University of Illinois at Chicago

Post-9/11 Counterterrorism Thriller Ideology: Framing Retributive Justice through Special Ops Superheroes

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posted on 2017-10-27, 00:00 authored by Bryan J Pabin
After 9/11, a set of fact-based, historically situated entertainment texts emerged in response to the real and perceived security threat of radical Islamic terrorism. These mass-produced media formations include Hollywood action movies, television shows like 24, and print fiction. This study is an interpretive textual analysis of serial novels, or counterterrorism thrillers, written between 2002 and 2008. It applies frame analysis techniques and is founded on critical cultural scholarship establishing how popular media constructs dominant ideological positions about sociocultural enterprises through discourse about ideals, morals, and principles. Five frames were revealed: An imminent doom frame contrives a constant and insidious terror threat. Two, a homeland frame constructs a “traditional” vision of a vulnerable post-9/11 patriarchal “America.” Three, the Islamic extremist frame reduces an Other to a foreign invader constantly identified as– and motivated by– Islam. Four, the failures frame foils and delegitimizes standard, legal justice responses. The framing leaves one commonsense threat response: A hero frame signifies an emerging typology replicating while modifying the celebrated U.S. hero mythos. Here, a hyper-masculine, special operations style man achieves superhero status through his extra-human qualities and journey to redeem and save the homeland. The mythic struggle between the demonized Other and single-action hero represents a prime location for ideological messaging. This messaging is also compared with the Bush Global War on Terror and with narratives from the last U.S. martial period (the Cold War), like those in Tom Clancy’s “techno-thriller” novels. Ultimately, the framework promotes retributive justice and authoritative national security. Established theories and ideas show how counterterrorism thriller readers are expected to subjugate themselves to this ideological framing, accepting and condoning the justice model and practices. Through ritualizing patriotism, relieving 9/11 anxieties, and contriving plots as “realistic,” the framework is normalized. Executive actions in the stories, including torture, rights violations, and unilateral international attacks, compromise democratic justice principles like separation of powers, human dignity, due process, and transparency. As the U.S. enters a period where fact and fiction seem increasingly conflated, dismantling texts that capitalize on those misperceptions, and manipulate knowledge for ideological purposes, is increasingly valuable.



Frohmann, Lisa


Frohmann, Lisa


Criminology, Law, and Justice

Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Committee Member

Messenger, Christian Lippmann, Matthew R Papacharissi, Zizi Ibarra, Peter R

Submitted date

May 2017

Issue date


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