Like that really dumb guy at work who finally laughs at a joke about five minutes after everybody else has gone home for the day, Ayman al-Zawahiri — described variously as “al Qaeda’s No. 2 man” or “Osama’s right-hand man” — finally released a tape this week deploring the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Way to stay with the 24-hour news cycle, Ayman!
I guess the Cave News Network has its technical limitations. First, they have to copy the Betamax to VHS, then there’s a three day camel ride involved just to get to the nearest al-Mailboxes Etc. and send the tape off to Al-Jazeera.
I can’t believe we’re losing the propaganda war to these guys… Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha! Oh sorry, I just got my opening joke.
Anyway, here’s my ironclad prediction for April: Zawahiri will have some pithy comments about Dick Cheney’s hunting prowess. “Oh people of the Great Satan, you are doomed to defeat at the merciful hands of al Qaeda, God willing. You could not capture Sheik Osama at Tora Bora with all your planes and tanks, and if your leader Cheney cannot even shoot a bloated corn-fed bird from the skies of Texas, how can you hope to strike me here? Also, I predict that ‘Brokeback Mountain’ will win the Oscar for best director.”
Laugh now, hear the timely Cheney comment in April.
So why is it that two guys with a camcorder and a really bad courier service seem to do a better job of propaganda than does the United States of America? Maybe it’s because they are at least trying.
Another reason is wonderfully simple: much of the media in the Muslim world is sympathetic to al Qaeda’s anti-American cause and thus sets the bar wonderfully low for the celebrity cavemen. Their mere survival is declared a victory and our many victories are declared mere survival. Most foreign media view themselves as advocate journalists whose job it is to take their own people’s side in a war.
Much of our media, by contrast, view themselves as impartial observers, too sophisticated to take sides in something as provincial as patriotism and war. And the rest of the western media view themselves as the world’s moral aristocracy nobly fighting the proletariat’s real enemy — us.
In World War II, America’s media came together to help win the propaganda war. Today much of it has come together to help win it for the enemy. The greatest generation got Frank Capra. We get George Clooney. At this point, George Bush cannot even pay Armstrong Williams to help out.
The failure of the mainstream Western media to act as a voice for the positions, concerns, and aims of the Western world in this conflict has hurt us immeasurably — both abroad and, especially, at home.
But there have also been failures in the propaganda of actions on our part. It is not just with the propaganda of words that a successful struggle is advanced. The massacre of 9/11 is a prime example. The attacks were advertising and symbolism, even more than they were massive physical assaults. The total collapse of the Twin Towers was a symbolic victory far greater than any the enemy could have hoped for.
So what have we done about that? Nothing. Almost five years later, there are not two new towers in place of the old. Neither is there a single tower in place of the two that are gone. There isn’t even a drive through liquor store on the old site. It remains a hole, a wound, and a victory — for our enemies.
Imagine the propaganda victory of President Bush, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the widows and children of the victims of 9/11 holding a ceremony to open the New Twin Towers on that site. What better proof could there be of the vibrancy of America and the futility of trying to defeat such an industrious people by knocking down mere buildings? Imagine the worldwide coverage and inspiring images such an opening would generate.
The moral contrast of Ayman al-Zawahiri hiding in a mud hut issuing impotent video fatwas via goat mail, while the United States had already healed the skyline of New York with soaring New Twin Towers, would be worth far more than capturing yet another “No. 3” man from al Qaeda. Fighting the symbolism of destruction with the symbolism of reconstruction and achievement is so important that the site should have long ago been seized from Silverstein properties for its failure to rebuild in a timely manner.
Another unused opportunity for the propaganda of actions rests at Guantanamo. There we hold hundreds of al Qaeda terrorists, captured out of uniform and in violation of the rules war. And yet the only forces that have used the prisoners for propaganda purposes are al Qaeda and the Western press. Indeed, these jihadis have become a moral fetish for the mainstream media in Europe and the United States, leading Thomas Friedman to toss his verbal cookies last year with pleas of:
“Shut it down. Just shut it down…”
“Just shut it down and then plow it under. It has become worse than an embarrassment. I am convinced that more Americans are dying and will die if we keep the Gitmo prison open than if we shut it down. So, please, Mr. President, just shut it down.”
Well, caving in to catty anti-American whiners in the international press and shutting down Guantanamo would be an impressive display of our resolve and moral wherewithal. But how about this alternative: Shoot them. Just shoot them. Shoot them all and plow them under. Try them in military courts, document their crimes, their affiliations, their defiant last statements, or their pitiful begging for mercy, and shoot them.
They are all subject to execution under the rules of war, and I cannot believe that there is “intelligence value” left in most of them after four years in captivity, so let’s pick out a particularly nasty character for starters, hold a fair trial, execute him and establish a precedent. Then wash and repeat. The alternative is to release these men sooner or later. As long as men like John Kerry or Jimmy Carter seek the presidency, there is no life without parole for our enemies. It is just a matter of time before an election goes badly and most of the prisoners are released.
Those that have been released so far become propagandists for the other side, either by returning home unscathed, returning to the fight or by granting interviews to the BBC and other European media outlets with tells of torture and perseverance that are not in any way exaggerated. Those we execute, on the other hand, would become propagandist for us. And don’t worry about making them martyrs, they are already being used as such while in prison. Plus, a few executions might encourage future prisoners to more readily trade information for leniency.
Likewise, another lost opportunity for communicating with action is grumpily sitting in a box in Iraq. How long does it take to find Saddam Hussein guilty of having been Iraq’s President for the last 20 years? His televised trial — publicly documenting his brutality and crimes against Iraqis — is very important to proceed with. This trial, if conducted justly, would be a fabulous device to galvanize the hatred and fear of the old regime into increased support for the new government of Iraq. The bad old days need to be drilled into people’s heads. Then perhaps the Iraqis could drill something into Saddam’s head — say, a thirty-caliber rifle round. Let’s get on with it before the AARP joins his defense team.
America has fought parts of this war brilliantly — but often you would never know it. The propaganda aspects of our war effort need more attention. We need to publicize our successes better, publicize our enemies’ defeats better and think about the messages that our actions and inactions inevitably send. We owe such things to the victims of terror attacks and to our troops that have fought so well and bravely on the ground. We are winning nearly every battle, but we could still lose the war.