The Monster Dialectic

Suicide Bombers

Presidents Obama, Bush, and other politicians routinely call them and their leaders evil. Others say they’re hapless dimwits lured into sacrificing themselves on the altar of jihad for the sake of remuneration or virgins in paradise. There are also theories that they’re trying to rid their countries of what they perceive as military occupations by foreign governments. Who are the suicide bombers and why do they want to kill us so bad they’re willing to blow themselves up? Why are there so many people volunteering to end their lives in such a gruesome way?

Although these questions aren’t new, they’ll help us zero in on the great terrorist debate taking place in the world today. It will be helpful to imagine from time to time as you read this post that you’re really from outer space and have suddenly landed in the middle of this global mess. We see two primary opponents each shouting that the other is evil and must be killed. One is a great nation of the world. The other is a secret terrorist society that claims to be representing the interests of Muslims.

Are the evil and dim-witted theories correct? Or is much of the terrorism in the Middle East, as Professor Pape and others have argued, a response to fact that the United States has kept large military forces there since the Persian Gulf War? And that suicide terrorism is a tactic specifically used to end what is seen by many in the Middle East as a military occupation of their countries. Pape has also posited that long-term suicide terrorist campaigns cannot be successful unless supported by civilian communities who’re resentful of the occupation and therefore sympathetic to the terrorists’ cause.

Pape’s ideas suggest that suicide bombings are not just acts carried out by terrorist groups but are expressions of an angry, desperate people who see such tactics as the only way to rid their homelands of a foreign invader who worships a different god and possesses a superior military force that effectively controls their government. 1)Robert Pape, “Dying to Win”, Random House, 2005 The results of polls conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center (http://www.jmcc.org) support this interpretation.

Palestinian public opinion polls conducted by the Center in June, 2004, and December, 2004, found that 70% and 63% of respondents, respectively, supported the 2nd Palestinian Intifada (started September, 2000) against the Israeli occupation. Moreover, it’s reasonable to assert that antipathies and desperation are likely to increase exponentially if people in an occupied country believe that the foreigners are not just controlling their government, but are propping up what many perceive as a corrupt and repressive regime.

In his interviews and fatwas, Osama bin Laden has maintained that U.S. policies support and perpetuate an unpopular Saudi regime. That the Saudi government is corrupt and brutal is hardly a radical idea. The New York Times ran an article 2)Cowell, Alan, “Rights Group Accuses Saudi Arabia of ‘Gross’ Abuses “”, New York Times, 07-23-09. [accessed 12-24-09] last summer about a new report released by Amnesty International accusing the Saudi government of gross human rights violations. Among the excerpts from the report quoted in the piece are:

“Combined with longstanding and severe repression of any perceived dissent and an extremely weak human rights institutional framework, these measures have swept aside embryonic legal reforms and left people in Saudi Arabia almost completely devoid of fundamental freedoms and protection of their human rights.

“Old and new laws prescribe harsh and cruel punishments for terrorism-related offenses, including beheading and flogging, yet are so vaguely written that they can be, and are, used to punish and suppress expression and activities that are recognized and protected as legitimate the world over.”

We’ve also heard from quite a large number of former U.S. soldiers that the war in Iraq is morally bankrupt. 1,700 of them have even formed a group called Iraq Veterans Against the War. They’ve released videos explaining why they oppose the war. Many of these can be found on YouTube, such as this one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcMk3V3LZcQ. Also, in contrast to the politicians and pundits exhibited in the Western mass media, there are many conscientious objectors in the U.S. and around the world who either oppose the wars in the Middle East or oppose the way they’re being conducted. Yet, for every voice, placard, or web site mounting an objection, there are at least as many supporting the war on terror. In the nine years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan a veritable cottage industry of jihadi research societies and arm-chair Internet sleuths have come into existence to assist the CIA and FBI.

The Three Voices of the War on Terror and the Unheard Fourth Voice

For the most part, there are currently 3 types of voices that can be discerned in Western media speaking about the war on terror. One is the mass media, which mostly contain the voices who support the current war and largely agree with the way it’s being carried out. They explain that the war is necessary to fight off those who want to kill us and, ultimately, dominate the world. There are also many independent voices that agree with these policies. This includes a wide range of sources from journals and blogs to videos and tweets. Many of these voices take an even more hawkish stance than the one communicated in the mass media. (From time to time, a voice is heard in the mass media that thinks we should start reducing the role of the military but is pretty faint, almost immediately drowned-out by the zeal of arm-chair warriors.)

The second voice is more critical of the war on terror and thinks much of it is corrupt and money driven. These wars don’t serve ordinary people’s interests, but rather wealthy corporate interests instead. It has even been asserted that the people of Iraq and the U.S. share more in common with one another than either does with their respective governments because the governments are beholden to wealthy elites. This is the voice that hungers after peace and tends to believe that, except for a small percentage, most people in the world are good. Therefore many of the problems can be solved through peaceful means instead of violent ones.

The third voice is the voice of Islamic jihad. This usually takes the form of communiques from terrorist leaders that are sometimes reprinted or played in the mass media. These have ranged from written statements to grainy, hard-to-decipher videos. They typically express—especially the ones released after September 11th—strong denunciations of America and Israel, co-conspirators on a quest to dominate the world.

The first and third voices are extremely convinced of their own righteousness and communicate to each other according to what we’ll refer to as the monster dialectic:

Terrorist: You are evil and must be killed.
U.S. Officials: No, it is you who are evil and must be killed.
Together (in unison): Then, let’s kill each other!

The main thing to observe is that, most of the time, they aren’t so much talking to each other as attempting to convince their own particular audiences and potential supporters, which is necessary to sustain their leadership and the current wars. When bin Laden or Obama states that one or the other is evil, he is really attempting to justify his own use of violence:

“It’s okay for me to kill because they’re evil.”

