Man is the language animal – we alone have words, words that remove us from the immediate now, so we can talk with each other about the past and what we now think really happened, and about the future and a range of things likely to happen, and argue endlessly about the present, angrily telling each other what’s really happening right now, as if we know. You need words for that. Your happy dog Spot can understand cause and effect – you did paper train him – but he can’t think about it. Spot is always in the if-then now. Spot deals in signs of what is – a pat on the head or harsh words – not in symbols of what might be – symbolic language – words. But his master can play with the concept of all sorts of hypothetical ifs and all the alternative then-outcomes, and launch a war in Iraq perhaps. You need the words for that – Spot just wouldn’t get it. And of course no one knows what your mysterious cat is thinking. Cats always look wise and kind of scary, as if they’d prefer to not let you know what’s actually going on, because you’re rather unimportant. That’s why one French writer once said that the cat is always the most beautiful woman in the room. No one knows what to make of elegant mystery. They’re just drawn to it.
But we swim in our sea of words – telling each other what is real and important, even if it’s not anything real in the here and now. Words make it real. For example, Bruce Bartlett explores the historical roots of the real mess we’re in now:
The roots of political polarization go back to before the Civil War. The slaveholding society of the old South necessarily imposed upon it a very conservative view of the world, which impacts public policy to the present day.
One way in which this conservatism exhibited itself and still does is that Southerners tend to be very religious in an evangelical Christian way. The reason for this is that when slavery came under attack by Northern abolitionists, Southerners found comfort in the Bible. In it there are many passages that defend slavery and treat it as a normal part of life (e.g., Exodus 20: 20-21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3: 22).
Perhaps the clearest biblical defense of slavery is that in 1 Timothy 6: 1: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed.”
A complement to biblical literalism was constitutional literalism. Southerners noted, correctly, that the Founding Fathers did not ban slavery and, indeed, accepted it as a necessary condition of the great compromise that led to creation of the United States.
Words matter. That’s what people cling to. And Bartlett goes on to discuss how this sort of thing is still playing out, a war of words. The if-then arguments don’t change all that much, only the details do.
But that’s understandable. We use words to point to words, which we say confirm what the reality is here. And liberals simply point to other words. You no doubt remember John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It all starts with language, symbolic language – not things. And the things we see are shaped by the language available to us, which make it possible for us to “see” them – as Alfred Korzybski and S. I. Hayakawa and all the other sociolinguistic crowd were always saying. And then there’s cognitive behavioral therapy – treating all sorts of psychiatric disorders by having the patient use quite different words to explain their situation, writing them down, over and over, and then trying even more words. And damn, it works just fine. If words are, in the end, reality, change the words – that changes the reality.
So the words you use are powerful, no matter what George Bush, a man of few words, kept insisting – that words don’t matter, just what you do. Didn’t he read that first sentence in John?
And the odd thing is that his nemeses, Osama bin Laden, did understand that words matter. And this week seventeen declassified letters seized in last year’s raid on bin Laden’s compound by those Navy SEALs, who left him quite dead, were posted online by the our Army’s Combating Terrorism Center, at West Point. And these came with an analysis of their contents – Letters from Abbottabad: Bin Laden Sidelined?
Yes, these letters – one hundred seventy-five pages in Arabic – are only a bit of what was taken from the compound, as the head of the Center, retired General John Abizaid, said in a note published with the translations. But still they’re interesting. And MSNBC’s Mike Brunker offers a few comments here:
Among other things, they show the al-Qaida founder was troubled by the actions of other Islamist groups that aligned themselves with his terrorist network.
And Brunker cites Associated Press reporter Kimberly Dozier:
The documents show dark days for al-Qaida and its hunkered-down leader after years of attacks by the United States and what bin Laden saw as bumbling within his own organization and its terrorist allies.
It seems the affiliate organizations – al-Qaida in Iraq, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and the folks there in Pakistan – were driving him crazy, as the Center’s authors note:
Rather than a source of strength, bin Laden was burdened by what he viewed as the incompetence of the “affiliates,” including their lack of political acumen to win public support, their media campaigns and their poorly planned operations which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims.
