Good Old Sensationalism

Seeing as my role as blogger is to correct the excesses and misapprehensions of the press (yeah right -- pub), I'm going to take a stab at this sensationalist title, which was frankly long overdue and we all knew was coming when word of this Bin Laden tape got out.

Here we have this headline from Msnbc that says, quite frighteningly, "Neither Bush nor Kerry can protect U.S., he says." That sounds like a presage of an attack or something, right? Well, if you read the actual statement it was excerpted from, the message is totally different: “...your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands.” By comparison the real message is much less sinister. It's almost kind of... empowering, but more on that later...

That being said, there are a few things worth noting about this tape. First, it's a rather undire message to be coming from the world's most wanted man. I mean, all his other tapes said things like "you will be attacked everywhere" and so on. Why would this one clearly not try to inspire the usual fear of his network's awesome capability to do harm to the United States and its interests?

In general, there are many good reasons, as a terrorist, to try to come off as frightening. For one it helps to accomplish your political agenda, whatever it may be. Given that terrorists, by definition, use fear as a means to accomplish a certain end, usually political, it would seem that part of the terrorist method would be to extend the fear as much as possible through the most efficient means possible. Now, no one can succeed at manipulating outcomes if they go on tape with their masks and AK-47s threatening to chop the head off of a voodoo doll representing the U.S., or something; you need to be able to back up your threats with credible evidence that you can cause damage. But, once you have already established yourself as a credible threat, what has, to put it in economic terms, the greater marginal return to marginal cost? Planning and executing another 20 year-long operation to blow up major skyscrapers within the United States, or appearing on TV with your guns behind you and making the threat, either explicitly or implicitly, that more attacks are possible or are already on the way? Now, the latter option is much cheaper (costing approximately 30 cents, assuming the guns are fake), and probably almost as effective at engendering fear as an actual attack, at least until it's overused.

But the second reason terrorists would want to appear intimidating is that it helps the network organizationally. Terrorist networks like Al Qaeda do not have the luxury of instituting a draft when membership gets low. They rely on there being a pool of people who want to join the network because they are impressed with the its effectiveness, power, intimidatingness, success, message or whatever. In order to inspire the proper jihad spirit in prospective recruits, the network must appear impressive, directed and formidable, and the only way to do that in today's global environment is to advertise it via these tapes that are sent to international news networks and played all over the world. So there are at least two really good reasons why Al Qaeda would want to appear on the offensive and intimidating, especially in these videos. So why do they not come off as intimidating in this latest video. I have a theory, but it's just a theory. Here it is:

The question of whether or not Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups wish to influence the election has been the topic of much speculation. Some say they want Kerry, some contend they want Bush, and it ususally depends on which side you're on. There are approximately equivalent, and stupid, reasons given in defense of each view: the terrorists want to see Kerry because he is weak and wishy-washy and terrorists love a flip-flopper (it makes all their terrorizing rewarding)! Or, equivalently, they want to see Bush win because he will almost certainly be more inflammatory to the Islamic world, which will help stoke the fire of dissension and anger that provides their organizations with an abundant flow of new recruits. Both of these assumptions seem farcical. Sometimes the argument is extended to "Osama bin Laden wants Kerry, therefore vote for Bush," which is when I usually tune out. After all, the rightly extolled idea of not letting terrorists influence domestic political events means it is equally reprehensible to vote based on which candidate a terrorist would allegedly not want.

The line of reasoning that says that whoever the terrorists want must be inherently against our interest assumes that we are living in a zero-sum world with the terrorists. I'm not so sure this is true. Setting aside the legitimate point that it is morally reprehensible to concede anything to terrorists (this is a kind of retribution argument), I'm not so sure it's correct to say that because the terrorists want something, that means its bad for us. Now, let me make clear what I mean: Insofar as the terrorists are unconditionally committed to our destruction this is obviously a zero-sum game. Similarly, insofar as terrorists are committed to the Islamist vision of a world-wide Islamic theocratic utopia, thereby making it impossible for the United States to exist, our interests are completely opposed. Sadly, I'm not a scholar in these things so I don't know to what extent terrorists are unequivocally committed to these goals. But when it comes to certain discrete demands made by terrorists, which are often also widespread throughout the muslim world, I'm not so sure how much the outcome is either they win or we win. For instance, one of Al Qaeda's big grievances is to ensure the rights of the Palestinians in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It's in our long-term best interest to be even-handed in the peace process, because the idea that we're not is poisonous when spread through the muslim world in particular. Some may argue that radical muslim clerics are going to preach in their maddrassas that the U.S. is partial and evil either way, but why don't we take a legitimate critique away from them? Why not at least have the objective facts on our side that we are doing our best to broker a deal with both sides' interests taken equally into account? Why not give the rest of the world reason to alienate these demagogues for what they are, hate-spewing liars? Or take Al Qaeda's demand that America remove troops from Saudi Arabia. While it may have some strategic value for us to have troops stationed there, it's their land, and if they don't want troops stationed on it for religious or nationalistic regions then that's their call. We may have lost a minor strategic asset, but it's worth the cost of pissing off hundreds of thousands or millions of muslims. Given the choice between keeping troops in Saudi Arabia or taking them out, I'd say taking them out is the correct policy. It has to be a very minor asset. So what I'm trying to say is that just because terrorists would want something doesn't necessarilly make it a bad policy. Therefore, the fact that a terrorist prefers a candidate should not make that candidate a bad choice.

