Osama Bin Laden: Man or Meme?

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
Sept. 28 2001 3:00 AM

Osama Bin Laden: Man or Meme?

On Sept. 12, Colin Powell framed America's impending military response to the previous day's attack as part of a campaign to "go after terrorism and get it by its branch and its root." Here is an alternative horticultural metaphor that I came across a few days ago: "Military action to destroy terror … will be like hitting a fully mature dandelion with a golf club."

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The dandelion metaphor, which comes from a conflict-resolution expert named John Paul Lederach, has its limits. Osama Bin Laden, unlike a mature dandelion, will have a long and unfortunately productive life ahead of him unless he is either killed or imprisoned. Also, whereas executing a dandelion has no deterrent effect on other dandelions, killing Bin Laden could give pause to would-be financiers of terrorism. Still, on balance, the dandelion metaphor may be more apt than the "branch and root" metaphor, which seems to have shaped American policy so far.

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

The "branch and root" model speaks of centralization. You trace the plant's branches downward until you find the underground headquarters. If you're strong enough, you can rip out the whole thing and end the trouble once and for all.

Terrorism has long resisted this kind of description. Terrorist "cells"—semi-autonomous and self-sufficient groups that are given little knowledge about one another, precisely so the whole structure can't be easily uprooted—are not a recent invention. Terrorism also has a second annoying property: Reprisals spawn hatred, increasing the number of terrorists. (Note the contrast with true "war," in which the enemy state's resources are from the outset wholly committed to your destruction, so upping the hatred doesn't have much downside.) A big problem America faces right now is that both properties of terrorism—decentralization and contagiousness—have been intensified by technology.

The Internet, cell phones, and so on mean that any resourceful terrorist can organize a terrorist assault from almost any piece of turf. You can kill Bin Laden and carpet-bomb Afghanistan, but his movement will still have great organizational power. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said America's goal is "ending states who sponsor terrorism"—a message the administration later amended to "ending state-sponsored terrorism." Either way, how relevant is state sponsorship to what happened on Sept. 11? It now looks as if the attack may have been organized largely in Germany—and, of course, in the United States.

I'm not saying the "war" on terrorism should never involve action against states. Punishing governments that harbor known terrorists makes sense when the cost is acceptable. But in this case the administration has warped the cost-benefit calculus by making it sound like the punishment will be a twofer: We'll not only punish the Taliban but also deprive the terrorists of their main operational base. President Bush assures us that, one way or another, those terrorist training camps in Afghanistan will be destroyed. But those camps have already been deserted, and the terrorists didn't leave much behind in the way of fixed assets. Terrorism, now more than ever, is a movable feast. To pull off something like the Sept. 11 attack, all you need is $200,000, computer literacy, the organizational skills of a mid-level manager, and intense hatred.   

The spread of that hatred is itself technologically abetted. The first videotaped Muslim casualties in Afghanistan will be not just broadcast on CNN, but put on the World Wide Web and probably played ad nauseum at the fundamentalist schools in Pakistan and elsewhere that mold both tomorrow's suicide bombers and tomorrow's Osama Bin Ladens. And, once Bin Laden himself has been promoted from terrorist mastermind to martyr, his preachings will spread more profusely than ever, available in audio or video to anyone with a good Internet connection or a VCR. These packets of information are the dandelion's seeds.

A currently fashionable term for packets of information is "memes." A meme can be an image, a song, a belief, an attitude—anything that can hop from one brain to another. Some types of memes are called "mind viruses" because they're not good for the brains they inhabit; they thrive by parasitizing their "hosts." The hijackers' brains, for example, no longer exist, but the meme that killed them—the meme of fundamentalist hatred—is doing quite well. Similarly, Osama Bin Laden may not be long for this world, but Osama Bin Laden's memes have a longer life expectancy. And killing the man may be the best thing America could do for the memes.

And maybe not. Maybe the big boost that martyrdom would give to Bin Laden's memes would be outweighed by the other effects that killing the man had on the memes: discouraging other wealthy fundamentalist Muslims from emulating him and ending his own misbehavior once and for all. It's an open question. What bothers me is the lack of evidence that anyone in the administration has given the question much thought.

To be sure, the White House seems increasingly aware of the downside of a "messy" war in Afghanistan—a prolonged and indiscriminate assault that would win more and more recruits for Islamic radicalism and deepen the hatred of radicals who already exist. But the assumption driving the president's most influential advisers—Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, et al.—still seems to be that a series of only mildly messy strikes would be worth the trouble.

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