Evan Thomas and Andrew Romano: How American Myths (like 9-11) Are Made

Roundup: Media's Take

The story of workaday men and women rising to greatness is one of America's most cherished myths. As a term, myth is much misunderstood; hearing it, many people take the word to mean "lie," when in fact a myth is a story, a narrative, that explains individual and national realities—how a person or a country came to be, why certain things happen in the course of a life or of history, and what fate may have in store for us. Myths are a peculiar hybrid of truth and falsehood, resentments and ambitions, dreams and dread. We all have personal myths running through our heads, and some chapters would withstand fact checking while others would fail miserably.

Nations are the same way. In America, the underlying faith is that in a truly free and democratic society, every man and woman has the potential to realize greatness, that freedom and openness liberate and ennoble ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things. The Triumph of the Common Man is a myth deeply rooted in American culture, and unlike some popular myths, it is true enough. Tom Hanks may have played a fictional character in "Saving Private Ryan"—the small-town American called to arms—but World War II was won by a million citizen soldiers very much like him.

There is, unfortunately, another, less admirable myth that Americans concoct to explain crises and disasters. It is rooted in the paranoid streak that runs through pop culture, the conspiracy theories that blame some sinister (and usually make-believe) Other for whatever went wrong. In 1950, many frightened Americans wanted to know: how could Russia have gotten the bomb so soon after America won World War II? There must be traitors among us! railed Sen. Joe McCarthy and other conspiracists, as they tore up the country looking for communists under every bed.

One might expect Hollywood's Oliver Stone to drum up a conspiracy theory to explain 9/11. He is, after all, known as the director of a movie, "JFK," that essentially accused Lyndon Johnson, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff of killing President Kennedy. That Stone did not go to the dark side to explain the attacks of September 11 tells us something about the American sensibility toward that day. True, Stone was under pressure from the studio not to make the story political or conspiratorial. It is also true, though, that public-opinion surveys show that many Americans (42 percent in a recent Zogby poll) believe the government must be covering up something about 9/11, and many blame Bush for using the attacks to justify invading Iraq. Scaremongers on the Internet and Michael Moore's entertaining but outlandish "Fahrenheit 9/11" have fueled popular suspicions of devious plots.

Nonetheless, 9/11 has become a kind of sacred day in American life. Stone's movie will stand as a civic elegy, a statement that the events of 9/11, and the memories of the nearly 3,000 people who died that day, should not be degraded or sullied by politics or the fevered imaginings of people who see tragedy and assume scheming and betrayal.

All nations need myths to understand crises that shock, the wars and riots, assassinations and natural disasters that wrench history. The myth of the Triumph of the Common Man was born in the first battle of the Revolution, when farmers and tradesmen made their stand against British Redcoats at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. These Minutemen were our first citizen soldiers, and their example still inspires. "In our mind's eye we see a scattering of individual militiamen crouched behind low granite walls, banging away at a disciplined mass of British regulars," writes historian David Hackett Fischer. "We celebrate the spontaneity of the event, and the autonomy of the Americans who took part in it. As a writer put it in the 19th century, 'Everyone appeared to be his own commander'."

Myths evolve as circumstances and needs change. The Founders at first portrayed Lexington and Concord as an unprovoked attack on innocents; "Bloody Butchery, by the British," proclaimed a printed broadside of the time, illustrated with 40 small coffins. The propagandists were trying to stir up sympathy for the rebellion and a desire for revenge. Only a later generation of popularizers, who wanted to inspire a young democracy, stressed the bold resistance of the Minutemen who "fired the shot heard round the world."

The fantasists of the American South after the Civil War had to justify not just defeat but the elimination of a way of life. Thus was born the "Lost Cause," the dreamy fiction that chivalrous "gentlemen-officers" had fallen to forces of greater number but weaker character, and that rapacious "damn Yankees" and carpetbaggers had been exploiting the South ever since. The real cause of the Civil War—slavery—was swept into the shadows. The Lost Cause was used to justify the evils of Jim Crow and perpetuate the myth of white supremacy....

"United 93" offers a gritty, convincing reality. So, too, does Stone's "World Trade Center." Stone's movie will live on in the national consciousness, not just as a skillful exercise in movie making, but because it touches on a profound national faith in the courage and steadfastness of common men and women. The greatest of myths are the ones that ring true.

Related Links

  • 9/11: Five Years Later

  • Teaching About 9-11

  • Read entire article at Newsweek

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    Michael Calder - 9/11/2009

    Truth can also combat myths.

    Three buildings in NYC collapsing though only two were struck by airplanes. "A single shot through the right temple took the life of the 46 year old chief executive." Thomas Noguchi explaining the gun used to shoot RFK was held one inch behind Kennedy's ear. Yeah, myths. I know about myths.