Don't get wrapped up in Bin Laden's tape.

Politics and policy.
April 16 2004 3:03 PM

Truce or Consequences

Don't get wrapped up in Bin Laden's tape.

Spinning the cycle of violence
Spinning the cycle of violence

"What happened on Sept. 11 and March 11 was your goods delivered back to you," says Osama Bin Laden in a new audiotape deemed authentic by the CIA. The message, which refers to the 2001 airplane attacks on the United States and the 2004 train bombings in Spain, invites Europeans to strike a "truce" with al-Qaida by withdrawing all troops from Muslim countries. "Our actions are reactions to your actions that destroy and kill our people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine," says the fugitive terrorist.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Half the spin in this message is obvious: According to Bin Laden, this isn't a war between terrorism and civilization; it's a war between Islam and America. This is basic political strategy: Define the conflict to maximize your side and minimize the other. Iraqis are Muslims but not terrorists, so tell them you represent Islam, not terrorism. Europeans are civilized but not American, so tell them you're fighting America, not civilization.

The other half of the spin is subtle. It's designed to shape your thinking unconsciously. If Bin Laden can make you think of his attacks as "reactions to your actions," he can dictate your behavior while leaving you with the illusion of control. Pull out your troops, and the killing will end. It's your choice. Unless you act, he's helpless to stop the cycle of violence. "Stop spilling our blood so we can stop spilling your blood," he pleads.

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To Europeans, it's a tempting message. They sense that events are out of their control: The United States calls the shots in Iraq, while death comes to them in Madrid—and perhaps London or Rome next. Many see the latter as a consequence of the former. That's one reason why Spaniards voted three days after the Madrid bombings to oust the ruling party that stood with the United States in Iraq. They blamed their government.

This is what Bin Laden wants. If he's just a cog in the cycle of violence, then the only participant who can stop the cycle is your government, and the only person who can stop your government is you. As he shrewdly puts it in his audiotape, "People who are aware would not let their politicians jeopardize their security."

But Bin Laden isn't a cog. His reaction to your government's action isn't determined by a law of nature. It's determined by him. He could just as easily decide to blow up your trains for protecting Christians, Jews, Shiites, or women as for occupying Iraq. And he would. That's what he means when he offers his truce only to countries that don't "interfere in [Muslim] affairs."

I'm no fan of President Bush. If you live in Britain, Poland, or Italy, you may feel the same way about your nation's leader. These governments have made plenty of mistakes in Iraq. But bringing death to Europe isn't one of those mistakes. The people who brought the death will bring it again. Take away their current reason, and they'll come back with another. They speak the language of harsh consequences because it's all they understand. You will have to start choosing the consequences of their acts, and stop letting them choose the consequences of yours.

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