Myth in the Making

For better or for worse, myths have always been used to cement societies. What was the effective role of the “War on Terror” narrative after 9/11 and why is the American public so prone to endorse myth making?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.

“In the aftermath of September 11 the American citizen was propelled into the realm of mythology, a new and different dimension of being, unworldly, where occult forces were bent on destroying a world that had been created for the children of light,” says the author. This chapter of Democracy Incorporated examines how the use of a myth is integral to totalitarianism’s political dystopia, where good and bad are opposed in absolute ways.


At the outset of the so-called “War on Terror,” invading Iraq to uproot the terrorist networks that committed the 9/11 attack made as much sense as invading Mexico. But a myth, as Sheldon Wolin points out, presents “a narrative of exploits, not an argument or a demonstration. It does not make the world intelligible, only dramatic.” Facts, reason, and human consideration could not matter, then, and they did not. The need to tally Iraqi civilian casualties was not even remotely felt like a necessity in mainstream media, for instance. In that “new and different dimension of being,” it suddenly made sense to disregard the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths brought as an answer to the thousands of American ones on 9/11, even though Iraq had had absolutely nothing to do with the attack on that day and terrorism in general.

Regarding the revival of American exceptionalism under the war on terror, Sheldon Wolin reports that “The underlying metaphysic to these dreams of glory, of an ‘American century,’ of Superpower, was revealed in the musings of a high-level administration official when he or she attributed a view of ‘reality’ to reporters and then contrasted it with that held by the administration: reporters and commentators were ‘in what we [i.e., the administration] call the reality-based community [which] believe[s] that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”1 Such a statement seems definitely closer to the inspiration behind The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s famous (or infamous) 1934 propaganda tribute to Hitler, than to a rational and reasonable democratic intent.

Sheldon Wolin argues that in the aftermath of 9/11, the United States government seized the opportunity to make its leadership in the fight against evil appear as a self-evident, using the same myth to rule domestically through fear and ignorance. As mainstream media knew almost instinctively what to do to fall in line, transparency and accountability became indeed the war on terror’s instant casualties under Washington’s auspices. Making the iconography of terror obsessive enough, “[The mainstream media] then announced, disingenuously, that “9/11 had forever been printed on the national consciousness.” Which is to say, according to Sheldon Wolin, that “the date was enshrined and readied, not merely to justify but to sanctify the power of those pledged to be its avengers.”2 Any critical approach concerning the exact circumstances and deeper causes of what had happened was to be ignored: “September 11 became that rare phenomenon in contemporary life, an unambiguous truth, one that dissolved contradictions, the ambiguities of politics, the claims and counterclaims of political ideologies and pundits. Critics transformed themselves into penitents defending a preventive war as just and celebrating a constitution sufficiently flexible to be suspended at the pleasure of the chief executive.”

From a practical standpoint, this allowed for a permanent state of high alert under which an authoritative form of government could take shape. “The nation was immediately declared to be at war against an enemy whose nature, number, and location were largely unknown. Nonetheless, ‘enemy aliens’ were rounded up and held under constitutionally dubious conditions. The nation’s population was periodically placed on a state of alert. The powers of government were expanded and made more intrusive, while simultaneously its social welfare functions were radically scaled back. . . . New enemy states were identified, not as hostile or enemy but as ‘evil,’ and threatened. The notion of preemptive war was embraced and put into practice against Iraq.”

Though it could be said that George W. Bush was a mere servant of his big oil and armament corporate masters, this assertion hides a deeper and more subtle reality. Bush or no Bush, a mythical grandstand was to be used to force the world into the war on terror dystopia. As a consequence, “The general effect of this expansion of powers created a new world where everything became larger-than-life, strange, filled with huge powers locked in a contest that would determine the fate of the world: ‘Axis of Evil,’ ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ ‘civilization against barbarism.'” In truly Orwellian fashion, the myth justified the expansion of powers which, in turn, seemed to prove the validity of the myth. Such a self-reinforcing power spiral certainly seduced more than a few minds in George W. Bush’s administration.

