believes in. Extremist views are therefore more likely to flourish in isolated groups of likeminded (Frey & Luechinger, 2002).

            Hurt Locker ultimately fails to provide the viewer with hope that even if a solution to terrorism is grandiose, at least it is possible. “Can’t we just shoot him?” asks one of the insurgents as they are confronted with a man who is pleading for a bomb to be removed from his body (Bigelow, 2009). The answer is no.


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Barnett, B., and Reynolds, A. (2009). Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. New      York City: Peter Lang Publishing.

Bigelow, K (Director). (2009). Hurt Locker [Motion Picture]. United States: Voltage Pictures.

Frey, B.S. & Luechinger, S. (2002, Nov. 19). How to Fight Terrorism: Alternatives to                   Deterrence. Institute for Empirical Research in Economics. Zurich IEER Working Paper           No. 137. Retrieved from:

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Wong, C. (2010, March 21). “Re: Hi.” Email to Melissa Silva.