The Political Myths About Terrorist Leaders Cultural Studies Essay

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In an attempt to explain the complexity of the world around them, people are reaching for mythic images and narratives. As a part of contemporary world, one of the most significant and most controversial political phenomena, terrorism and its actors are perfect material for myth making. There is the quest, the drama, striking figures of terrorists, victims, politicians and law enforcement officers. Walter Lacquer, at the beginning of his famous book on terrorism from 1977 quoted Shelly's verse "tempestuous loveliness of terror" to describe widely spread fascination by this phenomenon. It's tight and polyvalent relation to the media, which transmit not only the fact, but also qualifications, and stereotypes, contribute to this myth-making process.

Political myth, as Raul Girarde stresses out, must be understood as both explanatory and mobilizing. [3] Their mobilizing power is very strong, and can often result in violence. It is said that "Mythos seems to have an affinity with violence because mythic views are based on sets of assumptions that are incompatible with those at the base of other mythical or logical views, making logical resolutions difficult or impossible." [4] Revivals of mythic perception of the world (and especially politics) reach their climax in times when societies encounter economic, social or political crisis (inevitably followed by crisis of identity). Being undoubtedly rooted in the tradition of the group, political myths differ from other sacred narratives in one very important way. They are often artificial (intentionally created to suit a certain political objective) and easily manipulated.

Although there are numerous typologies of political myths, for the purpose of this analysis Girarde's approach seems most useful. In his book Political myths and mythologies he distinguishes four "mythic constellations": Conspiracy, Saviour, Unity and Golden Age. All of these constellations correspond with myths about terrorism, but myths of Conspiracy and Saviour are most important for the following analysis.

Although there is no unanimity among scholars on definition of terrorism, it seems that there is little doubt that terrorism is a form of political violence. Therefore, terrorist organizations are political organizations, based and functioning under the same principles as any other political group. In fact, it could be argued that political myths are even more significant to terrorist organizations than to some other forms of political organizing.

First, according to Girarde, political myths often gain their initial mobilizing power form minority groups, which perceive themselves as oppressed or endangered. "Myths start to blaze from the moment when resistance to identification with existent occurs in collective consciousness. Established order suddenly seems strange, suspicious and hostile. Proposed patterns of life in the community lose all their meaning and legitimacy…" [5] Terrorist organizations largely fit this profile. Terrorism is weapon of the weak. Terrorist groups are largely outnumbered in their struggle. Although they are trying to present themselves as representatives of the "silent majority", they are actually a minority within the society, living in constant state of tension and possibility of being captured. It seems legitimate to assume that members of such groups are prone to embracing mythic views of the world

Second, clandestine character of terrorist organizations is essential for their survival. Their successful operating, as McCormick and Owen nicely put it, "depends not only on having a secret, but keeping the fact you have a secret a secret." [6] This modus operandi leads to relative isolation of terrorist from the society and cultural context. As a consequence, terrorist's perceptions of the word around him frequently become distorted. [7] They tend to see themselves and the enemy in stereotypical, black and white ways. According to McCormick, "what distinguishes terrorists psychologically from the general population is their belief system, which places them at the center of a Manichean struggle between good and evil." [8] Girarde also points out that, in the mythology of the conspiracy, "demonic plot" is usually countered by "holy conspiracy". [9] 

On the other hand, clandestine character of terrorist organizations serves as force-multiplier. On the trail of ancient secret societies [10] terrorists exploit people's curiosity and need to understand/control what seems like potential threat. As a result, their power is usually overestimated. Lack of information about terrorists on one hand and spectacular and highly symbolic nature of their actions on the other create atmosphere suitable for myth - making. Role of the media in this process is not negligible.

After all, it is also interesting that peaks of both terrorist activities and upheavals of political mythology correspond with the times of social crisis.

Indeed, Whittaker points out that terrorist organizations are very similar to one another when it comes to significance of myth and tradition. "A myth as such", he says, "reinforces the credibility of the group. It inspires recruits. It consolidates the zeal of those who aspire, those who campaign and those who survive. The myth of invincibility gives purpose to a struggle trough terror." [11] 

Firm and complex relationship between media and contemporary terrorism has been extensively discussed. Media make terrorist famous (and infamous) but along with information they disseminate stereotypes and moral qualifications. Strong orientation of the media towards events and human stories instead of context also creates simplified image of terrorists who can be viewed as romanticized heroes, martyrs or personifications of evil.

Increase of Internet communication opens a whole new chapter in process of myth - making. Despite some expectations, the Web has become an ideal forum for extremists and conspiracy theorists. Internet seems to provide a variety of sources, overcoming the limitations of "classic" media, but lack of control over the contents of web pages allows passing fantastic stories as true. Because of that, Internet is an ideal tool for creating various rumors, and number of these e-legends is fascinating. [12] 

Language of politics, being often metaphoric and therefore sometimes misleading, also contributes to transformation of facts into mythology. This stands for terrorism, as well as any other social phenomenon. Carl Schmidt pointed out long ago that basic political distinction between friends and enemies can be easily mistaken or intentionally disguised as aesthetic or moral distinction. There is, however, a long tradition, even in USA, of condemning political enemies as 'evil'. [13] 

3. Myths about terrorist leaders

Everything stated above applies to myths about terrorist leaders as well. Myths of political leadership are maybe the most common of all political myths, present to some extent in most societies.