“I plan to release a statement that we are starting a new phase to correct (the mistakes) we made,” bin Laden wrote in 2010. “In doing so, we shall reclaim, God willing, the trust of a large segment of those who lost their trust in the jihadis.”
The action was to release a statement, not stage a spectacular attack. As John said, in the beginning was the Word. And words matter, as Brunker notes:
The letters also indicate that American Adam Gadahn played a much greater role in al-Qaida than has been acknowledged by U.S. authorities, who have often dismissed him as a propagandist and spokesman. In fact, Gadahn appeared to act as an adviser to bin Laden and in one letter urged that al-Qaida disassociate itself from al-Qaida in Iraq.
One letter also outlined Gadahn’s views of U.S. news organizations as part of a discussion of how al-Qaida might go about publicizing the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on the U.S.
He indicated a particular dislike of Fox News, writing, “Let her die in her anger”; said MSNBC-TV appeared to be “good and neutral a bit,” while complaining about the firing of Keith Olbermann; said CNN appeared to be aligned with the U.S. government but was better in its Arabic reports; and made flattering comments about CBS and ABC.
These guys knew it was all about words, not actions. That’s the real war they were fighting.
But they did consider a few actions. Bin Laden wanted to target the planes carrying Barack Obama and David Petraeus. The idea here was to move the “utterly unprepared” Joe Biden to the office of the presidency. In fact, there is this from a bin Laden letter, saying a cool move would be “anticipating and spotting the visits of Obama or Petraeus to Afghanistan or Pakistan to target the aircraft of either one of them” if possible, with these instructions to be relayed to the guys doing the wet work:
They are not to target visits by US Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff (Chairman) Mullen, or the Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Holbrook. The groups will remain on the lookout for Obama or Petraeus. The reason for concentrating on them is that Obama is the head of infidelity and killing him automatically will make Biden take over the presidency for the remainder of the term, as it is the norm over there. Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the US into a crisis. As for Petraeus, he is the man of the hour in this last year of the war, and killing him would alter the war’s path.
Well, maybe – and Biden was probably not amused – but the bulk of the documents show that bin Laden worried about a growing distrust in his wonderful network that was developing in the Muslim population in the region. He knew he was losing hearts and minds as they say, and Fred Kaplan says he probably missed Bush’s War on Terror, because he could win in that war of words:
Among the cache of documents that the SEALs captured during their raid of Osama Bin Laden’s compound last year, one in particular should make many Republican foreign-policy advisers reassess their whole approach to the “war on terror.”
It’s the letter – No. 9 of the 17 missives that the administration released this week through West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center – in which Bin Laden discusses what he calls the “very important matter” of changing the name of al-Qaida.
Contrary to the tone of some news accounts, the letter is not some mildly amusing display of the former most-wanted terrorist engaging in Mad Men-style “branding.” Rather, it’s a fairly sophisticated analysis of how cultural co-optation helps build a political movement – and it’s a vindication of President Barack Obama’s approach to undermining that movement.
It seems that bin Laden was unhappy that his organization’s original name – Qa’ida al-Jihad – somehow got shorted to al-Qa’ida – or al-Qaeda as we know it:
The abridgement, he writes, “reduces the feeling of Muslims that we belong to them, and allows the enemies to claim deceptively that they are not at war with Islam and Muslims.” Rather, the United States could claim that it was at war only with the al-Qaida organization, which it depicted as “an outside entity from the teachings of Islam.” Bin Laden complains that Obama has “repeatedly” made this argument. Therefore, he concluded, if al-Qaida adopted a new name, which included a reference to Islam, “it would be difficult for him to say” that he wasn’t at war with Islam.
He even makes “some suggestions” of possible new names, among them Muslim Unity Group, Islamic Nation Unification Party, and Restoration of the Caliphate Group.