War on Terror mythology: Cartoon representing a small George W. Bush telling a Washington aide that all of the so-called war on terror's counterproductive results are according to plan.

Myth, however, is necessarily on a crash course with reality. If it wasn’t for the Iraqis’ tragedy, President Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address would almost seem comical today. Having suffered a clear defeat in the midterm election of 2006—due in no small part to the growing popular opposition to the war in Iraq—he defiantly doubled down on the legitimacy of his administration’s “War on Terror,” calling in particular for an increase of twenty thousand troops. The justification, in the president’s own words, was that “[The] Iraqi government would [otherwise] be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran and Sunni extremists aided by Al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict. For America this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens, new recruits, new resources and an even greater determination to harm America.” Anyone with a minimum of intellectual honesty could see that the campaign in Iraq was producing exactly what the president was saying it would prevent. But that could hardly matter to an administration set to govern through mythology.

“The president then presented his contribution to the structure of inverted totalitarianism and in the process demonstrated that even when all of the main elements of a ‘free society’ are in place—free elections, free media, functioning Congress, and the Bill of Rights—they can be ignored by an aggrandizing executive.” Repudiating calls for reason and the general popular sentiment, he emphasized that the battle against chaos had no discernable end, then announced that he would seek authorization from Congress to increase the army and Marine Corps by ninety-two thousand over five years, and finally pressed Congress to assist in devising “a volunteer Civilian Reserve Corps” that, says Sheldon Wolin, “would, in effect, function as a private army.”

Still, how can a myth such as the “War on Terror” operate so well in an age of high scientific achievements and at a time when cynicism is almost a badge of courage? To Sheldon Wolin, this is essentially due to “the imagery world continuously being created and re-created by contemporary advertising” that is “rendered virtually escape-proof by the enveloping culture of the modern media.” Although it seems at first glance resolutely secular and materialistic, modern advertising reinforces the belief in some outer world holding the promise to change one’s life thanks to products that will make us more beautiful, cleaner, more sexually alluring, and more successful. The decisive aspect, here, is that these experiences are not actually lived but fantasized. For Americans, “the chosen people of advertising, technology, capitalist orthodoxy, and religious faith,” it subsequently follows that “the greatest triumph of virtual reality is war, the great unexperienced reality.”

War on Terror mythology: Cartoon representing a soldier with an empty gaze, leaving his family members while they are all starring at screens instead of acknowledging the reality of war.

As a matter of fact, “Ever since the Civil War Americans have fought wars at a distance: in Cuba, the Philippines, France, on almost every other continent in World War II, then in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East. War is an action game, played in the living room, or a spectacle on a screen, but, in either case, not actually experienced. . . . After 9/11 terrorism becomes another virtual reality, experienced only through its re-created images, its destructiveness (= wonders) absorbed through the spectacle of the occasional and hapless terrorist or captive journalist put on public display. In contrast, official policy decrees that the coffins of dead soldiers are not to be seen by the public.”

“Additionally, when myth emerges, not in a prescientific or pretechnological world, but in a power-jaded world accustomed to scientific revolutions and technological marvels (cloning, man on the moon), and, at the same time, credulous—for such an audience myth has to portray prodigies of power that are both familiar and uncanny. Not space aliens armed with the weaponry of a more advanced civilization, an ‘above world’, but their opposite: primitive, satanic, invisible denizens of an ‘underworld’ who (through devious money-laundering schemes) are able to purchase and operate contemporary technology.” The trick is to properly feed the imagination of the public so that it can feel satisfied with being critically undemanding (adopting conspiracy theories seals that off) and politically demobilized.

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  1. Quoted in Ron Suskind, “Without a Doubt,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
  2. At the memorial service commemorating the second anniversary of those killed at the Pentagon, the director of the FBI read this from Ephesians 6:12–18: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Quoted in New York Times, September 12, 2003, A-19.
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