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Larry, Curly and Musab

May 21, 2006|J. Michael Waller | J. MICHAEL WALLER is a professor of international communication at the Institute of World Politics, a graduate school in Washington.

OSAMA BIN LADEN says he doesn't fear dying. He says he fears being humiliated.

So let's give it to him.

Bin Laden and others have thrived on the almost obsessive American focus on them as personal rivals. We give them the coveted "Enemy of the Great Satan" brand whenever our national leaders single them out by name.

What would happen if we ridiculed the terrorists instead? Would young people still flock to become "fighters" and suicide bombers? Would they still leave on their doomed missions with tearful support from their mothers, fathers, grandparents and the pretty girls at home, blessed by a cleric who justifies murder as a noble sacrifice in Allah's name?

Terrorism is psychological warfare: to accomplish much with little by manipulating people's perceptions, emotions and actions. That's why the terrorists like soft targets -- innocent civilians in a skyscraper or mosque -- that have little if any military value. The killings serve to terrorize civilized society, Muslim and otherwise. Ridicule strips the terrorist of his power. If we stop being afraid, we turn the icons of fear into objects of contempt.

The U.S. military may be developing its war-fighting skills to do just that. Recently it shattered the seemingly invincible persona of Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, whose beheadings and bombings have terrorized Iraq and the world, by pairing his latest video release with captured raw outtakes. The outtakes showed Zarqawi not as a fearsome fighter but as a confused, bumbling fat boy in American sneakers and a black ninja costume who couldn't figure out how to operate a simple machine gun. (And even if it wasn't simple, there was no way to know that from the outtakes.) For the first time ever, the world saw Zarqawi's weak side: a pudgy, vulnerable, even contemptible creature who can't fight like a real warrior.

To most Americans, ridiculing terrorists might seem trivial, even sophomoric, as a weapon of war. But dictators and terrorists, being unable to function in the free market of ideas, need propagandists to control (not merely spin) their public images. They require obedience or acquiescence -- a fear factor that cannot long coexist with put-downs and snickering. (That's why, six months after taking power in 1959, Fidel Castro had signs placed in official buildings that read "Counterrevolutionary jokes forbidden here." One of the first publications he shutdown was Zig Zag, a humor magazine.)

Pride, honor and shame are profound in much of Arab Muslim culture. The Zarqawi video was devastating. That's why Iraqi television and other moderate Arab media gave it plenty of play.

The ancients of the Middle East understood the mortal power of ridicule. In the Talmud, the basis of Jewish law, the Hebrews proclaimed, "All mockery (leitzanut) is prohibited except for mockery of idol worship." Muhammad, the founder of Islam, weaponized ridicule. From the third to fifth years of his annunciation as a prophet, Muhammad deployed warrior poets ahead of his invading armies to soften the targets through mockery and derision.

Back in simpler times, Americans reflexively ridiculed their enemies. In a 1940 episode of "The Three Stooges," Moe did a ridiculous impression of Hitler while Larry heiled as propaganda minister, and Curly dressed as Goering with his belly and buttocks festooned with medals.

When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the Army turned film studios into wartime propaganda mills. Humor about sacrifices at home and ridicule of the enemy were staples in Disney and Warner Bros. productions that starred Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny. (In fact, "Donald Duck in Nutziland" won an Academy Award in 1942.) To home audiences, the parody brought comfort and reassurance that, mighty as the enemy was, we could still defeat it.

In a January 2006 recorded message, Bin Laden signed off by saying: "I swear not to die but a free man even if I taste the bitterness of death. I fear to be humiliated or betrayed."

If he's not afraid to die, let's pour on the humiliation.

As long as the terrorists can make themselves look like fearsome winners -- and as long as we inadvertently help them -- they will always recruit followers. But nobody likes to follow a loser.

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