Very often missing—at least for those of us in the West—is unfiltered commentary from those who, unlike the bin Ladens of the world, actually carry out the terrorist attacks and, more importantly, those who must live in the towns and cities in which these tragic events occur. These voices compose the unheard fourth voice. Even if it may be difficult to compile interviews of suicide bombers, it is possible to interview the ordinary people living in these war zones and dealing with its terror every day. The Western media has done an extremely poor job of getting their stories.

This raises disturbing questions why the Western media has not been full of in-depth reporting on the extreme conditions under which so many Iraqis have had to live since the onslaught of the American-led invasion. If you consider the suffering imposed on them by more than a decade of U.S.-backed sanctions followed by six grueling years of agonizing war, and the fact that we supported a madman to lead their government for more than a decade, it’s utterly incredible to think a so-called free press and creative community has not deluged the world with story upon story of the conditions ordinary Iraqis have had to endure. Instead, we’re left with a few tidbits here and there. Yet based on past experience, we in the West know the voice of the victim is not always the unheard voice. Most of us in the West can easily recall the months of mega reporting that went into the devastating effects these attacks had on the people closest to them.

Here are some interesting statistics concerning the safety and feelings of Iraqi citizens during the U.S. led war there. They are based on polls referenced in a report from the Brookings Institution 3)Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbel, “Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq”, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, 10-01-2007, http://www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/iraq/index.pdf. [accessed 01-03-2010]

Iraqi Public Opinion

Although the war on terror came to their country two years later than Afghanistan, Iraqis have experienced terrorism like no other country, with suicide and road-side bombings surging beyond anything the world has ever witnessed. In addition to the activity of terrorists, a lot of this stems from the ethnic tensions that erupted after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that wound up pitting Shiite against Sunni. The violence continues to this day.

IRAQ: WHERE THINGS STAND 2007

Conducted (MARCH 2007) by D3 Systems for the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today (2,212 Iraqi adults from throughout the country were interviewed)

QUESTION: WHO DO YOU THINK CURRENTLY CONTROLS THINGS IN IRAQ?

59% of the population stated it was the U.S. Government while only 34% thought it was their own.

QUESTION: SUPPORT FOR THE PRESENEC OF COALITION FORCES IN IRAQ

78% of the total population opposed the presence of troops in their country. In February of 2004, 51% were opposed.This increased to 65% by November 2005.

QUESTION: IS IRAQ IN A CIVIL WAR?

42% of the population believed they were in the midst of a civil war.

PUBLIC ATTITUDES IN IRAQ: FOUR YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF INVASION

Conducted by Opinion Research Business, MARCH 2007

QUESTION: DO YOU BELIEVE THE SECURITY SITUATION IN IRAQ WILL GET BETTER OR WORSE IN THE IMMEDIATE WEEKS FOLLOWING A WITHDRAWAL OF MULTI-NATIONAL FORCES?

53% of the total population thought it would get a great deal better, while only 26% (mostly Sunni) thought it would get a great deal worse.

QUESTION: WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING HAVE YOU PERSONALLY EXPERIENCED OR WITNESSED OVER THE PREVIOUS THREE YEARS?

26% of the total population in Iraq experienced the murder of a family member or relative.

QUESTION: APPROVAL OF ATTACKS ON US-LED FORCES

In January of 2006, 61% of the total population of Iraq approved of violent attacks on US-led forces. This was up from 47% the preceding January.

QUESTION: TO IRAQIS: HOW WOULD YOU RATE SECURITY CONDITIONS IN IRAQ TODAY?

75% of Iraq’s total population thought the security situation was poor.

QUESTION: TO IRAQIS: DO YOU THINK THE US GOVERNMENT PLANS TO HAVE PERMANENT MILITARY BASES IN IRAQ OR TO REMOVE ALL ITS MILITARY ONCE IRAQ IS STABILIZED?

80% of the Iraqi population believed the U.S. plans to have permanent military bases.

Afghan Public Opinion

Afghans have been caught up in the war on terror for more than eight long years. How do they feel about it?

Survey of the Afghan People for the Year 2009

The following are excerpted highlights from a survey of more than 6,000 Afghans conducted by The Asia Foundation in 2009. 4)Pawan Sen, Sudhindra Sharma, Ruth Rennie, AFGHANISTAN in 2009 A Survey of the Afghan People, The Asia Foundation, http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/Afghanistanin2009.pdf

Personal Safety

“Just over half of respondents (51%) say they fear for their personal safety in their local area. However, much higher proportions of respondents report at least sometimes having fears for their safety in the South East (65%), South West (62%) and West (62%), than in other parts of the country. There has also been a significant rise in the incidence of crime and violence experienced by respondents in these regions since 2008.”

Violent Crime

“Seventeen percent of respondents report that they or someone in their family have been victims of violence or crime in the past year. Nearly one in ten victims of violence report that this was due to the actions of militias and insurgents (9%) or foreign forces (9%). The incidence of victimization from military type actions has been rising steadily since 2007.”

Voting

“The proportion of respondents who express fear to vote in a national election rose significantly between 2008 and 2009 (from 45% to 51%). This is now true for the majority of respondents in the South West (79%), South East (68%), West (61%) and East (56%) of the country.”

Conflict Resolution

“The majority of respondents (71%) support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements. The high level of support for this approach is likely to be influenced by the fact that a majority of respondents (56%) say they have some level of sympathy with the motivations of armed opposition groups.”

Democracy

“In 2009, a significantly higher proportion of respondents than in previous years mention freedom (50%) and peace (41%) as the greatest personal benefits they expect from democracy.”

