The Making of an Image
Do we want a world in which we are others' footstool?
Copyright © 2002 Dorian Scott Cole
What did the terrorist strike mean? The first anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the US has passed and the event is now a semi-integrated part of the national and world psyche. For some in the world, the attack is gleefully perceived as a strike at a towering giant regarded as a bully and supporter of their enemies. For some it was an action brought on the US by our own actions in the world. For many in the world it was the cowardly act of people who want to use barbarian methods to force the West to be and do what they want. For many it was a symbolic attack on freedom that requires vigorous defense.
Perceptions make it all of these things to various individuals. The questions remain about what truly prompted the attack. The predominant answers that we make our own, and the responses we give, will determine what kind of world we create for ourselves.
Those responses are quickly coming to fruition.... Bush... Iraq... UN... War.
Governmental perceptions overall currently reflect the US population. Perceptions within the US government vary about how we should respond, depending on the perceptions of individuals within the government about what caused the attack. Some believe that the cause is American behavior in the world, and we need to cut down on American military involvement in the world that creates hate, and use tough diplomacy to influence others. Some believe that others hate us, and the only effective response can be military action. The official policy, with wide support, has morphed from a strike against Al Queda, to a war on terrorism, to replacing rogue regimes. Will the escalating US response create more unwanted responses?1
Images are constructed. They are perceptions. The intense rhetoric in the Middle East fans the flames of hate, misinformation, misperception, and intolerance, and is demonstrated by people celebrating in the streets over the US tragedy, and by visiting Saudi Princes bearing gifts and advice that, "US actions, especially regarding the Arab/Israeli conflict, invite terrorist response."
Images, perceptions, are inherent in what the US leaves on the table for others to eat. The US gains criticism as a natural consequence of the focus of the news media and of the way American society is portrayed in entertainment venues. When I lived abroad for two years in the late '60s, and only had for news the AP wire news service and my subscription to the news magazine US News And World Report, all that I received was bad news and it painted such a bad picture of the US that I was concerned about what I was going back to. If people who know the US have a difficult time keeping a positive perspective in the face of only bad news, how much more difficult would it be for those in radically different cultures, who are in the midst of complex conflict situations, who are flooded with religious and political hate propaganda, to hold the US with positive regard? The US badly needs to emphasize and propogate news about the good that it does.
Every negative event overshadows a tremendous amount of good events. The US is not snow white. Besides alignments causing perceptions, the US does do some things that are questionable or even wrong. But the danger in viewing from only a perspective that casts the US in a villain's role, is that the US conscience is held hostage by criticism and self examination. Disinformation mongers know that this one-sided perspective creates paralysis, resulting in an inability to respond effectively. But inaction didn't stop bin Laden, ineffective US response was simply a doorway to further attacks.
My perception of what the attack was about has steadily become more concrete since the day it happened. Days after the attack when Osama bin Laden's name was first mentioned, stuck in the back of my mind was one predominant memory about him: that he wanted to overthrow the government of Saudi Arabia. I suspected he had set his plan in motion. Very little in this world happens out of simplistic reasons. World events like these are as complicated as the rise of Hitler, and WWII, and rife with misinformation, misperceptions, and misdirection.
The complex elements that propelled the strike forward against the US are the terrorist leaders, US image in the Middle East, and the lessons from past encounters with the US.
Osama bin Laden. What makes a leader? Power. The power of the leader's individual motivation. Financial power to support the leader's ambitions. Power to move the masses. Osama bin Laden was a concoction of all of these.
Osama bin Laden was considered an extremist prince in the Saudi empire. His goal to change the Saudi system was possibly merited, but his antagonistic methods brought him into sharp conflict with the Saudi government, and got him deported. No longer under Saudi control, he appears to me to be a megalomaniac, with the goal of overthrowing the governments. How would he do that? Staying true to his antagonistic methods, he likely would accomplish his goal through a devious and monstrous plan that grew out of the world of experience provided by the Middle East.
Why do I perceive him as a megalomaniac? Because I believe that bin Laden's quest is not about any particular legitimate cause, but about his own personal power. Indications to me are that bin Laden's actions are all about glorifying himself, not about people or causes. He is mercenary in his selection of causes to support, allying with anyone whom he can assist and then convert to his game.
Bin Laden appears to work as a demonic psychopath. He uses causes. Like a confidence man, he uses goodwill to ensnarl supporters. He twists religion to brainwash people into doing his bidding. He selects targets without regard for the innocent lives of victims. He sends his own people to suicide deaths, forcing them into situations where they die or are shamed. He selects high profile targets filled with innocent people to make an impression.
