The time was 8:45 on a Tuesday morning, the place New York City. As planes crashed and buildings fell, the word “terrorism” took on a new and frightening meaning, and America, which previously had been thought immune to such an attack, was left yearning for the feeling of safety and security that had so quickly been stripped from it. The monster born of that moment—the Terrorist—is one that Americans have fought and feared for five years now.
It must be understood that the Terrorist exists solely in the minds of Americans; while the threat of terrorism is certainly a reality, our fears and imaginations, fueled by media sensationalism and presidential rhetoric, have transformed the human terrorist (specifically that of militant Islam) into the superhuman “Terrorist”—an entirely irrational and unstoppable being whose only “goal is to…strike America and other free nations with ever-increasing violence” (President Bush, October 6, 2005). This distinction between the real and the imaginary is important, as it is only the latter to which we can apply Monster Theory—a set of seven theses proposed by Jeffrey Cohen which govern the nature and implications of monsters created within a particular cultural context.
Cohen’s essay, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” makes the claim that at the point at which a culture is forced to reexamine its values (for instance, the willingness to embrace homosexuality) lays a monster (in this case, Francis Ford Coppola’s homoerotic portrait of Dracula). He states that monsters “ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression” (20). However, it seems that “Monster Culture”, specifically when it is applied to the Terrorist, can force us to reevaluate larger issues, even the values most inherent to our culture.
The first of Cohen’s seven theses states that “the Monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy….The monstrous body is pure culture” (4). This seems to be fairly rational; as monsters are created for a particular audience, it is only logical to assume that they are constructed to fit the particularities of that audience. Of course, it must be understood that Cohen is speaking for the monsters of the fictional world, those that we find in literature and film. The Terrorist is unlike any of these monsters in that he is not simply a pop culture phenomenon—he is, in part, a reality. His every detail cannot be altered to fit a particular cultural mentality in the way that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Bram Stoker’s Dracula can. However, though many pieces of the Terrorist’s story are set in factual stone, the Terrorist has been subjected to half a decade of rumor, media hype, and the collective imagination of the American people. Language used when describing the Terrorist has ranged from mild and almost playful (consider the popular “Wanted Dead or Alive: Osama Bin Laden” stickers) to downright slanderous and bigoted (such as talk radio host Michael Graham’s assertion that Islam is essentially “a terrorist organization”), yet has remained universally negative. Such a strong opinion, combined with a lack of cultural knowledge, has caused us to accentuate and even falsely attach certain characteristics to terrorists, breeding this new monster—one that is based partly upon our observations and partly upon our imaginations. The Terrorist, therefore, is no exception to Cohen’s first thesis: though he holds his basis in fact, he is similar to fictional monsters in that he reflects the fears of the culture in which he was created and, as the obvious antagonist, serves as the antithesis to that culture’s values.
Cohen goes on to assert that, because monsters are geared toward a particular people, the study of certain monsters can reveal worlds about the cultures to which they belong. “A construct and a projection,” he says, “the monster exists only to be read” (4). A thorough “reading” of the Terrorist—through his descriptions in political speeches, popular media, and private conversations—can therefore provide invaluable insight into America’s current collective mindset. For instance, “freedom-hating” is an epithet commonly ascribed to the Terrorist, as it is generally assumed that we are attacked simply for having those rights that come with a secular democracy. While this is, for the most part, untrue (a majority of terrorists are, ironically, striking back at the institutions which they see as oppressing their own rights to self-determination and freedom), it is nonetheless a part of our construction of the Terrorist, and our value system is clearly reflected in such an image. In much the same way that the homosexual undertones in Bram Stoker’s Dracula exposed the negativity of the public’s heterosexism, the phrase “freedom-hating” paints a favorable picture of America as a country that values free will over authority. Other descriptions are just as telling: the depiction of the Middle Eastern countries in which the Terrorist resides as oppressing women and denying their people certain liberties shows the pride we take in the ideas expressed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights; media portrayals of Arabs as violent and bloodthirsty (such as those during the recent riots over cartoon drawings of Mohammed) tell of a country that values peace over war and passivity over violence; the simple diction of the labels “extremist” and “fundamentalist” depict an America which values bipartisanship over single-minded leadership and free thought over blindfolded faith.