Afghan National Mood 2004 – 2009

The chart below shows an trend of national Afghan sentiment over the last 5 years. Bright spots include an increase from 38% of respondents in 2008 to 42% in 2009 who believed the country is headed in the right direction and a decline from 32% in 2008 to 29% in 2009 who believed the country was moving in the wrong direction. These results, however, indicate a sweeping change in national mood between 2004 and 2009, a period time that witnessed an escalation of the war on terror.

Chart can be found on The Asia Foundation web site.

Asia Foundation Afghan National Mood Chart 2004 - 2009

Afghan Civilians Angry Over Deaths

After more than nine long years of war and bombs ripping apart the country, Afghan citizens are increasingly assembling to protest the war and vent their anger at the seemingly never ending carnage. But there doesn’t seem to be any end in sight. AFP reports that the 110,000 foreign troops now battling the insurgency inside the country will rise to 150,000 by late 2010 as anther 30,000 U.S. and 6,800 NATO troops arrive. 5)Sardar Ahmad, Afghan civilian casualties up 10%: UN, AFP, 12-29-09, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jeFu2Zg2NrPY8rQne16txWOQgj8Q. [accessed 01-08-10]

UN figures show almost an 11% increase in the civilian death toll during the fist 10 months of 2009.

“Figures released to AFP by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) put civilian deaths in the Afghan war at 2,038 for the first 10 months of 2009, up from 1,838 for the same period of 2008 — an increase of 10.8 percent.” 6)Ibid.

Afghan Civilian Deaths Rise 40% in 2008

According to an AP article in The Huffington Post 7)AP, “Afghan Civilian Deaths Rose 40 Percent In 2008: UN, “The Huffington Post, 01-08-10, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/17/afghan-civilian-deaths-ro_n_167491.html. [accessed 01-08-2010], a United Nations report states that 2,118 Afghan civilians were killed in 2008 by U.S., NATO and Afghan troops, a 31% increase over the previous year. Insurgents were responsible for 55% of the deaths while U.S.-led forces killed 39% or 829 deaths, 552 of which were due to air strikes.

Children Die in Explosion

As 37,000 more U.S. troops stream into Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s troop surge, the strain of war and continued violence is apparent among the Afghan population. After an explosion killed four children in Nangarhar province, east of Kabul on Wednesday, thousands of civilian protesters assembled on a road between Kabul and Jalalabad in Nangarhar chanting, “Death to America!” An effigy of Obama was also burned accompanied by chants of, “Long Live Islam!” and “Death to Obama!” 8)DEB RIECHMANN, “Civilian deaths unleash more anger in Afghanistan,” The Seattle Times, 01-07-10, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2010737813_afghan08.html. [accessed 01-08-10]

Statements of Afghans Affected by the War

The table below contains translations of statements by Afghan civilians who’ve been directly impacted by the war on terror. Their statements are part of a report on written by E.L. Gaston, who lived in Afghanistan from January to November 2008 and was funded by CIVIC and the Harvard Law School Henigson Human Rights Fellowship, and Rebecca Wright, also a Henigson fellow, who spent a month researching in Afghanistan. The report was issued in 2009 and can be accessed at www.civicworldwide.org/afghan_report.

Table 1. Excerpts from CIVIC Report: Losing the People

[table id=11 /]

Pakistani Public Opinion

The following information is based on a recent report from The Pew Global Attitudes Project (a Pew Research Center Project) 9)Pakistani Public Opinion: GROWING CONCERNS ABOUT EXTREMISM, CONTINUING DISCONTENT WITH U.S.”, The Pew Global Attitudes Project, 08-13-2009, http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/265.pdf. [accessed 01-09-10] The report makes the following qualifications:

“Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 1,254 adults in Pakistan between May 22 and June 9, 2009. The sample, which is disproportionately urban, includes Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, and the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). However, portions of Baluchistan and the NWFP are not included because of instability. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were not surveyed. The area covered by the sample represents approximately 90% of the adult population.”

The first page of the report states that Pakistanis believe their country is in a state of crisis, wracked by crime and terrorism. Approval ratings of the government is the lowest in a decade and virtually everyone is dissatisfied with national conditions. Corruption and a weak economy are major public concerns. As the table below indicates, Pakistanis are increasingly opposed to al Qaeda and the Taliban while 69% are concerned that extremists may take control of the country.

Chart can be found at http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=265.

Pakistani Public Opinion about al Qaeda and Taliban.

These feelings haven’t resulted in improved feelings about the United States, its leadership or its intentions:

“Barack Obama’s global popularity is not evident in Pakistan, and America’s image remains as tarnished in that country as it was in the Bush years. Only 22% of Pakistanis think the U.S. takes their interests into account when making foreign policy decisions, essentially unchanged from 21% since 2007. Fully 64% of the public regards the U.S. as an enemy, while only 9% describe it as a partner.”

The war on terrorism in Pakistan raises serious concerns among members of the public as many are extremely concerned about that what are perceived to be drone strikes by the U.S. are causing too many civilian deaths and that these are taking place without the consent of their government. The report goes on to state:

“Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say the attacks are not necessary and just about a third (34%) say they are necessary. Moreover, almost all respondents who are aware of the strikes say they kill too many innocent people (93%).”

Yet for all the anti-American sentiment, a significant number of Pakistanis appear to be open to better relations with the U.S., as the chart below indicates.

Pakikstanis want better relations with U.S.

A key finding of the Pew report is that Pakistanis view the actions of the U.S. military within their country negatively when seen in the context of operating without being subject to the control of the Pakistan government. As the chart below demonstrates, the public mood shifts from condemning U.S. unilateral action to approving a more supportive role for the Superpower.

