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After the initial reactions to the death of Osama Bin Laden fade, we will still be left with the fundamental question of what the American mythos—the master narrative we tell about ourselves and or place in history—will be in a post-9/11, post-bin Laden world. This mythology, created anew in each generation, functions to solidify national identity and typically demands several components: heroes and enemies, struggle, and values that differentiate “us” from “them.”
President Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death contained carefully chosen threads woven into a larger narrative framework; he talked passionately of an America that was simultaneously “relentless in defense of our citizens” and “true to the values that make us who we are.”
For most of the twentieth century, American mythology developed in contrast to a great enemy. Leading up to mid-century and World War II, it was fascism and Nazism. For the next four decades until the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, this great enemy was communism. These external threats defined American identity for generations and served as a midwife for a set of counter-ideals: theism and religious liberty over atheism, capitalism and free markets over government controlled economies, and individual rights and self-determination over oppression at the hands of the collective. These ideals also importantly included how we dealt with our enemies even in a time of war. Our enemies engaged in barbaric acts and abused prisoners; we treated prisoners humanely and honored the Geneva conventions. However conflicted it may have been with the messy realities on the ground, the late twentieth century American mythos differentiated America from its great enemy by harkening to higher ideals.
The open question in the wake of bin Laden’s death is what new mythos we will construct about ourselves and America’s place in the world. Recent survey data shows that borrowed narratives pulled from the pages of past conflicts will be complicated on the post-9/11 terrain.
On the one hand, there is strong belief in divinely mandated American exceptionalism. Public Religion Research Institute’s 2010 Post-Election American Values Survey found that six-in ten (58 percent) Americans believe God has granted the U.S. a special role in human history. Such broad belief about a divine mandate provides solid raw material for a shared story.
On the other hand, bin Laden’s acts of terrorism opened new fundamental questions about American character and values that have yet to be resolved. This conflict can be seen in sharp relief on the question of whether torture is ever justified. In the aftermath of the carnage in New York City, at the Pentagon, and in a Pennsylvania field, torture became for the first time in our modern history a matter of debate—something reflected in the fact that there is virtually no polling data prior to 2001 on American public opinion on the morality of torture. In October 2009, the Pew Research Center found the public nearly evenly divided, with a small majority saying torture of suspected terrorists is often (19 percent) or sometimes (35 percent) justified, and nearly as many saying torture is rarely (16 percent) or never (25 percent) justified. These numbers have remained relatively stable since Pew first measured them in 2004.
To make matters more complicated, Americans who believe God has granted the U.S. a special role in human history are more likely than other Americans to say that torture is justified in at least some cases.
At the very least, this relatively new deep cleavage over such a fundamental value will make fashioning a new twenty-first century American mythos—one that holds together a defense of its citizens with “values that make us who we are”—a challenging task.