LONDON — Osama bin Laden is Timothy McVeigh with a beard, and no more representative of the Arab world than McVeigh was of America. It’s important to hang onto that thought, because otherwise the storm of emotion that followed the broadcast of the tape in which the author of the atrocities of Sept. 11 boasted of what he had done could sweep people in the West away to — well, to exactly where he wants them to go.
Where he wants Americans in particular to go is into an us-and-them “clash of civilizations” mind-set that validates his own claim that the West is at war with Islam. The terrorists really will have won if, six months from now, most Muslims share his view that the rest of the planet is an anti-Muslim conspiracy, and the rest of the world sees Muslims as a threat.
Terrorism, especially of the sort practiced by outfits like al-Qaeda, is not really about blowing things up and killing people; that’s just a means to an end. It is about shifting attitudes and setting agendas: a kind of psychological jujitsu in which the actions of far larger communities and institutions can be manipulated by a small group of determined people who know just how to use modern mass media to magnify the impact of their violence and to steer the reaction in the direction they want.
Everybody who is dealing with al-Qaeda needs to remind themselves every day of what its strategy actually is. It did not imagine it could bring the U.S. to its knees by leveling a few buildings and killing a few thousand people, but it did hope to trick it into a reaction that would serve its larger purpose — which is to persuade the Arab and Muslim peoples that they are indeed the target of a Zionist-Crusader plot to destroy Islam.
Just as Lenin was Marx with machineguns, bin Laden is Harvard professor Samuel Huntington with suicide hijack teams. Huntington imagines a world of warring civilizations (defined mainly by religion and history), with a titanic clash between the West and Islam as the main event. But even though he displays an unseemly relish at the prospect, Huntington does not actively try to bring it about. Bin Laden, a religious fanatic who is sure that the Muslims, with God’s help, would win such a conflict, does.
If you don’t understand that bin Laden wanted the bombing of Afghanistan, wants hundreds of martyrs from his own organization (possibly but not necessarily including himself), wants tens of thousands of innocent Muslims killed by American bombs, then you just don’t get it. He wants Armageddon, and he wants it now.
The other thing to understand about the Islamic extremist movements is their total lack of success in the Arab world. Despite the undemocratic and distinctly unattractive nature of most Arab regimes, despite the West’s constant favoritism toward Israel, despite two decades of bombs, assassinations, and other bloody assaults on the stability of the existing Arab order, the fundamentalists have not won power anywhere.
It is a stunning record of failure, and it explains why bin Laden has resorted to this new strategy of trying to sucker the U.S. into acting in ways that will “rouse the Muslim masses” to a holy war against the West. He has had almost no success so far, which is a testimony to the common sense, tolerance and decency of the average Muslim. But he has not finished yet.
The notorious videotape was not part of this strategy. It was just an impromptu record of what it’s been like recently at bin Laden’s court, but it could still serve his purposes if it pushes American opinion toward apocalyptic views of the conflict that Americans have suddenly found themselves in. The point to remember, whether you’re American or Arab, is that this is not a big war, a global conflict, an epochal event. It’s just a bunch of fanatics trying to trick you into believing that’s what it is.