Pakistanis against unilateral U.S. action

Another highly interesting finding involves the idea of societal norms. Western perceptions of church and state, as well as justice, are often different than those in a country like Pakistan. For example, the report found that 71% of the population were in favor of allowing religious leaders to decide property and family disputes, with women showing a clear preference over men in this regard. With respect to harsh laws and punishments, the Pew report had this to say:

“Pakistanis overwhelmingly favor stoning people who commit adultery (83%), and comparable percentages favor punishments like whippings and cutting off of hands for crimes like theft and robbery (80%), and the death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion (78%). Support for strict punishments is equally widespread among men and women, old and young, and the educated and uneducated.”

Other notable finding include:

  • “About seven-in-ten (72%) want the U.S. and NATO to remove their military troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. Only 16% approve of Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.”
  • “Most Pakistanis consider the U.S. an enemy, while only about one-in-ten say it is a partner. Distrust of American foreign policy runs deep, and few believe the U.S. considers Pakistani interests when making policy decisions.”
  • A majority of Pakistanis believe the U.S. acts unilaterally in world affairs without considering the interests of countries like theirs. Only 22% felt the U.S. considered their interests a great deal or fair amount when deciding foreign policy matters while 53% said it didn’t consider their interests at all.

To read the full Pew report, go to: http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/265.pdf.

American Public Opinion

American Support for War in Afghanistan

An article 10)Paul Steinhauser, “Poll: Support for Afghan war at all-time low”, CNN Politics.com, 09-15-09, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/15/afghan.war.poll/. [accessed 01-08-09] on CNN.com cites results from CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey 11)The CNN/Opinion Research poll was conducted Friday through Sunday, with 1,012 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey’s overall sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points released in September, 2009, reports that a majority of Americans (58%) oppose the war in Afghanistan.

Another CNN article about the same poll states that U.S. opposition to the war is up 11 points since April and is at the highest ever since the war began shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks. 12)Paul Steinhauser, “CNN Poll: Afghanistan War opposition at all-time high”, CNN Political Ticker, 09-01-09, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2009/09/01/cnn-poll-afghanistan-war-opposition-at-all-time-high/. [accessed 01-09-10]

American Support for War in Iraq

Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director, noted that American support for the war in Iraq dropped to 39% in 2005 and has hung in the low to mid-30s since.

On March 13th, 2008, Gallup reported that a majority of Americans want to get out of Iraq. “With the five-year mark of the start of the Iraq war approaching, Gallup finds that 60% of Americans would like to see a timetable set for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and 59% say the war was a mistake.” 13)“Majority of Americans Seek Iraq Withdrawal”, Gallup, 03-13-2008, http://www.gallup.com/video/104944/Majority-Americans-Want-Troops.aspx. [accessed 01-09-2009]

The Global War on Terror Consensus: What the People Do Not Want

Based on the information in the polls above, the conclusion is pretty straightforward: most ordinary people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan don’t want U.S. troops or drones to be directly involved in fighting insurgents or terrorists in their countries. It’s also clear that most ordinary Americans agree with them.

Assuming this is true, then who is that wants these endless wars to continue? If you remove ordinary people from the equation, that only leaves politicians and terrorists.

Conceptual Distance Required to Maintain Monster Status

By the time that we learn about a suicide bomber they’re dead. From a military standpoint, a suicide bomber is quite effective as long as there are people willing to carry out the mission. But use of this weapon will be likely to create more of a psychic distance between the target community and those planning the bombing attacks. First of all, once the deed is done, the actual perpetrator cannot be apprehended. Indeed, much of the time there’s not enough remains to even identify the bomber.

In this sense, the bomber is like a ghost. He or she could have been anyone. In some cases it’s simply not possible for investigators to find out who they were. They become a cipher waiting to be filled in. Know one to question and ask why except for friends and family, who may or may not know anything. It’s largely left to us—the news recipients—to fill the void with our own explanations. Therefore from a media standpoint, suicide bombing may even help exacerbate the unknown between target population and bomber. Since the bomber is not there to explain his reasons, we’re left with no alternative but to equate him with the terrorist leaders. But are the two necessarily the same? Perhaps there may be different motivations? Regarding this question, the Western discourse has made some distinctions. Some of these were mentioned above about suicide bombers being dimwitted or brainwashed, etc. Yet the fact that there have been more people in the last few years than at any other time in recorded history strapping on bombs presents us with reasonable evidence to discount these theories.

Suicide bombers often leave behind videos and written material describing who they were and why they’ve done what seems to many of us incomprehensible. Do any of these videos suggest different reasons than the ones available in the media? When we as Western citizens or objective observers try to imagine the suicide bombers many of us instinctively feel like there must be some fundamental difference, some almost unbreachable divide that separates us—just as we do when we see a violent criminal portrayed on the evening news. The context of the way in which he is presented to us by itself is enough to create this impression. We see a still shot blown up on our tv screens superimposed on a stark white background. He or she is discussed in the third person, as we hear all the gory details stream in. We are conscious of a conceptual separation between him and the rest of us who watch safely abstracted from the reality of the monster that begins to take shape word by word, image by image.

It is important to understand what this conceptual separation means. First of all, to demonize someone—to turn them into a monster—and keep them a monster, it is necessary to ensure that the monster-object be kept at a certain distance from the population in which he is to be imagined. It is out of this fertile void that the monster is formed and shaped. Yet his existence depends on a paradox of sorts. On the one hand, the right amount of detail must be revealed to make a powerful enough impression in the subjects’ minds. While on the other, the image must be one that remains focused on his malevolence and heinous deeds. The subject cannot be taken too close to other aspects of the monster because, by definition, a monster cannot be a multi-faceted being to any appreciable extent. In other words, the essence of his being must be overwhelmingly associated with evil. A monster whose evil is outweighed by his finer qualities is not a monster.

