The deaths this year of two infamous characters—Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gadhafi—creates an increasingly severe predicament for novelists. Since the Cold War Era, and even before, mystery and adventure writers have focused plot lines around the hero’s attempts to conquer the sly and outrageous villains conspiring to detonate an atomic bomb/hydrogen bomb/dirty bomb/anthrax
bomb (pick your era) in the heart of an innocent metropolis.

Most often, real-life global villains have played a key role in these novels, as the clean-cut CIA agent or Army lieutenant finds himself face-to-face with the Kaiser/Hitler/ Stalin/Khrushchev/Castro/Ho Chi Minh/Gadhafi/ Hussein/bin Laden (pick your villain). What has made the thriller thrilling was the foiling of the political plot while the notorious leader managed to escape to continuous his devious ways in the sequels.

With the Arab Spring and the success of NATO forces in the Middle East, however, who is our villain now? Whom do we pursue on paper and in the field to remain heroes in the eyes of the world? Certainly not a sickly and ineffectual Castro. China is our ally these days, having graduated from arch-enemy. North Korea? Who’s in charge? That country’s threats are powerful but its economic wherewithal to conduct warfare on any scale appears miniscule.

Yet, every hero needs a villain. It’s not enough to fight “insurgents” or “a movement”; we need to put a face on our enemy. Just look at the caricatures of Axis leaders during World War II or terrorist leaders today. The danger is that we may begin pinning bull’s-eyes on new leaders—both at home and abroad—simply because we need a target for our national anger, frustration or other aggravations.

We must be careful to sort out the real and treacherous villains—the Gadhafis and the bin Ladens—from those whom we only imagine to be such. Many analysts have suggested, for example, that the decade-long Afghan conflict was significantly extended because we chose to target Saddam Hussein, painting him with what turned out to be invisible weapons of mass destruction.

Communicators have a special responsibility operating in the current “villain vacuum.”

  • We must avoid taking the easy route of declaring the next Gadhafi, but rather take
    the time to examine true motivations and intentions.
  • We certainly must learn from the immensity of the crimes committed by the iniquitous terrorist leaders of recent years, but in our writings we must not automatically position any
    individual who opposes our way of thinking or our political system as a terrorist of global proportions.
  • And we must find ways to identify and pursue the real current villains of the world—pollution, global warming, disease, poverty and all their cohorts that have taken the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Let’s create a different genre of mystery, one in which we all can be heroes in solving the most
puzzling dilemmas that confront us. Of course there remains a place for Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Alex Cross and the other popular heroes—let’s just be careful in choosing our villains and in labeling
those about whom we don’t have a clue.

— Steve Friedman is the director of marketing communications at Airfoil Public Relations, a high tech PR agency with offices in Detroit and Silicon Valley.