Another Perspective

Lessons on Counter-Terrorism From a Missing Bird

How the Maltese Falcon saved civilization (really).

By 5.13.11

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Detective Tom Polhaus: [picks up the falcon] Heavy. What is it?
Sam Spade: The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of.
Detective Tom Polhaus: Huh?
--The Maltese Falcon (film)

To ignore history is reckless. To invert its lessons is suicide.

As we continue to fight for our existence as a free people, we are crippled by two impulses that one would think are mutually exclusive. Regarding the thousand year continuing threat to Western Civilization, we display amnesia, incapable of integrating the present attacks into a much larger arc of action. Yet, when determining a response to our current enemies, our literal, overly precise concept of what constitutes a "crusade" precludes adding any overt spiritual/moral/religious component to our effort.

Which is it? Confronting a remarkably patient enemy, how can we both forget and over-remember at the same time? Our lives depend on squaring this circle.

WITH A TIP OF THE HAT to another great American scandal, we begin with a third rate burglary:

Dateline: San Francisco (February 13, 2007) -- The Maltese Falcon is stolen.

Not "the" Maltese Falcon. Rather, this time it's a duplicate of the prop from the movie. The bird sculpture had been displayed for many years in a corner cabinet on the second floor of the legendary John's Grill, a restaurant that is briefly mentioned in the novella by Dashiell Hammett as a place that detective Sam Spade used to frequent.

For an object with no intrinsic or artistic value -- and limited resale value -- an outside observer would find it curious that any thief would take any risk to obtain this lump of clay. Yet that outside observer would only be revealing his ignorance of the magic of the falcon. The 1930 publication describes an obsession by many people to own a jeweled version of the bird. This passion then jumps into the 1941 movie starring Humphrey Bogart. Because of both the book and the movie's narrative brilliance, this fictional obsession then jumps into public consciousness, where it remains to this day.

Everybody knows, at least vaguely, that there is a "Maltese Falcon," and almost as many know that you're supposed to want it. While most of us would be not as proactive as the San Francisco thief, the passion endures. In fact, last year, an alternate epoxy falcon prop from the movie was discovered and authenticated, then sold at auction by Guernsey's to actor Leonardo DiCaprio for $300,000.00. "The stuff that dreams are made of," indeed.

FOR ALL THE MANIA, however, our culture remains thoroughly ignorant about the exciting and compelling history of the real Maltese Falcon and the real life role the bird played in saving and continuing Western Civilization.

In the Hammett story, the Sydney Greenstreet character explains that the crusaders of the "French Hospitaller" were given the Island of Malta in perpetual fiefdom by King Charles of Spain, then head of the Holy Roman Empire. In return, these "Knights of Malta" were to annually provide the king with one of the prized falcons from Malta. This capsule summary is correct, but deficient in explaining why this group of idealists received the island. While not germane to the story's plot, there is much more to understand about the real falcon and the real knights. The mysterious fat man does not explain why this particular group of idealists had earned the Island.

Malta is a tiny island -- but in its strategic position south of Sicily it is big enough to constitute a barrier to any Mediterranean invasion of Western Europe from the east. The Knights were given Malta after their heroic though unsuccessful defense of the Island of Rhodes from the Ottoman invaders in 1522. Then, in a famous battle on Malta in 1565, 600 knights successfully stopped the progress of Suleiman the Magnificent and 40,000 of his Ottoman fighters. Right there on that island, Western Europe was, at least for a time, saved from Moslem conquest.

Given this history, we are losing a spectacular opportunity by not treating the Maltese Falcon as a trophy of the successful resistance to Islamism. The bird is no less an icon of successful defense than is (ignoring motives) the Old North Church is to the invading British. In a rational world, schoolchildren in Europe and North America would be making falcons stuffed with candy.

Note also that the "Maltese cross" is associated with firefighting, such as the badge of the NYFD. This tradition has come down from the heroism of the Knights of Malta -- 1900 years before the World Trade Center burned -- when attempting to scale the walls of Jerusalem, the Saracens threw down naphtha and fire.

THIS INABILITY TO RECOGNIZE the current turmoil in the broader context of the march of Islam is of one piece with the moral paralysis which prevents public proclamation of the urgency and superiority of our cause. Right after the 9/11 attack, President G.W. Bush implicitly acknowledged the broader historical and moral context of the event. In fact, he said that our response would be a "crusade" -- but he only used that term once. He was criticized for being hateful, for judging all Muslims. Soon after, he said that he regretted using the language.

Sixty-five years ago, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was not squeamish about figuratively using the word to mean "a coordinated battle with a moral core." He began his order of the day on June 6, 1944 (D Day): "Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade." He named his bestselling war memoir Crusade in Europe. His 1952 presidential campaign slogan was Campaign for America.

At the Democratic convention of that year, Ike's opponent Adlai Stevenson tried tweaking his usage: I hope and pray that we Democrats, win or lose, can campaign not as a crusade to exterminate the opposing Party, as our opponents seem to prefer, but as a great opportunity to educate and elevate a people whose destiny is leadership.

Judging by the election returns, Americans did not share Stevenson's concern. Eisenhower finished his second term in 1959 with a first-time-ever jet plane tour of the world by a chief of state -- dubbed "Crusade for Peace."

You'd have to be taking stupid pills to think that, in America, "crusade" alluded to pogroms or any of the other excesses of the Middle Ages. No one thought that Ike, a Presbyterian, was carrying water for the Catholic Church. In President Bush's case, he had the additional concern of people thinking he was alluding to the opponents in the original Crusades. What a shame. Had he kept using the term, it would have been a teachable moment for both our friends and foes.

IN A FREE SOCIETY, the morality of a cause is not the icing on the cake -- it's the whole cake. Facing a threat that is both long term and spiritually driven, our values-free ethos disarms us. Conventional wisdom runs that a "decadent" society will collapse due to "divine punishment." In fact, the process of social destruction need not be deity-driven or even supra-rational. Our inability to operate with a consensus of values renders us incapable of understanding and combating any enemy more complex than a street punk.

Which leads us back to the "third rate burglary": like its literary avatar, the falcon stolen John's Grill has never been found, despite a $25,000 reward. It's been replaced with a specially commissioned sculpture. "It's a fake of a fake of a fake," the restaurant owner says, ""but people come from all over the world to see it. A lot of people moved to San Francisco because of that movie." Both the restaurant's falcon and the movie's falcon are what Alfred Hitchcock would term "MacGuffins" -- objects of obsessive, misdirected pursuit which drive the story but ultimately prove unworthy of the attention.

In our ongoing existential struggle, the leadership class has displayed a sense of timing and choreography that would impress even the great Director himself. Continually and with tremendous creativity, media, educators and government keep nudging our attention away from the true historic threat and back towards the MacGuffin of "extremism," "fanaticism," and "militant-ism." Will we ever realize we've been gamed, correct our mistake and re-focus our pursuit on the genuine bird of value? On that answer hangs our future as free men and women.

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About the Author
Judd Magilnick lives in exile in Santa Monica, California.