In the present struggle between Islamic terrorists and the West, perhaps the single greatest point of commonality between the two sides is the way they depict each other. It is straight out of the propaganda handbook: create an image of the monster, give him enough detail to make him believable, yet keep him at an appropriate conceptual distance from his target population. It is this distance that not only gives birth to the monster but allows the propagandist the ability to manipulate his monstrosity.

This raises the question of who creates whom? The suicide bomber pushes a switch and explodes himself and others creating a horrible scene. But it is the storyteller who uses this material to terrify his audience. Which, in turn, raises the question what kind of stories do the Middle Eastern storytellers tell when they describe the carnage of the suicide bombers? Is it reasonable to expect that they’ll create the same monster that we in the West create? The terrorist groups and their supporting communities, for example, actually turn the suicide bomber into a kind of hero, sacrificing himself for the freedom of his countrymen. An elaborate set of rituals and symbols have been created for this purpose to tell the story of martyrs fighting for the sanctity of the homeland. Another question is the kind of story that is told when American bombs rip apart neighborhoods creating horrible scenes of destruction? The terrorists use this to demonize us in the minds of their audience. In many cases in both Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. violence has been a key event in turning affected communities against us. As this post will demonstrate below both sides in this bloody awful war are quite adept at creating terrifying circumstances.

The Monster Story Matrix

Media is therefore an important component in the present war on terror. At any given time, there appear to be 2 storytellers, 2 audiences, and 4 stories. In addition to telling Westerners that the terrorists are evil, the West is telling populations in the Middle East that the Western soldiers are there to liberate and protect them. Meanwhile, in addition to busily telling Middle Easterners that suicide and car bombs are effective ways to force the infidel-occupier out of their lands, the terrorists are also attempting to communicate with Western populations. Their message has been: unless you make your government change it’s ways you are as corrupt and evil as your leaders and consequently will be subject to violent attacks.

Voting out a democratic government touches on a crucial point in Professor Pape’s theory. Terrorists believe suicide bombings are effective instruments against democracies because voters will be motivated to elect a government that will pursue policies that result in less violent outcomes. It is tactically correct for the targeted democracies to counter this by focusing voters’ on the idea that the terrorist group does not want to peacefully co-exist with them; it only wants to kill them or, at best, convert them to their radical beliefs through brainwashing. This way they can effectively counter the terrorists’ message: Why does it matter what kind of policies we have? They’ll want to kill us anyway. This logic leads to an endless, vicious cycle. As long as we base our actions on this belief there is no room for the terrorists to believe anything different than what we believe. They only want to kill us. Therefore we must kill them. But this, in turn, means they must also kill us. And around and around we go, killing each other.

Table 1. helps to visualize the stories that each side in the war on terror are telling:

[table id=6 /]

This story matrix, simple as it is, is the insurmountable barrier that has kept peace at bay and perpetuated the war.

The Spreading War on Terror

Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, suicide bombing campaigns were limited to struggles such as those in Lebanon, Palestine-Israel, Chechnya, and Sri Lanka. Since 2003, the numbers of people blowing themselves up in Iraq have skyrocketed. Professor Pape based his landmark book , Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005) on a comprehensive database of all suicide attacks carried out from 1980 to early 2004, a total of 315 disparate attacks involving 462 suicide attackers during that time period.

These numbers are quaint by today’s standards. From May, 2003 to September, 2007, there were 1,545 multiple fatality bombings in Iraq, 545 of which were suicide bombings. 14)Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbel, “Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq”, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, 10-01-2007, http://www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/iraq/index.pdf. [accessed 01-03-2010] According to Thomas Hegghammer, Senior Research Fellow, at FFI (the Nowegian Defense Research Institute), Assaf Moghadam 15)Associate with the International Security Program’s Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University has compiled a database that contains 1,945 suicide terrorist incidents from 1981 to mid-2008. 16)Thomas Hegghammer, “Apostates vs. infidels: explaining differential use of suicide bombings by jihadist groups”, paper presented at the conference, “Understanding Jihadism: Origins Evolution and Future Perspectives”, Oslo, March 19-21, 2009. 82% of these attacks have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan. 88% of all suicide attacks (Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Chechyna) have taken place within the context of Pape’s occupation theory 17)which, in addition to the conditions mentioned above, requires that the occupier be a democracy.

Observers, like Moghadam and Hegghammer, believe suicide bombings are motivated more by extremist ideologies that are focused on “a socially distant enemy,” 18)Ibid. and that Western military interventions have merely helped facilitate their spread and acceptance. 19)Yet Pape has argued that the rhetoric of Muslim extremism is simply a tool that terrorist leaders use to help create a sense of identity and shared values among both existing and potential supporters. This theory contains elements of the point made above about the need for distance between a monster and his audience.

It should be no wonder, then, that nine years into this long, bloody war that the same thing that happened in Iraq now seems to be happening in Afghanistan, a country that witnessed 140 such attacks in 2007 alone—more than the previous 5 years combined. Prior to 2001, Afghanistan, like Iraq, had never experienced suicide attacks. 20)Sami Yousafzai, “Alone, Afraid, In the Company of Men Dreaming of Death”, Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2007-Jan. 7, 2008 issue, http://www.newsweek.com/id/81601. [accessed 01-03-2010] It looks like the same thing could happen in Pakistan and now Yemen. On New Year’s Day, 2010, in Pakistan, 75 people were killed and 60 injured in a suicide car bomb attack. There have been at least two dozen suicide bomb attacks in Pakistan since last October. 21)CBS News, “Pakistan Suicide Attack Kills 75”, wibw.com, 01-01-2010, http://www.wibw.com/nationalnews/headlines/80481842.html. [accessed 01-01-2010]