This, however, is not new information. We know that freedom and liberty are at the core of America’s values, that senseless violence and religious extremism have long been frowned upon by American society. However, in his final two theses, Cohen reaches two startling conclusions, the first being that our “fear of the monster is really a kind of desire” (16). According to Cohen, the reason we enjoy the experience of monster stories (and by extension, the reason that, despite not having been attacked in five years, we are still glued to our television sets every time the Terrorist is mentioned) is not so much the thrill of fear, but the ability to see our subconscious desires embodied in the monster. “We distrust and loathe the monster at the same time we envy [it]” (17). Therefore, if Monster Culture theory truly applies to the Terrorist, it must be able to shed light on some quality unique to the Terrorist that we, the American people, desire. But what could the Terrorist, the violent, “freedom-hating” being burning holes in our television sets, possibly have that we do not?
The answer, once again, can be found in the qualities that we have imparted to our monster. When we see the videos in which soon-to-be-terrorists (not individuals in our minds, but manifestations of the larger Terrorist) describe their plans and hopes televised on CNN and cable news, we often wonder at the sheer ignorance of the Terrorist, who believes that he is carrying out the will of God and that he will receive tremendous repayment beyond the grave for murdering himself and others. Yet there is something haunting about that confident stare and those strong words, and one must wonder if ignorance is indeed bliss. The Terrorist, despite his monstrosity, is completely and utterly secure. We secretly envy the Terrorist because, though he is without freedom, he does not need it. He is sure of his place in the world, fully convinced of his own righteousness, and afraid of nothing, not even death. Other societies and peoples have gone to great lengths to achieve such security: many have foregone free thought by joining cults and fundamentalist religions for religious security; entire peoples have supported and fought for fascist governments for physical security; nations have constructed and defended horrendously oppressive institutions (such as slavery in the United States) to provide financial security. After we see the Terrorist speaking with such conviction in his latest video publication, we subconsciously begin to wonder if life would be better if we were to trade a little freedom for security.
In his last thesis, Cohen simultaneously reaches his conclusion and his climax, stating that “the monster stands at the threshold…of becoming” (20). Because monsters are simply the manifestation of certain desires of the society in which they are created, Cohen states that they generally serve as a prelude to a cultural shift in which the society embraces those qualities embodied in the monster. Monsters can create “a revolution in the very logic of meaning”, he asserts, and the Terrorist has certainly created such a revolution in the minds of Americans (7). Over the past five years, we have allowed many of our democratic rights and values—those same values of free thought, free will, free speech, and peace that seem so alive in our snide references to the “freedom-hating terrorist”—to slowly fade away. The Patriot Act impinges on our freedom from illegal search and seizure, wire-tapping programs are defended as necessary for security, newspaper articles exposing the administration’s torture programs are cut or criticized for posing a “threat to national security,” and we have buried ourselves militarily and financially in a war that is both pointless and endless. One might argue that we are indeed better off; such grievances are, comparatively speaking, minute, and do not affect the average American. Furthermore, these measures seem to have kept terrorism off our shores for the five years they have been in place. However, by continuing down this path we risk everything we value. Cohen states: “the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes…to step outside this official geography is to risk…becom[ing] monstrous oneself” (12). That is not to say that the Patriot Act will transform Americans into terrorists, but one could imagine how, given the right course of events, a democratic people would sacrifice more and more of its rights until it fell into a sort of de facto fascism, essentially becoming the monster it hates so much.
Our monster, therefore, is unlike those Cohen describes in that he is a legitimate warning against exploration rather than a scarecrow established in order to maintain the status quo. Past monsters have served as warnings against sexual promiscuity (the temptress demons of Queste del Saint Graal), homosexuality (Dracula), communism (the Hollywood-invading ants of the 1950s horror movieThem!), and even against interfering with established monopolies (the serpents depicted at the edges of trade routes allegedly dreamt up by powerful medieval sea merchants) (13). The Terrorist, however, serves as a warning against sacrificed freedom. To heed this warning would not be to limit ourselves as in the examples above, but to preserve our way of life. In the case of the Terrorist, the status quo is favorable, and exploration of the monster’s world, where freedom is viewed as a threat, should be avoided at all costs.
Five years ago, as we emerged from the chaos of 9/11 trying to make sense of this new and frightening world in which even the US is vulnerable, we looked into the eyes of the monster and for an instant saw something desirable, something we desperately needed, and, to a certain degree, we’ve obtained it. Where we go from here depends upon the terrorists’ actions and upon how rationally we are able to approach our fears. The one thing we can be sure of, however, is that, as Cohen states, “the monster always escapes,” and the Terrorist, alongside the threat of our own impulses, will always haunt us (4).
Bush, George W. Address on the War on Terror. The National Endowment for Democracy. Ronald Regan Building and International Trade Center, Washington D.C. 6 October 2005.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 3-25.
Farhi, Paul. “Talk Show Host Graham Fired By WMAL Over Islam Remarks.” The Washington Post. August 23, 2005: C01.