“Terrorist networks currently pose the greatest national security threat to the United States . . . [Al-Qaida] aims to overthrow the existing world order and replace it with a reactionary, authoritarian, transnational entity. This threat will be sustained over a protracted period (decades not years) and will require a global response” (U.S. Department of State).
Terrorism is the scourge of our era. We want to remove the menace. So we resort to war. The logic of war is founded on a lethal concoction of fear, loathing, revenge, and redemption. These are the emotions and desires that make war feel righteous and seem rational, necessary, and even natural in the course of human affairs. They inhibit any inclination to place our trust in less deadly and destructive options. They sustain the war state by operating below the threshold of awareness and self-critique.
The language and imagery of myth can give us access to the emotional foundations of rationalized war. Yet, we relegate myth to past and primitive cultures. Myth, by this way of thinking, is misleading in the contemporary world of reason, science, and technology.
Carl Jung thought otherwise. He understood that myth expresses our emotions, motives, and vulnerabilities—that it is a fundamental, dynamic, and richly symbolic language for structuring patterns of meaning out of collective experience. It can help us understand that we project our inner world onto the outer world. Myth makes the unconscious accessible to conscious analysis (The Portable Jung, pp. 33, 39). “No intellectual formulation comes anywhere near the richness and expressiveness of mythological imagery,” (The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, p. 25). Our overly abstract language and conceptual discourse simply is not up to the task of cracking the code of terror.
While many factors contribute to the war system, the ritual of exaggerating and projecting the threat is of particular significance. Kenneth Burke called this tendency to unload on a scapegoat the “victimage ritual,” which is derived symbolically from “the myth of the Creation and the Fall.” It is the way we process guilt without resolving it, the way of blaming our “many troubles on the other” (The Rhetoric of Religion, pp. 172, 235-236).
If “myths are public dreams,” as Joseph Campbell observed (Myths to Live By, rpt. 1993, p. 14), we’ve something to gain by acknowledging and deciphering them. They encode the projected shadow, the devil within that is deflected onto the external devil. There is usually a hook, as Jung recognized, on which to hang the cloak of projection, but projecting an internal shadow badly distorts any outward resemblances into a terrifying caricature of pure evil. The world loses its gradations of grey and becomes a stark choice between black and white, heroes and villains. We cannot possibly blame ourselves for the troubles at hand when the choice is artificially reduced to us versus them. Without benefit of critical reflection—of heeding the mythic code of terror—the burden is too heavy to bear, the risk too great to take. Revenge once again is the only road to temporary redemption.