Not even our darkest imaginations could have foretold the horrors of last week, although several came close enough to force our creative industries into a sensitive retreat. A handful of upcoming films and TV shows with terrorist themes were instantly put on the back-burner; adverts laced with ghoulish humour were hurriedly papered over; and video games that mirrored events too chillingly for comfort were sent scurrying back to the digital drawing boards. Not to have done so, of course, would have been callously irresponsible.

But those that saw in the very existence of films like Collateral Damage yet further proof of humanity's moral depravity could not have been further off the mark: it has always been one of the functions of arts and entertainment, whether for the purposes of tragic catharsis or cheap thrill, to ponder the worst. Indeed, without Dante's Inferno or Independence Day, what frames of reference would so many of us have to express what we witnessed on September 11th'

Perhaps even more importantly, as we wonder how best to repair our shattered psyches, art has other functions too that go beyond depictions of the apocalypse. At their best, works of creativity serve not only as an uplifting diversion from the grim reality of our lives, they can help humanise and connect us too. Just as the horrors of real life can fuel the artistic imagination with even more terrible visions, so art can also provide potent images that can help restore our faith and regard for others, even those whose belief and value systems diverge radically from our own.

Already, the televised sacrifices these past few days have given law enforcement and safety officers an entirely new face in a New York City that has so often distrusted those in uniform. Now imagine how much less inclined enraged Americans might be to lash out indiscriminately at ethnic minorities had Western cinema been in the practice of portraying Muslims, for example, as recognisably individualistic as Christians - or for that matter atheists. Dramatic conflicts should always have their villains, but must they necessarily be faceless aliens wearing Arab headgear'

It is difficult to think of a more effective medium than cinema for communicating and sensitising us to the plight of others on this small planet. The wounds it exposes can be raw, but the healing can also be so much more far-reaching. Our understanding of all that went horribly wrong in Vietnam was helped immeasurably by a spate of soul-searing, gut-wrenching US-made films that came out several years later - although we still wait for one that offers a Vietnamese account of the atrocities. Similarly, as taboo as it all feels right now, the film industry should not shun from portraying aspects of this tragedy once the dust has begun to truly settle on downtown Manhattan.

Such matters might seem beyond the prosaic realms of a film business paper, but the truth is that the film industry impacts the world in ways that extend far beyond the purely economic. Ordinary people in even the most closed societies have some notion of Hollywood and the heroic aspirations it seeks to perpetuate in the name of the box-office dollar. For some, perhaps even the bastard few who committed these unspeakable acts, those escapist images are the symbolic lightning rods for their own hatred of all things capitalistic and democratic. For this reason alone, the film industry shares some responsibility for ensuring that its stories stretch beyond just cardboard cut-outs, simple-minded propaganda or gratuitous pyrotechnics and make some effort to touch our collective humanity.