February 3, 2005
Myth and the War on Terror
"In desperate situations man will always have recourse to desperate means and our present day political myths have been such a desperate means." Thus the philosopher Ernst Cassirer reflected on the then recent events of National Socialism in light of his extensive study of myth and ritual. Noting that even so-called primitive societies have recourse to magical rites only in tasks that exceed their natural capabilities, Cassirer located the roots of National Socialism in the seemingly insurmountable social and economic problems that confronted the leaders of the Weimar Republic. Only in a situation perceived as desperate could a populace fall under the influence of the fantastically irrational political myths so cunningly fabricated by the architects of Nazism.
I wonder if the threat of terrorism that looms over post-9/11 American society also constitutes such a desperate situation. Like the stereotypical tribesman confronted by an epidemic or natural disaster, are we not confronted by a threat against which we feel ourselves to be powerless? Almost immediately after they occurred, the attacks of September 11, 2001, were defined as acts of war. No other concept seemed to express adequately the enormity of these events. And yet, defining these acts in this way made inevitable a response large-scale military action that seems largely ineffective against terrorism. Unlike a hostile state, a decentralized and nebulous terrorist organization appears to be strengthened, not diminished, by the suffering and destruction visited upon an identifiable population.
So does the "war on terror" constitute a desperate means? The absence of a causal link between the suffering of an identifiable population and the elimination of terrorist activity likens the purely military response to terrorism to a magical rite. Typical of magical thinking is a blurring of the distinction between mere expression and causation. Whatever expresses death pins stuck in a voodoo doll, for example is regarded as a cause of death. One wonders, in light of indications that the nefarious Al Qaeda network continues to thrive, whether the war in Afghanistan served primarily as a cathartic expression of our national outrage, one sustained by the unrealistic hope that the elusive Al Qaeda would automatically one might even say "sympathetically" suffer the same fate as the easily targetable Taliban.
A "magical" tendency to read causation into a relation of similarity might also account for the astonishing success of the administration, aided by a complicit media, in constructing an erroneous belief in a link between the events of September 11 and Iraq. Where there is only similarity Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are both bad guys we were encouraged to assume a conspiratorial link. There is tragic irony in the fact that this canard, like the stereotypical magical formula, has effected what it signified, for today Iraq is a site of terrorist activity.
More recent theories of ritual no longer regard magical rites as desperate, irrational outbursts of activity arising in default of adequate technical knowledge. Rather, such rites are symbolic actions that structure human attitudes and behavior in what would otherwise be disorienting situations. For example, the rainmaking rites found in many traditional cultures express an attitude of expectancy with regard to uncertain weather. This understanding of magical activity as a kind of attitudinal "focusing mechanism" suggests that the war on terror, while not irrational, is as much a symbolic response as a practical one. Out of the complex and uncertain welter of feeling and attitude that 9/11 left in its wake, the war on terror distilled and crystallized a few: anger, pride, loyalty, and the desire for retribution.
The war on terror is a myth, a culturally shared narrative that provides authoritative models for acting and feeling. Such political myths define social reality in such a way that certain forms of acting and feeling in a situation seem natural, while others are inconceivable. The Manichaean structure of the war on terror construes the current global situation such that all but the most aggressive military response appears cowardly and irresponsible.
Cassirer urged his contemporaries not to be fooled by the face-value absurdity of political myths, which conceals a formidable power to objectify and mobilize the prevailing moods of a populace. Similarly, in today's uncertain times, Americans should be particularly mindful of the seductiveness and danger of magical thinking.
Hugh Nicholson is Assistant Professor of Religion at Coe College and a Senior Research Fellow at the Martin Marty Center at the Divinity School.