The dignity and value of human life and the welfare of people are simply pawns in his game, to be wickedly used for his own ends, and he has no genuine concern for them, claiming "godly" values on one hand while smashing people and values with a smile on the other hand. Change the clothing and you would have an even more vile version of Hitler.
Megalomania isn't all that unusual, but having the money to support it is. He not only had money to support his diabolical schemes, bin Laden couldn't help but witness important lessons in the Middle East. The long term Israeli/Arab conflict keeps feelings against the US tense. Hate is a very useful and convenient tool. Mixed with religious fervor, it is highly motivating and deadly.
Ayatola Khomeini provided excellent examples of this by overthrowing the government of Iran and establishing radical fundamentalist religious power, removing the Iranian people from one repressive regime and then giving it another. The events in Iran provided five very important lessons for anyone watching, like bin Laden.
One, you can overthrow powerful leaders and keep the US at bay by portraying the US as a satanic enemy which meddles in your affairs and manipulates and oppresses you. This casts past US alliances and charitable and protective efforts, as simply tools of US imperialism and the lust for money and power. Is bin Laden truly motivated by this? Bin Laden didn't campaign against the US until it became politically expedient to do so.
Two, the threat of body-bags prevents US action. The US is unlikely to use military force to locate and destroy terrorists - it will put up with long-term hostage situations and bad publicity, but the American public won't support sending its soldiers to fight and die for foreign causes. Even the Persian Gulf war against Sadam Hussein was strategized so that it lost no US personnel. Would the US actually send soldiers after bin Laden and his terrorists, especially in Afghanistan where primitive methods foiled the Soviets and inflicted heavy casualties? Nah.
Three, radical fundamentalist religious leaders and their followers can be tantalized with power and used to foment hate, rebellion, and cause political revolt. While I respect the fundamentalist branches of religions - there are many of them in all religions - I even see a certain usefulness in them, they should do some soul searching about this aspect of their religious thought and its ability to be become readical and be misused by transferring the responsibility for conduct away from the individual and to the leaders, who can become heady with power and tyrannical.
Anyway, in bin Laden's scheme he suddenly is a Mullah (religious leader) and issuing religious edicts. His alliance and safe haven in fundamentalism and repression became the radical fundamentalist tyrannizers, the Taliban, sitting together at an unholy table with the terrorists, feeding on religious intolerance and twisted notions of holy war. Bin Laden even resurrected the archaic "Our God" against "Your God" conflict, ignoring the "One God" belief of most people and religions. Radical fundamentalist religion is an easy target and an easily moldable motivation.
Four, you can raise opposition in exile, gain popular support with the people, and overthrow a government. If Khomeini did it to Iran, why could not the better funded bin Laden do it to Saudi Arabia?
Five, the US can be used as a straw-man enemy to increase your prestige and power. By this I mean that the US is not a real enemy, but can conveniently be made to look like an enemy, a very powerful one, that by attacking makes you look like a very powerful person. People are often measured in others eyes by the size of their conquests. This was a tactic used by Khomeini, Hussein, and many other leaders who cast the US in the role of enemy in order to enhance their own political position and power with the people. Bin Laden simply stepped onto the band wagon.
Much about terrorism has long been known. It has been used in the Middle East since the early 1900s, the Communists exported terrorist "revolution" to any third world country that they thought they could change to communism, and major training camps run by various organizations have existed since at least the mid 1900s in Cuba, Mid- and South America, North Africa, and the major Communist nations. Bin Laden learned how to build, indoctrinate, support, and effectively use a terrorist organization. Using vast financial resources and networks, he recruited, trained, and exported cells of terrorists throughout the world, to be used at his command.
Even the information age tools became weapons in bin Laden's arsenal. He used the Internet, cell phone communications, financial markets, and any other tool he could find to support his terrorist networks. Money gave his network technology, training, skill, and the essential requirement, patience.
These seven strategies learned from world experience became part of a maniacal plan for bin Laden. Building on past efforts to bring down the WTC, bin Laden financed and strategized an even more monstrous plan that would demonstrate his superior strength where others had failed.
