Can You Think Like a Terrorist?

A talk by Doug Muder at the Needham Lyceum

This talk derives from an article I wrote for the weblog DailyKos, called Terrorist Strategy 101. In that essay I tried to give average Americans some insight into the minds of terrorists, and in particular, of Osama bin Laden. I won’t try to reproduce the entire essay here this morning, but I would like to abstract a couple of points out of it.

The first point has to do with the title of this talk: Can you think like a terrorist? A large segment of American popular media answers this question: No, you can't. Terrorists, especially Muslim terrorists like bin Laden, are portrayed as being totally different from us. They have no motives you can understand, other than the desire to kill Americans. They are mad dogs.

And so, when bin Laden releases a message – for example, the videotape just before our November elections – it gets a great deal of attention, but only of a certain type. We hear lengthy analyses of his clothes, his grooming, and his apparent state of health – because these are clues about where he might be hiding or who has been sheltering him. Analysts comb through his text looking for coded messages and signals to launch an attack. Bin Laden himself makes fun of our assumption that he has no other way to communicate: “It is as if we were living in the time of mail by carrier pigeon,” he says. And the timing – why just before our elections? Was he trying to help Kerry? Help Bush?

In all this media frenzy, few people asked: What did he say?

We analyze to death everything about bin Laden’s messages except their content. And so, even though bin Laden has addressed more than one message to the American people, and in spite of the fact that he has told us a great deal about his motives, his goals, and even his strategies, the average American knows nothing of this. Because, we are told, there is no point in listening to him. He’s just a mad dog. He just wants to kill us.

Our ignorance is not bliss, for several reasons. On a personal level, it is better to be afraid of something you understand than to be afraid of you-know-not-what. Fear of the unknown expands to capture any other fears you may have. If you are afraid to fly, now you have reason not to. If you are afraid of crowds, afraid of tall buildings, afraid of foreigners, afraid to open your mail – now those fears have a face. They seem to make sense in a way they never did before.

Politically, the ignorant are easily manipulated. Without understanding the threat, the American people are in no position to evaluate the countermeasures. How can we judge the Patriot Act, the detention of enemy combatants, the authorization of torture, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq if we know nothing of the enemy these actions allegedly protect us against?

Internationally, in the struggle for minds and hearts, we fight with one hand behind our back if we refuse to understand bin Laden. People say, “Why try to understand? You’re not going to be able to negotiate with him, and you certainly won’t change his mind.” But maybe there are other minds we should be trying to change. Let me make a crass analogy: If you are selling Coke, you need to understand why people drink Pepsi. True, you will never get the president of Pepsi to admit that Coke is better. But that isn’t the point.

To many young Muslims making up their minds about the World, the West and al Qaida are Coke and Pepsi. They are CNN and al Jazeera. You can tune in either one if you set your mind to the right frequency. They know that they can turn their backs on Islam and join the West. They know that they can follow the Sharia and give up capitalism, democracy, individual rights, and the other benefits of the Western Enlightenment. What they doubt, and what many of them are desperately trying to figure out, is whether there is a third way. Is there a place for Islam in a world order dominated by the United States? Can they be authentic, passionate Muslims and still grab on to the wonders of the West? Or is any Islam compatible with the West just a sham, a toy religion? The 21st century hangs on how they answer these questions. And if we are willfully ignorant of bin Laden’s message, and why it appeals to those young minds, then we have cut ourselves out of that conversation.

Now, in discussing our ignorance, it is very easy to cast blame. The media, certainly, is not working very hard to educate us, and the administration at times even encourages our misconceptions. And yet, they could not fool us without our help. The message that bin Laden and the terrorists are mad dogs, that we cannot understand them, that they are nothing like us – in many ways and to many people that is a welcome message, even a comforting message.

Don't we all want to believe that we are good and our enemies are evil? That there is no connection, no resemblance between us? What a fantasy it is to believe that the battle between Good and Evil is being fought, not in our own hearts at this very moment, but somewhere far away. President Bush's claim that we are fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them over here – whatever you may think of that statement literally, it contains a lot of metaphoric truth: We project evil out there so that we don't have to deal with it in here. We make monsters of our enemies so that we don't have to examine our own sins. We want to believe that al Qaida attacked us because they “hate freedom,” and not because we have done anything to offend Muslims or make their lives more difficult.

Pat Buchanan, of all people, turns Bush’s phrase around: “The Islamic terrorists of 9/11 were over here because we were over there.”

In a letter to the American people in November 2002 (after we were at war in Afghanistan but before our invasion of Iraq), bin Laden put the case like this:

Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple: Because you attacked us and continue to attack us. You attacked us in Palestine. ... You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon. ... Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries, which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis. These governments prevent our people from establishing the Islamic Shariah, using violence and lies to do so. ... You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices. ... Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them. ... You have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day. It is a wonder that more than 1.5 million Iraqi children have died as a result of your sanctions, and you did not show concern. Yet when 3000 of your people died, the entire world rises and has not yet sat down.