But back to the tape...say for some reason Osama bin Laden did prefer one candidate, and did wish to influence the election in his favor...who would he likely favor? Of all the arguments for each side, which I won't list here and with which I am only vaguely familiar, the ones I find most compelling on the whole are the ones pointing to Kerry. Admittedly, this assumption is the weakest part of my argument and I can't defend it very well. But take for demonstration's sake that he would prefer Kerry; then the question is, if he desired to influence the elections toward Kerry, how would he go about effecting that outcome?

Speculators have long feared a similar situation here to what happened in Spain four days before their presidential election. But an attack isn't going to work, because it has already happened once, and the American people are prepared for it. The first time is sudden and everybody is confused and acting on emotions, but the event has been analyzed enough and people have been educated enough that, if the American people were to change who they elected based on a terrorist strike, they would be aware that they were capitulating to terrorism, and I doubt that's something the American people would accept. Plus, I'm not so sure the American people are capable like the Spaniards of being intimidated into changing their vote by a clearly manipulative attack. Secondly, if anything, a terrorist strike could only help Bush. Remember how Americans unified around the president when the first terrorist attacks happened...why wouldn't the same thing happen again if there was another terrorist attack? There would be arguments for both sides, and an infinite chain of reverse and counter-reverse psychological inference would ensue, but regardless of the real motivation, the perceived target of the attack would be Bush. He's the incumbent for one, and any attack perpetrated while he is in office is an attack on his country under his watch, regardless of how close election day is. So people would either resist being manipulated altogether or if anything further rally around Bush.

If you were trying to sway the election towards Kerry, I think it's safe to say that you would try as hard as possible to avoid the appearance that you were trying to intimidate into a particular result. Bush officials, who have greater prominence than Kerry's officials and thus greater sway, would use an attack as an opportunity to say "Look, they're trying to intimidate you, they're trying to manipulate your decisions. Don't let them. (Vote for George W. Bush)." Since if he tries to blow up people into submission or comes off in any was as trying to influence the outcome it's likely to either not work or backfire in this way, the only way Osama could influence the election for Kerry, it strikes me, is to make an indirect statement about George Bush's policies, and remind the public of George Bush's failures, without seeming to be trying to influence the election. And who better to remind the public of Bush's primary failures than Osama Bin Laden himself. It then also makes sense why this was the first tape in many years in which Osama Bin Laden appears in person, as if to add extra emphasis to the fact that he's still alive.

Really the whole tape is a criticism of Bush or his policies. I'll post a few of the relevant excerpts below:

"...the main reasons” for the Sept. 11 attacks “are still existing to repeat what happened before.”
“Do not play with our security, and spontaneously you will secure yourself.”
“We never thought that the high commander of the U.S. armies would leave 50,000 of his citizens in both towers to face the horrors by themselves when they most needed him because it seemed to distract his attention from listening to the girl telling him about her goat butting,” he says, referring to Bush’s decision to wait more than seven minutes after being informed of the attacks before leaving an elementary room classroom in Florida where a student was reading a story called “The Pet Goat.”
“It appeared to him that a little girl’s talk about her goat and its butting was more important than the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers. That gave us three times the required time to carry out the operations, thank God.”
It's possible, however, that as most informed people agree bin Laden would not prefer either candidate over the other, because his visions are so extreme that nothing short of a complete Islamic revolution would satisfy them. This is certainly possible, but what would the purpose of releasing a tape right before election day be then?

Update: Everyone seems to concur that the release of this tape helps Bush. Fine, but if that's true, that means that if you take for granted
a) Osama does everything for a reason and knows what he's doing
b) the (mostly GOP) acknowledgements that the release of this tape helps Bush
then you conclude that Osama prefers Bush to Kerry, which is an interesting twist given the whole GOP "Osama prefers Kerry" demagoguery thing.

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