Sunday, September 28, 2008

Conversationalism + 2008: How Bin Laden Will Lose The 2008 Election

I was once reading a text that was trying, through belabored logic, to prove that September 11th was a Performance Art piece. Of course, it all depends on what you consider "art" to be. It's hard to define September 11th in a way that is separate from art, but it strains the term "art" to the point of being almost meaningless.

Such an argument belies the dual role of terrorism. From one aspect, the act of terror is artistic (not in the positive sense) in many ways: it is carefully planned, it is loaded with intentional symbolism, and is created more for the benefit of its audience than its actual tactical value. Bin Laden attacked the World Trade Center because it was a symbol that he wanted to attack. Part of the goal (part) was the pain, fear, and sorrow he instilled in every American, which he thought would come closer to achieving his aims. In a way, terrorism is actually closer to propaganda than art (try finding that line).

But there is, of course, a second role of terrorism which is not in any way attached to art: it is an act of destruction. This is actually important for me in distinguishing art from terrorism: art is, on the whole, an act of creation.

I'm saying all this as a way of looking at terrorism as a very flawed mode of communication. It's rather like the point in an argument when the words fall away and someone decides to throw a punch. But in terms of the overall world culture, the point of terrorism is to influence the culture.

How might Bin Laden want to influence our culture? He has many achievable, specific goals as part of his campaign, and between his tapes and his actions he wants them put on the table. But the fundamental success of 9/11 is the key to his first and foremost objective: he wants to be a part of our national dialogue.

If Bin Laden saw his role today in our culture as the be-all and end-all of evil (the way Adolf Hitler was and is), I think he would be happy. We have elevated him to a position wherein his concerns are of concern to us all.

Last weekend, al Qaeda allegedly got back in the game, in terms of bombings. And their allies, the Taliban, are slowly mounting the war in Afghanistan, and gaining ground. The former is terrorism; the latter is guerilla warfare.

What are we talking about this week? Well, the first debate spent a lengthy amount of time talking about Afghanistan and Pakistani sovereignty, but the name "bin Laden" and "al Qaeda" was not a centerpoint of the debate. We were talking tactically; we were not speaking out of fear. And still, the number one issue on America's mind is the economy. Bin Laden is not the biggest threat to Americans: foreclosure is. Bankruptcy is.

What does this mean for Bin Laden? It means that his group returns to being marginalized on the world stage. It means that the United States is free to take action without hushed talk about "emboldening the enemy." It means that our public discourse will be free of the misleading connections of every evil in the world to one super enemy.

This, of course, is why I was horrified the other night when I heard Tony Blair, on The Daily Show, say that all of the terrorists of the world were basically the same forces. More specifically, he said that Hezbollah, Hamas, the Sunni Militias, and the Taliban were all part of the same "forces" at work. To the degree that each of these are Islamic fundamentalist groups, perhaps. But that is where the similarity ends. As Jon Stewart rightly pointed out, each of these groups has predominantly nationalistic goals.

Contrast Hezbollah, for instance, with Al Qaeda in Iraq, or Al Qaeda in Europe. Both of those franchises were started by Islamic fundamentalists who looked to Bin Laden for leadership, and pledged their small fragment of Islamic fundamentalism to Bin Laden's aid. These groups are not growing outside of Afghanistan. Although Islamic Fundamentalism, as an ideology, continues to gain traction, they are not all linked and directed by Bin Laden, as Bin Laden might have dreamed.

There are more empirical links, in terms of weapons and funding. And those include Iran and Syria prominently. But those links also include China and Russia--not for ideological reasons, but for tactical reasons. After all, China may be supporting terrorism abroad, but is against the Islamic guerillas among the Uighurs, they are far less supportive.

Bin Laden will lose this election if he fails to turn the world conversation toward himself. And I have every faith that he will lose this election. I was worried, in the wake of the bombings, that he would come to dominate our national dialogue again, and ruin the chances of addressing the real problems we need to address in this nation. Thankfully, he may have taken lives and destroyed property, but he is losing the war.

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