Myth, Attitudes, and Terrorism

Myth seems to be our new favorite word in class, thanks to Carl Schmitt. What is a myth? According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (that one built into your MacBook), a myth is:

1 a traditional story, esp. one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events

2 a widely held but false belief or idea

These two definitions are interesting in that, in the first sense, it’s possible for a myth to be true, but it seems implied that, generally, it is either regarded as irrelevant to one’s circumstances, or just a false and entertaining story that never took place (except in one’s imagination). In the second definition, a myth is widely believed, but not grounded in reality. This seems closer to our use of the term.

Let’s look at Schmitt quoting Mussolini: “We have created a myth, this myth is a belief, a noble enthusiasm; it does not need to be reality, it is a striving and a hope, belief and courage. Our myth is the nation, the great nation which we want to make into a concrete reality for ourselves,” (76).

The more I think about this, the more I question if myth is the right word. If the myth is “the great nation”, how can it be “a widely held but false belief or idea”? Italy existed then and exists now. Perhaps he was referring to a common, nationalistic spirit in Italy. Still, when a myth is made into a “concrete reality”, it ceases to be false, and so ceases to be a myth. If it can be a reality, is it ever a myth, in the sense of the second definition of the word? I think what is being referred to is a vision – something that is conceivable, but not necessarily embodied in any empirical sense. Is empiricism Mussolini’s criterion for a “myth” being true or false? If so, it does seem inadequate. One of the things discussed in Prof. Mackin’s class “Resistance and Critique” offered last spring was the idea presented by Stephen White (I think it was White anyway) that one of the greatest attributes one possesses as a human being to earn another human being’s respect is to be visionary – in that context, the ability to formulate and follow a life plan.

I read Ryan’s recent post entitled “It’s all in your heads,” in which he gives us a “here’s-what-it-looks-like-from-my-Canadian-neck-of-the-woods” analysis of our brief discussion/survey in class, and I found it thought-provocative in several respects. Of course, what ties these two posts together is his single – but essential – use of the word myth. Let me preface this next section by saying I’m not trying to tear his post apart, but merely reflecting upon the claims presented (Ryan, if you’re reading this, I know you’ll take it well; thanks in advance).

Prof. Mackin first asked the class if they thought America would collapse upon another terrorist attack larger than 9/11. Maybe we would, but maybe we wouldn’t; either way, I hope that would not be the case. Ryan asserted that this is based on the myth that everyone is out to get America. Based on the discussion of myth above, the idea that everyone is out to get America is conceivable, but extremely unlikely. However, it may be fair to say that more than several people are indeed out to destroy America and Western ideals. Anti-American sentiment combined with actual attacks seems adequate enough reason to take great precautionary measures. I agree with Ryan, there is no central league of doom; even some of the infamous Taliban names are no longer a concern. Still, out of the hypothetical “few thousand” Ryan estimates, it takes only one to set off a bomb and kill thousands of Americans (potentially). It is in great part the unorganized fabric of the various threats that causes the great panic and necessity for these exaggerated precautions that citizens and visitors alike find extremely frustrating. Annoying as it is, I can’t in good conscious protest the spirit in which the policies were put into effect.

I wrote another blogpost–again for my class last spring–based on a video of Obama speaking about our intervention in Libya. Obama pretty clearly portrays Muammar Qaddafi as an enemy of the American people. Under his authority, several Americans were killed:

Recently, Hugo Chavez has publicly declared Muammar Qaddafi as a “martyr”:

Keep in mind that this is not a teenager angry at America who lives with his mom in Kansas, but the President of Venezuela speaking. This guy has some power and authority in the world. Does it make sense for us to see him as a friend and welcome him with open arms?

My point is, there are plenty of people (including world leaders) who would be more than happy to undermine America, and to not take that seriously is, in my opinion, a mistake. Thinking that everyone is a potential threat may promote the view that America is “arrogant,” but perhaps it is better to be arrogant than unprepared and unawares. We may not see a bigger attack than 9/11 in the near future, but we have successfully stopped several smaller threats (the “underwear bomber” comes to mind as one example) since then.

Ryan leaves his readers with a warning: “Because in people’s minds this unlikely attack seems so imminent, their faith in their government’s ability to protect them and for them to remain one united nation is undermined. So don’t trap yourself into this kind of thinking: it could lead to your own self-destruction.”

I think of it as a fair warning in part. We might not be as unified as a nation in deciding how to react to these attacks, but I don’t see how our government’s ability to protect its citizens is undermined. If anything, one could argue that an increased awareness has stemmed from these attacks. I think we would be even less prepared for a greater attack if the first one hadn’t occurred. Further, where does the basis for thinking that another attack is imminent come from? The shock of the first attack; it’s been ten years, and we’re still not over it. Again, my hope is to see no more attacks. Should we be prepared? You betcha.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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