Enter a new participant in the war on terror: Yemen. A 23-year old Nigerian man who supposedly joined an al Qaeda cell in Yemen and attempted to bomb a Detroit-bound flight recently prompted President Obama to remind Americans that they’re still “at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” 22)Peter Baker, ” Obama Says Al Qaeda in Yemen Planned Bombing Plot, and He Vows Retribution”, The New York Times, 01-02-2010, www.nytimes.com. [accessed 01-02-02010] The Commander-in-Chief went on to state that he’s made it “a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government,” 23)Ibid. yet another democracy in name only that, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2005 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, engaged in human trafficking, restricted freedoms of speech and the press, countenanced child labor and child marriage, practiced torture and prolonged, secret detentions. Like the blatantly corrupt Karzai government in Afghanistan or the late Musharraf military dictatorship in Pakistan, American support for these governments when so many of the citizens in those countries are openly opposed to them can’t possibly represent a foreign policy that will be conducive to either democracy or peace. Instead of being a remedy for terrorism, failed policies like this help explain why Americans become targets of extremists and terrorists.

Like al Qaeda’s, the U.S. logic is simple: Our enemies, the terrorists, are evil. They cannot be reasoned with. As stated above, this is the monster dialectic. To reiterate, this means that military force is the only way to protect ourselves from the threat these enemies pose. When both sides believe this and act on it an endless feedback loop that perpetually reinforces itself is created. Yet the presence of U.S. troops fans the flames of resentment and hatred in the hearts and minds of those who live in the occupied countries. This explains why the message of fighting to expel the occupier-infidel that terrorist groups promulgate finds a large and receptive audience. Hence wherever we go in the Middle East to engage in direct military action, people in the occupied countries start blowing themselves up.

As the body count increases, each side is provided with plenty of media material to reinforce their point that the other guy is evil. Yet, as Pape notes in a recent Op-Ed piece 24)Robert Pape, “To Beat the Taliban, Figh From Afar”, New York Times, 10-1609 in the New York Times, most of the attacks in Afghanistan are directed at Western military targets, not Afghan targets. The same article states that since the troop increases began in 2005, the number of terrorist attacks have risen dramatically: 782 in 2005, 1,736 in 2006, and nearly 2,000 in 2007, and over 3,200 in 2008.

Being from outer space, one might think it’s prudent to ask at this point about the source of all this evil? Why does the violence keep multiplying? Far more people are victims of suicide attacks today than when the war on terror began.

Almost a decade into the war on terror and we seem no closer to winning. Indeed, like a cancer out-of-control it keeps spreading. Isn’t it time to start re-examining the policies we’ve implemented to try to end this cycle of bloodshed? Is the policy of not listening to those who would attack us a wise policy? Does it make sense to continue to say, “You are evil. We cannot talk to you. There is no basis on which we can come to an understanding.” The situation reminds one of the 1967 film, “The Red and the White,” by Miklós Jancsó, in which each side in the Russian Revolution is running back and forth in an absurd game of organized killing and being killed.

How many innocents need to die before we start to ask some serious questions? Perhaps the biggest monster is not so much the militant Islamists who want us out of Middle Eastern Muslim countries. For there is a good basis to believe that we could better control the violence if we were to pull our troops out of those countries. Furthermore, serious observers don’t really believe in the radical-Islam-world-domination theory. Even if there are some crazy enough to act on such an outlandish idea, the prospect for success is laughable and there is scant evidence that anyone is actively pursuing such a grand scheme.

Perhaps the real monster the West fears is what the militant Islamists would do if they were to take power in the oil producing countries they want us out of . Or what would happen if the Taliban seized control of Pakistan, a nuclear state? Perhaps the real monster is $200 / barrel oil and an even more unstable nuclear situation than the world now lives under. Perhaps the real monster is also all those companies from Black Water to KBR that have grown fat on the war on terror and, from a profit perspective, at least, actually have an incentive to see it continue. Yet out-of-control oil prices are valid security and economic concerns: If we can’t control the price of crude, we enter into the unknown. This is the bogey-man we really fear. This is the monster that threatens the status-quo. Also, Muslim states where real democracy thrives and not puppet regimes beholden to Western masters does cast the future of Israel in a more uncertain light.

In fact, oil is at the heart of many of the major policy conundrums for the last 50 + years. Despite the warning of the 1970’s oil crisis, we’ve done little since this time to seriously develop energy alternatives. There were also those long-ago adjurations from some of the best minds in the West, such as Kenneth Galbraith, who warned about an economy driven by over production of non-essential goods and an unhealthy reliance on credit. Yet the West, with the U.S. at the head of the pack, has been pulling the world forward on a relentless path devoid of values rooted in anything but infinitely increasing profits; a tumultuous and uncertain path that can only seem to end in a wasteland knee-deep in disposable petroleum-based products and forgotten, useless brands.

Isn’t it time we started being honest with ourselves? Terrorist groups in charge of major oil producing countries like Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia is the real monster we fear. Yet being from outer space, we must consider whether this logic is faulty and the simplistic reasons given by politicians for the war on terror are actually true. And that those who don’t agree are naysayers at best and potential terrorists at worst. But if this is true, the question why so many young men and women in the Middle East are blowing themselves up is undeniable. It keeps coming back to haunt us as though it were trying to remind us of something. Are they—the suicide terrorists—the uneducated morons with no futures that some make them out to be? Or do they earnestly believe they’re fighting a war to liberate their people?

This turns out not to be as easy a question to answer if your source of information is the Western mass media. While there are millions of web sites, blogs, and videos offering mountain upon mountain of commentary and analysis on these subjects, it’s quite difficult to find a straightforward answer. Or an unfiltered interview with a would-be suicide bomber, or even a citizen who’s endured living through the wretched conditions of the war-torn countries in the Middle East. Most of the content repeats what we’ve already heard ad infinitum. But thoughtful analysis by people like Professors Robert Pape and Riaz Hassan (Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia) have offered strong arguments that there are political and sociological reasons that are motivating Muslim citizens throughout the Middle East to fight against the United States and other Western military forces.