I don’t know about you, but I find that hard to listen to. Isn’t it comforting to know that you don’t have to listen to it? It’s just the barking of a mad dog.

The fire of psychological projection is easiest to see in those who hate the Muslim terrorists most – the Christian fundamentalists. American Christians have all, to one extent or another, compromised with the Enlightenment and with capitalism. And almost all of them feel guilty about it on some level. If you live six days a week in the technological splendor of the 21st century, and retreat to the Middle Ages every Sunday morning; if you live in an air-conditioned ranch house with every modern convenience, and then worship a Lord who says “Give away all that you own and follow me” ... then you have a minivan’s worth of guilt to carry around. Fundamentalists hate bin Laden not because he threatens them, but because he shames them. Would Jerry Falwell go live in the caves of Tora Bora for his Lord? Could Pat Robertson walk away from his millions and become a fugitive from the most powerful nation on Earth? Osama bin Laden could and did. No wonder they hate him.

In order to think like your enemy, you have to acknowledge all the ways in which you are like your enemy. And that can be unsettling. But we’re brave people, let’s try it. How are we – Unitarian-Universalists meeting on a Sunday morning in Needham, Massachusetts – like terrorists?

Let’s start with some unthreatening resemblances. A terrorist believes that the injustices of the world require dramatic action. He is not content to wait for events to take their natural course. Any social activist should be able to identify with that attitude.

The primary strategy through which the terrorist hopes to end injustice is to make the oppressor suffer; terrorists believe that if the oppressor suffers long enough and deeply enough, he will stop. That is also the logic behind strikes and boycotts.

Terrorists make the oppressor suffer by making him fear for his life and even for the lives of those innocent people he cares for. This tactic is beyond the pale for most people, but even so, we have to admit that it isn’t some new Muslim innovation. It goes way back in Western history, at least as far as the Exodus. The Ten Plagues of Egypt follow the terrorist pattern perfectly. Each plague rachets the Egyptians’ pain up a little higher, until ultimately God kills the firstborn of every house in Egypt – most of whom were probably innocent.

Closer to home, we have the abolitionist terrorist John Brown. You’ve probably sung about how his truth goes marching on. In Pottawatomie, Kansas, Brown had his men drag five pro-slavery activists from their beds at night and kill them. And he said afterward that he did it “to strike terror into the hearts of the proslavery people.” The funds for Brown’s subsequent raid on Harper’s Ferry were raised by a group of Massachusetts abolitionists that called themselves the Secret Six. One of the six was Theodore Parker, the famous Unitarian minister.

So you see, terrorism is not foreign to us. Even a good Unitarian like Theodore Parker can support terrorism once the following idea gets into his head: You need to believe that the injustice you are fighting is so great, that anything you do, no matter how vile or violent, is the lesser evil. Imagine yourself back in the 1850s with Brown and Parker. How many lives – even innocent lives – would it be worth to end slavery?

I hope you find that thought as disturbing as I do. But having upset the normal equilibrium of our minds this far, let’s keep going, and see if we can understand some of the finer points of terrorist strategy. My article Terrorist Strategy 101 is written as a quiz. The first question instructs you to imagine that you are a violent extremist, and then asks: “What is the first and biggest obstacle between you and victory?” After I dismiss a few of the more obvious answers, I award points for: The first and biggest obstacle to your victory is that the people who agree with you in principle are not radical enough. Your first and most important mission as a terrorist is not to defeat your enemies, but to radicalize your sympathizers.

Now, any political activist, even a nonviolent one, should be able to understand the truth of this. In my hometown of Nashua, New Hampshire, we have a peace group. If we draw a hundred people to an event, it’s a smashing success. But think a minute. Nashua is a town of about 80,000. Polls say that something like half the country is against the war now. If we had an antiwar event and everyone against the war actually showed up, we wouldn’t have a hundred or two hundred or even five hundred people. We’d have 40,000 people. That’s without convincing a single new person, but just by radicalizing the people who already agree with us.

The biggest problem facing a terrorist leader, or any activist, is that most people have lives. You know: “I’d like to come to your march, but Jennifer has a soccer game that day. And I missed the last one, and ...” Whatever the issue is, most people just wish it would go away so they can get on with their lives. If the activists on each side aren’t careful, the apathetic majority will craft a compromise that leaves them out in the cold.

Let’s go to Question 2. “In radicalizing your sympathizers, who is your best ally?” Again, the answer is a little counterintuitive. Your best ally is your mirror image, the extremist leader on the other side. He’s trying to radicalize his supporters, just like you are. If the two of you can get into a cycle of attack-and-reprisal, you can make the center untenable. I call this inverting the bell curve. Each of you convinces the apathetic supporters of the other side that compromise is impossible. Sharon and Arafat did this for decades. It was also the pattern in the Weimar Republic: If you didn’t need the Nazis to protect you from the Communists, then you needed the Communists to protect you from the Nazis. The parties in the middle became irrelevent.

