Has there ever been video or photo coverage of terrorist violence that hasn't seemed somehow detached from it? All our images of Oklahoma City are post-op shots of a cratered nine-story federal building. Videos of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers are generally from distant vantages. The short clips of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold terrifying fellow high school students with Hi-Point 995 carbines and TECH-DC9 semi-automatic pistols played endlessly by cable news channels are from blurred, black and white security cameras, and Harris and Klebold aren't in most of them.
The "No Russian" level in Modern Warfare 2 that requires you accompany and optionally assist a group of Russian gunmen in an airport massacre isn't much like Columbine. If that's your reaction, it's only because Columbine's the only frame of reference we have. "No Russian" puts you on the firing side of a terrorist onslaught in a vivid realtime tromp through a photorealistic Moscow airport. Columbine amounted to sequences of grainy videos from awkward angles--peripatetic moments played relentlessly by the media in voyeuristic slow-mo.
It's not much of a reference point.
"No Russian" offers you a chance to experience what a massacre might be like from the terrorist vantage under the assumption that you're a CIA deep-cover operative playing an "ends justify means" game. You open on blackness, the only sounds those of elevator floor beeps, duffel bags unzipping, and weapons hastily assembled as clips snap into stocks. The world coalesces and focuses on the honcho, Makarov, a guy with crazy eyes and wiry black hair. Before you step off the elevator, he warns "Remember, no Russian" (note the homophone--you're forced to walk for much of the level). It's all a big frame-up. The guns you're carrying are M240s and M4A1s, both US military issue, and you're a CIA operative pretending to be a Russian ultranationalist pretending to be an American terrorist.
Events proceed apace. Makarov and pals make short work of anyone in firing range, leveling high-caliber machine guns at clustered civilians and mowing through crowds like penned cattle. Terrified, heart-rending wailing rises above the chucka-chucka-chucka-chucka noise from the guns. The gunmen scour the baggage area, spotting fleeing civilians and firing in bursts. They proceed up stairs, lobbing ballistic grenades across the concourse, scanning for victims, zooming down iron sights to zero in, and leaving the crawling wounded to bleed out.
It's backside-of-your-head-smackingly-obvious Infinity Ward wants to make you uncomfortable. To fire or not to fire, that's the only question the level asks, allowing you time to scrutinize the bedlam in a way the rest of the game's frenetic gunplay doesn't. "Isn't this disturbing?" the silent cameraman (that would be you) seems to ask as you thumb your lens around to better view scripted animations of stampeding civilians, or of the mortally wounded inching for cover, leaving gleaming smears of blood in their wake.
And it is--incredibly disturbing. Even though you know the computer avatars representing civilians are empty shells. Even though you know that's not a gun you're holding, and that it's not firing actual bullets, and that you're not, in fact, harming anyone.
If someone actually walked into the Sheremetyevo International Airport (renamed 'Zakhaev' here to commemorate the last game's fascist lunatic) and proceeded to fire indiscriminately into crowds of people, all we'd know of the incident would be the aftermath's grisly tableau. "The event occurred at 8:41AM Moscow standard time," the news report might go, "when a group of men carrying automatic weapons entered the Zakhaev International Airport located 18 miles northwest of Moscow and began firing randomly into the crowd. The number of estimated dead at this point is in the hundreds but officials worry it could grow into the thousands…"
That's the angle you're familiar with. The detached one. The one where the camera roams the airport in the aftermath like a documentarian ex post facto, immortalizing bits of shattered glass and bullet-chiseled concrete and streaks of blood.
"No Russian" puts you in the driver's seat of the act itself. It lets you have an unflinching look at the fire's angle on the firestorm, where other games just bring up cutscenes before giving you a chance to go after the guys responsible.
But is that enough? Is "to fire or not to fire" sufficiently elective? What about the choices the level doesn't let you make? What about the level's context?