“Contrary to the popular image that suicide terrorism is an outcome of irrational religious fanaticism, suicide bombing attacks are resolutely a politically-motivated phenomenon.” 25)Hassan, Riaz, “What Motivates the Suicide Bombers?,” YaleGlobal Online, 9-3-2009, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-motivates-suicide-bombers-0, [accessed 12-7-2009]

Examples How the War on Terrorism and Terrorists are Portrayed in the Western and Eastern Media

This section of the post will attempt to find examples of how suicide terrorists are perceived in the West. To better organize the data, classifications have been created to contain the various types of examples that have been found. It is believed that these classifications represent the ways these individuals are explained and presented on the Western media stage.

The American Anti-War Veteran

Speech by Iraq war veteran who opposes the war and occupation.

The Pro-War American Politician

Califiornia Republican Representative Wally Herger, who sat on the House Ways and Means Committee at the time the speech was given in 2006, gives his perspective on the war in Iraq.

Aljazeera Interview with Osama Bin Laden oct 21, 2001 (English)

Bin Laden outlines his reasons for fighting the United States shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks.

The Radicalized Terrorist and the Culture of Terrorism

This may be the most popular conception. It hinges on a belief that, for one reason or another, a person falls under the spell of an ideology, much like what some believed happened with respect to Communism or Fascism in earlier parts of the 20th Century. It’s interesting to note that this conception is also being applied to what is being termed “Eco-Terrorists” and used as an excuse to infiltrate and punish groups who are believed to be radical environmentalists.

The New York Times, How Baida Wanted to Die

The New York Times ran a pretty flimsy piece this past summer called “How Baida Wanted to Die” 26)by Alissa J. Rubin, 08-16-2009 in which the correspondent interviewed a couple women who, along with, 16 other women were apprehended in the Diyala Province of Iraq during the first half of 2008 by authorities before they could carry out their suicide bombing missions. According to the article there were 60 suicide bombings or attempts carried out by women, the majority of the in 2007-8. This story is what we’ll call a status-quo piece. That is, it pretty much paints the picture that the suicide bombers are motivated by feelings of revenge, religio-nationalism, despair, or a mixture of all three. In short, they, like the young Nigerian man who attempted the Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit airliner, were radicalized by terrorist leaders. The Diyala women were part of the Islamic State of Iraq (a branch of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia) and were from families “immersed in jihadist culture.” 27)Ibid. According to the article, even though they appeared serene and likable, they were cold-blooded killers, one of whom contemplated killing the correspondent who wrote the story.

City Lights Pictures, Suicide Killers

This film can be found on several web sites, such as blip.tv and channels.com, but the clips that seemed to work the best were on TruthTube.tv, a web site dedicated to covering radical Islam. The link below links to this web site and is the fourth part of a nine part documentary, the rest of which was available at the time of this writing.

http://www.truthtube.tv/play.php?vid=2388

A documentary by the well-know French-Israeli filmmaker, Pierre Rehov, that contains interviews of a number of would-be Palestinian suicide bombers and suicide mission planners. It’s a well-made film that attempts to explore the social, cultural, economic, and religious foundations that give rise to terrorism. As the film interviews men from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds one gets the feeling that the filmmakers are conscious of the fact that these people seem to represent not just one or two terrorist groups but an entire society. They seem to be trying to cobble together a culture of terrorism theory in which large segments of a despondent and fatherless society are drawn to groups like Hamas or Islamic Jihad that exploit their feelings of humiliation and worthless, replacing the father figure and offering their flock a sense of purpose. The interviews with the Palestinians begin to pique one’s interest but have a tendency to cut-off just before they seem about to say something interesting. Ultimately, the film’s message comes down to explaining the horror and senselessness of suicide terrorism on the grounds of religious fanaticism dictating violence against the infidels.

The Simpleton Terrorist

According to data compiled Professor Pape for his book, “Dying to Win” 28)Random House, 2005 many suicide bombers are educated, middle class people who are motivated by what a version of what Durkheim famously described as altruistic suicide. As Pape conceives it, the suicide bomber is sacrificing oneself for the good of his country or community. Their suicide is a necessary means to an end that is supported by many in the broader community. Pape uses Mohamed Atta as an example of this kind of terrorist, an individual from a respectable middle-class Egyptian family with a master’s degree and a promising future.

The opposite conception is the poor, simple fool who has been duped into blowing themselves and others to pieces by cunning and sinister people. The clip below shows a 14-year old boy who claims that he didn’t know what he was doing when became involved in a suicide bombing mission.

EDCorps, Interview with a suicide bomber

Born and Raised Terrorists

This category is based on the theme that terrorist radicals are raising children from their earliest years to be natural born killers.

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Compilation of Videos of Children in the Jihadi Cause

http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/2311.htm

The Islamic Conspiracy to Take Over the World

The Third Jihad (30 minute free version)

The film’s web site is http://www.thethirdjihad.com/.

A film that alerts us to the dangers of Islamic terrorists taking over. According to the film’s web site, radical Muslims lurking in the shadows secretly planning a violent overthrow of the U.S. Government. This conception is similar to the fears that have promulgated in regard to religious cults and Neo-Nazis in recent years. But its archetype has a long history. Other examples would be the stories involved in the Red Scares and anarchist paranoia of the early and mid 20th Century.

The web site goes on to say:

“In 72 minutes, the film reveals that radical Islamists driven by a religiously motivated rejection of western values cultures and religion are engaging in a multifaceted strategy to overcome the western world. In contrast to the use of ‘violent jihad’ and terror to instill fear in ‘non-believers,’ The Third Jihad introduces the concept of ‘cultural jihad’ as a means to infiltrate and undermine our society from within.”