But there’s more:
Along the same lines, Bin Laden is upset that his enemies “have largely stopped using the phrase ‘the war on terror’ in the context of not wanting to provoke Muslims, because they felt that saying the war on terror could appear to most people to be a war on Islam, especially after they unjustly spilled the blood of innocent Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
And Kaplan pounces:
And so, there it is: confirmation of the critique that many Democrats (and foreign-policy specialists of various political stripes) have lodged against the Republicans’ approach toward the war on terror this past decade – that their pet phrases (“Islamo-fascism,” “Islamo-terrorism,” even “war on terror”) play into the hands of al-Qaida, reinforcing the rallying cry bellowed by Bin Laden and his successors that America is waging war on Islam.
To his credit, President George W. Bush took some steps to rebut this critique, saying in several speeches that al-Qaida was a perversion, not a reflection, of Islam. But he also indulged in the same “Islamo” vocabulary that – we now see – warmed Bin Laden’s heart. And the Republican activists who have most fervently touted his legacy in the war on terror – Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, John Bolton, Rudolph Giuliani, to name a few – have often denounced those who decline to say “Islam” or “Islamist” in characterizing this post-9/11 face of terrorism.
Yeah, yeah, avoid the word and then you’re one more wimp whining about in political correctness. But Kaplan says now we see that not so, that Obama isn’t a whining wimp, and in fact he’s pretty clever:
Bin Laden wanted the West to link Islam and al-Qaida because doing so would bolster both of his main messages: not only that the West is waging war on Islam (and therefore the West must be fought), but that Islam and al-Qaida are one (and therefore Muslims must join al-Qaida).
Obama entered the White House intent on isolating the two from each other as much as possible. Many gasped in horror that his first trip as president was to Egypt, where he gave a speech to students – most of them Muslim – at Cairo University. The cable pundits accused him of appeasement, of apologizing for America. They also raised a red flag when he dropped the phrase “war on terror.” Cheney in particular said it indicated that Obama lacked the right “mind-set” to confront threats in a dangerous world (even after Obama tripled the number of drone strikes on al-Qaida targets in Pakistan).
Now we see that Obama had the concept right, and that Bin Laden was horrified at his turn.
Bush was a man of few words, who mistrusted language – he preferred his gut as he used to say, to the great joy of the man who opposed him and plotted the end of America. But Obama is not Bush:
Bin Laden understood that Obama’s rhetorical shift was subverting his strategy for spreading al-Qaida’s message throughout the Muslim world, a strategy that Cheney had unwittingly abetted in his eight years as vice president (six of which he basically ran U.S. foreign policy).
So in his final days, bin Laden was facing a man as good at words as he had been:
In the wake of last year’s Arab Spring, the conventional wisdom here, among Republicans and Democrats, was that the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East dealt a fatal blow to al-Qaida, because they revealed that popular revolts could succeed in the Arab world without resort to violence or sectarian appeal.
Bin Laden apparently thought otherwise. In a letter dated April 26, 2011 (Letter No. 10 in the West Point book), he heralded the Arab Spring as “a great and glorious event” that would allow Muslims across the region to get out from under “the control of America” and for al-Qaida’s agents to spread “The Word.” There is no doubt wishful thinking here. But Bin Laden seems to have understood that blowing the lid off an authoritarian regime opens paths to power for all sorts of elements – not just for the young democrats who blew it off in the first place – and that, in countries of Muslim majorities, these elements are likely to include well-organized Islamic organizations (as is apparent in Egypt’s current election campaigns).
Amid the festive cheer of the Arab Spring’s opening days, Obama and his advisers may have underrated this possibility (as did many of his critics). Still his general outlook – which, to Bin Laden’s dismay, draws distinctions among Muslims and doesn’t view them all as enemies in a seamless war on terror – seems better suited to dealing with relatively moderate Islamic parties, as they arise (as some seem to be doing in Egypt).
Rats! Foiled again! Change the words and you change the reality:
Bin Laden welcomed Bush’s rhetoric and policies for creating the conditions for swelling his ranks; he fretted that Obama’s rhetoric was diminishing them. Maybe, on this score, he knew what he was talking about.
Hey, even those of us who aren’t particularly religious know what John was getting at. In the beginning was the Word. And it’s always so.