Monday, May 2, 2011

Evil (TM)

Just as I think should be the case, much of the discussion about Osama bin Laden's death seems to be focused on the effect that it will have on Al Qaeda and international terrorism in general. Gratifying my conclusions, it appears also that the greater share of expert opinion seems to hold that this is a largely symbolic victory and that it will have little practical impact on the operations of the organization of which he was the figurehead. Given the depth at which he had gone into hiding, bin Laden was largely cut off from the outside world over the course of the last several years, and his lack of visibility, even in the shadow of attacks and plots of attacks, always suggested to me that he had long since ceased to be directly involved in the planning and execution of major terrorist operations. I, like many others, even supposed that he had already died, and that both Islamic terrorists and Western powers were keeping his image alive as a rallying point for both of their combat efforts.

While that has been clearly proved not to be the case, it rather seems as though it might as well have been true, and that a symbol was the most significant thing the man had to offer at the end. But while this appears to be essentially the view of national security experts, my sense of the media's dealing with the subject is that it is, unsurprisingly, thoroughly emphasizing the moral and ideological value of the victory, and dodging mention of that victory being symbolic, and not practical. In a very remarkable example of this duplicity, this article at MSNBC's website bears the heading "Scattered al-Qaida needs 'Miracle' to Recover," despite the fact that the actual title of the page, and thus how it shows up in a Google search, is "Analysis: Little real impact to al-Qaida."

The public assumption of bin Laden's ongoing significance to his terrorist movement, and now the public assumption of the strategic value of his death, strongly suggests the social-psychological need to put a name and a face to complex issues, even if that means simplifying them or clouding them beyond what is appropriate for proper understanding. The public doesn't merely respond to branding, it seems to rely upon it. And this rule seems to apply across cultures. Bin Laden's name and face was co-opted on both sides of this unending conflict, and it is a conflict in which both sides have multiple surfaces.

The American public seems to tend to think of the terrorists whom the U.S. is fighting as part of some single, all-encompassing organization. They think this in large part because many terrorists themselves seem to want to portray it that way. Thus there are several separate organizations that have branded themselves as al-Qaeda, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They all carry the same name because that name tends to be pretty evocative since 9/11, and I don't think anyone ever thought to trademark it. But that doesn't mean that these multiple organizations are linked by shared leadership, similar organization, or even identical goals. And to assume that they are for no other reason than because it allows you to to reduce the number of enemies you have to keep straight is intellectually irresponsible, and it clouds understanding of, and therefore judgment about complex international issues.

Bin Laden's death is a chance for a breaking point with regard to this impulse. I've already observed the media questioning who will take bin Laden's place at the head of the organization. Putting aside how wrong it is to simply assume that he needed replacing at his point, I hope that the reason for the inquiry is for the sake of a practical understanding of the structure and operations of a terrorist organization, and not because we are looking for another poster boy for all instances of international terrorism worldwide. We should be smart enough to maintain a better understanding of the diversity of the threats present in the world, and upright enough to stand against senseless violence and vicious ideology without need of a recognizable "face of evil" pasted on top of it.

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