Middle Eastern Perspectives of the West

As mentioned above, some Muslims in other countries, especially those affected by the wars in the Middle East, often have a different perspective on the war on terrorism. The more extreme views portray the West as monsters engaging in a wide spectrum of inhuman and violent acts. Below are categories that contain some of the popular depictions. Note that it is very difficult to find unfiltered content created by terrorist organizations. Needless to say, most of these sites don’t stay up for very long, so many of the links one comes across are dead.

Anti-US feeling still high in Afghanistan

Afghans voice their opposition to U.S. military force and perceived heavy-handedness in their country.

Video from Al Jazeera English; Date: 06-05-2009

As-sahab Foundation of Media Production Presents: How to Prevent a Repeat of the Gaza Holocaust

Al Qaeda’s media production house compiled this video of excerpts from terrorist figures, such as bin Laden, Abu Yahya, and al-Zawahiri explaining the need to battle against the infidel Western rulers, a struggle that involves multiple countries around the world.

Karzai Criticises Foreign Forces

Video from Al Jazeere English; Date: 01-05-2010

Haifa Zangana on Iraqi Resistance

Ms. Zangana talks about the right of a people to resist foreign occupations.

References   [ + ]

1. Robert Pape, “Dying to Win”, Random House, 2005
2. Cowell, Alan, “Rights Group Accuses Saudi Arabia of ‘Gross’ Abuses “”, New York Times, 07-23-09. [accessed 12-24-09]
3, 14. Michael E. O’Hanlon and Jason H. Campbel, “Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq”, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, 10-01-2007, http://www.brookings.edu/fp/saban/iraq/index.pdf. [accessed 01-03-2010]
4. Pawan Sen, Sudhindra Sharma, Ruth Rennie, AFGHANISTAN in 2009 A Survey of the Afghan People, The Asia Foundation, http://asiafoundation.org/resources/pdfs/Afghanistanin2009.pdf
5. Sardar Ahmad, Afghan civilian casualties up 10%: UN, AFP, 12-29-09, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jeFu2Zg2NrPY8rQne16txWOQgj8Q. [accessed 01-08-10]
6, 18, 23, 27. Ibid.
7. AP, “Afghan Civilian Deaths Rose 40 Percent In 2008: UN, “The Huffington Post, 01-08-10, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/17/afghan-civilian-deaths-ro_n_167491.html. [accessed 01-08-2010]
8. DEB RIECHMANN, “Civilian deaths unleash more anger in Afghanistan,” The Seattle Times, 01-07-10, http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2010737813_afghan08.html. [accessed 01-08-10]
9. Pakistani Public Opinion: GROWING CONCERNS ABOUT EXTREMISM, CONTINUING DISCONTENT WITH U.S.”, The Pew Global Attitudes Project, 08-13-2009, http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/265.pdf. [accessed 01-09-10]
10. Paul Steinhauser, “Poll: Support for Afghan war at all-time low”, CNN Politics.com, 09-15-09, http://edition.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/15/afghan.war.poll/. [accessed 01-08-09]
11. The CNN/Opinion Research poll was conducted Friday through Sunday, with 1,012 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey’s overall sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points
12. Paul Steinhauser, “CNN Poll: Afghanistan War opposition at all-time high”, CNN Political Ticker, 09-01-09, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2009/09/01/cnn-poll-afghanistan-war-opposition-at-all-time-high/. [accessed 01-09-10]
13. “Majority of Americans Seek Iraq Withdrawal”, Gallup, 03-13-2008, http://www.gallup.com/video/104944/Majority-Americans-Want-Troops.aspx. [accessed 01-09-2009]
15. Associate with the International Security Program’s Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University
16. Thomas Hegghammer, “Apostates vs. infidels: explaining differential use of suicide bombings by jihadist groups”, paper presented at the conference, “Understanding Jihadism: Origins Evolution and Future Perspectives”, Oslo, March 19-21, 2009.
17. which, in addition to the conditions mentioned above, requires that the occupier be a democracy
19. Yet Pape has argued that the rhetoric of Muslim extremism is simply a tool that terrorist leaders use to help create a sense of identity and shared values among both existing and potential supporters.
20. Sami Yousafzai, “Alone, Afraid, In the Company of Men Dreaming of Death”, Newsweek, Dec. 31, 2007-Jan. 7, 2008 issue, http://www.newsweek.com/id/81601. [accessed 01-03-2010]
21. CBS News, “Pakistan Suicide Attack Kills 75”, wibw.com, 01-01-2010, http://www.wibw.com/nationalnews/headlines/80481842.html. [accessed 01-01-2010]
22. Peter Baker, ” Obama Says Al Qaeda in Yemen Planned Bombing Plot, and He Vows Retribution”, The New York Times, 01-02-2010, www.nytimes.com. [accessed 01-02-02010]
24. Robert Pape, “To Beat the Taliban, Figh From Afar”, New York Times, 10-1609
25. Hassan, Riaz, “What Motivates the Suicide Bombers?,” YaleGlobal Online, 9-3-2009, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/content/what-motivates-suicide-bombers-0, [accessed 12-7-2009]
26. by Alissa J. Rubin, 08-16-2009
28. Random House, 2005

Author: Jesse Roche

An original thinker, Jesse enjoys writing, asking questions, and creating things. Greatly concerned with the deteriorating condition of public dialogue in the U.S., Jesse started ModernFolktales.com in 2006. He posts essays there in his spare time about topics linked to major forces that are impacting society and require more analysis than they typically receive in the mass media. The modern monster is a focus of some of these essays and represents a developing body of thought about its place in American society and the role it serves. Jesse is currently working on a book.

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