By successfully carrying out attacks against the US, he brought to himself enormous prestige and support (raw political position and power) in the minds of many people in the Middle East, which are continuously inflamed with hatred for the West by a continuous barrage of propaganda. He bragged about it to religious leaders and on tape. What remained for him to do was consolidate his support and move against Saudi Arabia, and any other nation that he wanted, "ruling the world," a megalomaniac's dream. He miscalculated and instead strengthened his purported enemy.
That evil strategic formulation casts a very different light on the image of the US than that created by hate mongers. Is the US the dragon that it is often made out to be? Without a doubt the US supports many unsavory leaders or political regimes in this world to promote stability. But for every questionable and difficult supporting role that the US is compelled to play for world stability, how many other more charitable acts does the US extend toward the people within those nations? Not to diminish others' contributions, but the US contributes more than any other nation.
The US has a very large image in this world because it stands higher than any other nation, taking a leading role promoting security, stability, and charity. The spotlight is always on the US. Being in the spotlight creates expectations that may not be reasonable, and also permits misuse of the towering image as a convenient target by people like bin Laden.
The US extends an image of freedom and charity to the world, but does so with its arms tied behind its back. The US can't intervene in the internal affairs of other countries by setting foot on their soil. It isn't internationally lawful. The UN has to do the sending - the entire world has to agree - if it is done at all. Yet people in nations like Uganda (under the mass murder tyranny of Idi Amin), and Rwanda, who were being exterminated by rebels, have looked to the US for help, begged for the US to intervene, expected a response, and were bitterly disappointed by US inaction. The US could not be there for them.
In other countries where the US has attempted a limited military intervention to bring stability and protection to people within a nation, such as the UN sanctioned response in Somalia, the results have been ineffective and detrimental to US personnel and image. As in Viet Nam, limited responses just don't work, and the UN is turning out to be the only reasonable avenue for getting US and international intervention. The US and other nations have to intervene from a position of strength. Strenth that comes from world approval, the support of other nations, and the unreserved committment to get the job done effectively.
Image. It would be nearly impossible for the US to not project the image that it has. But the image that the US presents, brings with it obligations. Enter Sadam Hussein. Unfortunately Sadam Hussein seems to have nearly identical delusions and tactics as those of bin Laden. He has the same psychopathic disregard for his own people's welfare, the same lust for power over his people and the entire region, the same destructive impulse against other nations, forced indoctrination into his mad beliefs and tyrannical government, the same demonic lust to conquer land that isn't his, and the same inclination to use any means possible, regardless of horrible consequences to his people or others, to achieve his ambitions. He is trapped in confrontation with others by his mindset that you accomplish your will only by force. So by force alone, Sadam is contained - he won't have it any other way.
Sadam's motivation appears to be all about Sadam, not helping others, and anyone who allies with him should have a close look at his motivation, his reckless disregard for others' welfare, and a mindset that can only bring him into escalating conflict with multiple nations.
Terrorism also has an image. It has a high gratification image among its supporters, but most often it actually produces negative results. In fact, the results are counter-productive both to the terrorists and to their cause. The terrorists are assigned to the dust bin of regrettable and forgettable history. To most Americans the daily significance of terrorist threat is much less than the irritating onslaught of spam email and popup advertising windows.
Terrorists marginalize themselves into insignificance by actions that bring negative publicity to their cause. Their own horrific actions belie the validity of what they say, and make people turn a deaf ear to them. Instead of a force for action, they become something vile to get rid of. Had the same power, substantial effort, and funding gone into working toward peaceful change, which would have been a worthy goal of bin Laden, his terrorists, and radical fundamentalist religious movements, significant progress would have been made and they would all have been true heroes. The devil is in the irresistable enticement of total power.
The US doesn't want the difficult and often thankless role of the world's peacekeeper, yet because of the projection of the US collective conscience about what is right and good, and because of the US power, stance, and image to the world, it is often handed that peacekeeping badge and called to respond.
So when rulers like Osama bin Laden and Sadam Hussein threaten the world, in deciding how we should respond, we should ask ourselves, "What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?" Will we be Caesar or Napoleon, trying to hold the entire world together with our military force? Or will we be afraid of our own shadow, always examining it for the slightest ghost of a fault, and be cast as the world's boogeyman in the darkness of rhetoric, and the terrorists' footstool by the light of day? Or will we be champions of people's causes at the UN, rallying the world to intervene where there is injustice and rogue tyrannical rulers? Or will we find yet another role to play? What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?
1. For more on perspectives and responses, see The New Yorker, Sept. 16, 2002 issue, The War On What? by Nicholas LeMann, which influenced the referenced paragraph.