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A MAN ON FIRE IN A CAGE

It’s a big production number. 

A large man in coordinated, desert-tan cammo shirt, pants and boots with matching tan ski mask is holding a burning torch down and out at a 45 degree angle. His legs are apart, and he seems like an athlete about to light the cauldron were the Olympic Games ever to be awarded to Hell. Behind him another man stands with an AK. They look professional.

The video is professional too. Blue tinted sidebars appear, isolating the man with the torch. And animated lower third reveals something in Arabic, and the sound track is the sonorous, chanting, Arabic that those of us who have been watching videos like this know is the cue that someone is about to die a horrible death. 

Torch Man takes a step forward in crisp HD, kneels, and then some editor somewhere decides to cut to slo-mo as he lowers the torch to the wet trail in the sand – only it’s not just sand: it’s crushed concrete and urban junk, the kind of thing you might see in an abandoned construction site. 

There’s a fire wipe into the next shot. Nice. So far it could be a scene from American Sniper. And in point of fact, it is indeed a scene from American Sniper, because for the first time since the invasion of Iraq we have, in American Sniper, an accurate depiction of not just what we were fighting for but what Chris Kyle spent four tours in hell fighting against – before this Zealot President just randomly started walking away from simple Status of Forces Agreements in unnamed middle eastern countries. 

The low angle pans left, following the flames as they proceed along the gasoline-soaked sand – they are barely visible in the hot desert sun, clear orange with a thin white smoke curling behind. As the flames approach the bars of the cage, we see a man standing calmly. He raises his hands. The first time I saw it I thought he was trying to protect his face. I was wrong. He doesn’t cover his eyes with his palms; he presses them together, his fingertips touching his forehead.

He is praying. 

That calm lasts for about a second. That’s as long as it takes for the flames to ignite the gasoline-soaked bottom of his forty-square-foot hell. 

The man in the orange jumpsuit then does something quite the opposite of calm as the flames explode around him and engulf his clothing, which I now realize also must be soaked with fire accelerant. He starts waving his hands like a little girl being sprayed with a super-soaker. It’s shocking in how incongruous it looks, like a Girl Scout trying to shoo away a wasp. He turns away, which is a blessing – not for him, but for us, because in an instant, a flash, in the time it takes to shout Allahu Akbar!  he is invisible in a column of flames that burns through the top bars of his cage, a good three or four feet above his head.

Now they go in for the close up, and now we can hear the screams over the ritual prayer chants of The Religion of Peace. He’s not praying now; he’s writhing and spinning, his hands to his forehead, looking down as if avoiding work on his taxes – it’s incongruous, too: such a calm, reflective position of the hands and head, as he writhes and screams and screams and screams as the thin white smoke turns black and thick. 

Wide shot, close-up, wide shot, close-up – both the camera guys and the editor know their stuff. I was in this line of work myself for a decade or two. Good pacing, seamless cuts on the action. I realize as I write this that they must have slated the video: somebody – probably AK man – had to step up to the edge of the cage, hold up a clapboard and snap it for a sync point. Just when you’re pretty sure things couldn’t get more horrible, or you couldn’t become more angry… well, you realize you were wrong.

The man on fire in the cage keeps his hands to his forehead, and now it begins to dawn on you that’s because they are welded there now: burned together into a charred ruin, a black outline in that gorgeous orange. And at this point the director will yell “cut!” and the stunt team with the extinguishers will appear, and douse the flames, and the man on fire in a cage will emerge to reveal the flame-retardant skin suit and face mask, and the cast an crew will break into applause as the man removes the flameproof mask and breaks into a grin.  

But that doesn’t happen. He collapses to his knees, right up against the cage, and for a moment as he leans forward it looks as if the blackened sphere that was once his head will emerge from between the bars. He’s not screaming anymore. His hands tear loose from his forehead.

Then, the animals that produced – and I mean really produced – this seventh-century horror bring out the hole card: the Big Close Up. He’s just a black mask now, and there’s a pretty gee-wiz video effect applied as a very professional title appears in Arabic and a Holy Man’s voice get’s the VO treatment and gives us all the lesson we are to take from this small Islamic parable.

He’s dead now, the man on fire in the cage – dear God, he had better be dead – kneeling now, leaning forward, his arms curled downward, his fingers splayed – Jazz Hands; Bob Fosse himself could have posed him thus – and as we hear the benediction of the Religion of Peace, the figure slowly leans backward – slowly, slowly – the muscles in his back stiffening as they burn. A great glob of molten something drops out of his nose. 

Backwards, backwards… and then he topples over. Then instantly – and I mean instantly — the man on fire in a cage is not extinguished, but rather snuffed, blown out, buried under a pile of rubble dumped upon him by a convenient front-loader. That alone would have killed him: a ton of concrete rubble that crushes him and the cage together, in the way that three thousand other people on fire in a cage were snuffed when the concrete rubble collapsed upon them. 

And of all of the heartless horror of this production – and it is from start to finish nothing but heartless horror – nothing is so humiliating, so degrading and so barbaric as this ending: an act of mercy, the extinguishing of the man on fire in a cage, reduced to a garbage dump. That’s all it is. Garbage dumped on garbage. 

This is not a question of who we are facing. This is a question of what we are facing. And the hardest, sharpest, must supple and perfectly-balanced sword in the history of the world is being wielded by a weak, self-obsessed man-child who has called the soundtrack to this horror the most beautiful sound he has ever heard.

These people are out there. They have plans to come here. 



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