Two features of leadership myths, observed by Girarde, are worth mentioning. As it is said, political myths rise and feed from the crisis of identity within a group, and serve as means of reestablishing this identity. This is especially true for leadership myths. Girarde even compares the role of mythologized political leader with that of adolescent idols - in the times of soul searching and rejection of old system of values, young people usually turn to someone they idolize and with whom they identify, someone who can guide them trough the process of constituting new values. [14] 

Having in mind that the striking force of terrorism usually consists of young people, it is not hard to imagine that they embrace mythology of their leaders more easily, or replace one idol with another. Indeed, interviews with incarcerated Middle Eastern terrorists show that "the boyhood heroes for the Islamist terrorists were religious figures, such as the Prophet, or the radical Wahabi Islamist, Abdullah Azzam; for secular terrorists, revolutionary heroes such as Che Guevara or Fidel Castro were identified." [15] 

Secondly, it seems that leadership myths are easier and more often artificial and intentionally manipulated. [16] 

The group dynamics of terrorist organizations itself as well as it's typically firm hierarchy contribute to importance of strong leadership. Leader can have, and usually has decisive part in processes of defining group methods and motives, as well as other decision-making processes. [17] 

Indeed, there are, as McCormick says, terrorist organizations "constructed around defining personalities," [18] such as, for example, al-Qaida, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Shining Path, the Abu Nidal Organization.

According to Girarde, there are four basic types of those myths - Cincinatus, Alexander, Moses and Solon. [19] Cincinatus brings an image of wise old man. Alexander, young general, the conqueror, brings notions of excitement of the battle and ambition. Moses is prophet and preacher, religious leader, and Solon is archetype of prudent legislator.

Terrorists, because of characteristics of their organizations, usually create mythology of Alexander or of Moses around their leaders. First is typical for secular organizations (as, for example, Baader - Meinhof Gang), and second for religious organizations (founder of Aum Shirinkyo, self-proclaimed "Christ of Today" and "Savior of our Century"). [20] There are cases, however, when images of terrorist leaders as young, successful war commanders (Alexander) change to those of respectable statesmen and legislators (Solon) [this, for example, was the case of both Jasser Arafat and Manaheim Begin].

Illustration - Osama bin Laden

In our days we witness the creation of the greatest myth by now - myth of Osama bin Laden. In his survey of literature about bin Laden, James T. Dune refers to him as "near-mythic". [21] It can be argued that, in fact, he already is mythic. It is essential to make a distinction between the biography of bin Laden and images and perceptions about him both among his supporters or his enemies.

Girarde says that political myths, when created around historical characters, necessarily mirror the mentality, ideology and Zeitgeist of a certain era. [22] In this particular case, mythology of bin Laden is repeatedly brought to wider context of possible confrontation of East and West, Islam and Christianity. Once again, the world is split between forces of Darkness and champions of Light. (Of course, ideas of who belongs to Darkness and who to Light may, and do, vary).

Although there are opinions that Osama bin Laden is merely a product of "new social structure" and growing hostility towards USA and it's allies, that he is a "phenomenon, not a person", [23] more often he is seen as a charismatic leader. He has become a genuine "superstar" of our time. In Whittaker's words, "[Osama bin Laden] is now demonised in the Western media.... His charisma in his native Middle East, his material resources, the conspirators he can call upon, the funds he can gather, all these are reportedly enormous...He is a tycoon-terrorist." [24] 

Within the organization of Al-Qaida myth of bin Laden has unifying role. As Marion and Uhl - Bien observe, "bin Laden's leadership core is not intimately connected in this network; that is, its direct influence over elements of the network is limited. This suggests that the network would survive the loss of this leadership core...Were we to overlay linkages representing symbolic influence, the leadership core would be highly connected within the broader network. Bin Laden's symbolic, unifying importance in the emergence and cohesiveness of this network is significant." [25] For members of the network as well as broader circle of supporters, his role is more alike to what we described as Moses that one of Alexander.

On the other side he is presented as a personification of Evil. As some authors put it, Western media have found "aesthetics of evil" in personality of bin Laden. Existence of such arch - enemy can be politically useful in terms of mobilization. However, myth about terrorist leader who evades capture and keeps sending terrifying messages from his hide - out can also contribute to feeling of insecurity among people.

Even if bin Laden was captured or killed, that would not be the end of Al-Qaida. In fact, adding the martyr component to the myth could even strengthen network's determination and unity. As Whittaker says, "Above all, Osama bin Laden, if he is still alive, must not be rewarded a martyr's crown." [26] It is up to politicians to find a way to deal with this possible situation in the most appropriate manner.

Terrorist organizations and their leaders are often subjects of political mythology. Reasons for this come from the very nature of terrorism - clandestine character of terrorist organizations is, for most people, intriguing and fascinating, and giving the impression of much greater power than they really have. For organizations themselves it stresses out the need of unity and consensus, detaches them from the wider social and cultural context and therefore drives them into black and white perception of the world. On the other hand, spectacular character of terrorist actions also has a share in creating myths surrounding their actors. Contribution of the media to such situation is not to be underestimated, and possible impact of Internet communications in this context should be explored.

Mythologizing leaders of terrorist organizations can have at least two important functions - one regarding the members and potential members of terrorist organization, and other regarding their target groups and public as a whole. In the first case, presence of a charismatic leader with nearly supernatural qualities strengthens the unity of the group, which is essential for any clandestine organization, and makes recruitment easier. For supporters, terrorist leaders are usually identified as prophets/preachers or charismatic war commanders. In the second case, stressing out invincibility or "uncathcability" of terrorist leader directly serves to the literal goal of every terrorist organization - spreading terror among people.