If you don’t understand this pattern, then a lot of what terrorists do seems crazy. The cycle of violence is vicious, but not pointless. It destroys the center. It disrupts normal life, which is your main competitor. With enough rounds of violence, you can get those soccer games cancelled.

You see, one extreme against the other – Left against Right, White against Black, Christian against Muslim, Sunni against Shia – that’s always the second round of the playoffs. The first round is the two extremes against the center. That’s the round we’re in now in the War on Terror. It’s not bin Laden against Bush; it’s Bush and bin Laden together against the center, against all those people, Muslim and Christian alike, who just want to get on with their lives. President Bush said it best: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” That’s how you invert the bell curve.

Let’s get back to bin Laden. What is he trying to do? He has told us clearly. He blames Western interference for the fact that the Muslim world is divided into a couple dozen weak nations with corrupt leaders. He would like to see the Muslim world united, as it was in the days of the Caliph, under a government guided by the Koran.

Uniting the Muslim world means overthrowing the current corrupt secular governments, which he knows the United States will never allow. This is why he is at war with the United States. The Japanese thought things out the same way prior to World War II. Japan had no immediate hostility to the United States, but it wanted to rule East Asia and knew that the United States would never allow it. Hence, Pearl Harbor.

Now, how on Earth could bin Laden imagine that he could defeat the United States? Isn’t that a kind of insanity in itself?

You need to understand three things about bin Laden to make sense of this. First, he really does believe in miracles. Allah akbar. God is great. If God could establish the Empire of the Caliph in the first place, why couldn't He reunite it? Second, the mujahideen have already defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and watched the Soviet Empire crumble afterward. Why not the United States too? Third, he has a strategy which, I have to admit, makes a certain amount of sense.

Bin Laden does not plan to defeat the United States on the battlefield. He didn’t defeat the Soviets on the battlefield either, and the Vietnamese beat the United States without any major military victories. In 2002 an article in Al-Ansar predicted that, like the Vietnamese, al Qaida would attack the United States in its the “center of gravity.” The Vietnamese thought of public opinion as America’s center of gravity, and won when the war became so unpopular that the United States had to pull its troops out. But al Qaida has a different target in mind.

A conviction has formed among the mujahedin that American public opinion is not the center of gravity in America. ... This time it is clearly apparent that the American economy is the American center of gravity. ... Supporting this penetrating strategic view is that the Disunited States of America are ... united only by ... the worship of the dollar, which they openly call “the Almighty Dollar.”

Bin Laden’s strategy is to tempt us into expenditures we can’t afford, in order to break our economy. If our economy collapses, he reasons, our armies will melt away. In his October message he said:

All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note. ... So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.

So far, the strategy is working. The whole point of the September 11 attack was to goad the United States into invading Afghanistan, so that bin Laden could start bleeding the US the way he bled the Soviet Union. Our invasion of Iraq was a bonus far beyond what bin Laden could have asked for. Saddam was one of the secular rulers he needed to overthrow. Now Saddam is gone, and the United States is spending almost $100 billion a year to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. The price of oil has doubled. Our army is stretched and demoralized. And all over the Muslim world, the center is collapsing. You’re for Bush or you’re for bin Laden – one extreme or the other. If bin Laden can find a way to expand the war into a few more countries – into Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran – then he’ll have us right where he wants us.

Finally, I think any good Unitarian talk should raise more questions than it answers, so I want to leave you with with a question and a mission. The question is: How do we keep the center from collapsing in this country? I'm sure some of you believe that just by raising bin Laden’s issues I have somehow joined his party – that I’m either with America or with the terrorists. But how do we hold on to a yearning for true Justice that sees beyond the choices of Bush or bin Laden, Us or Them, Victory or Defeat?

The mission comes from the theologian Walter Brueggemann:

It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of the imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single future the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one. ... The prophet is engaged in a battle for language, in an effort to create a different epistemology out of which another community might emerge. The prophet is not addressing behavioral problems. He is not even pressing for repentance. He has only the hope that the ache of God can penetrate the numbness of history. ... The task of the prophetic imagination and ministry is to bring to public expression those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply that we no longer know they are there.

The either/or logic of the inverted bell curve requires shutting down both our imaginations and our compassion. Believing that we are locked in a death-struggle with pure Evil, we lose our ability to imagine any outcome other than victory or defeat. And we become numb: The suffering we cause our enemies is deserved. The suffering we bring on ourselves and our allies is necessary and noble. And the suffering our enemies inflict on us is nothing but a spur to revenge – we don’t dare stop to feel our losses and grieve for them.

Brueggemann sets worthy mission for this church and this lyceum: to break through this numbness, to grieve both for our own suffering and the suffering we inflict on others, and to keep imagining, hoping, and even praying that all of us – humanity as a whole – can find our way back to Peace and Justice.

Needham, Massachusetts

9 January 2005

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