Monday, July 25, 2005

Al Qaeda, The International Communist Conspiracy, and the Bogeyman

There is, of course, no connection between Al Qaeda, the International Communist Conspiracy, and the Bogeyman except their presumed explanatory power as concepts. I believe that there was and may still be some sort of organization surrounding Ossama bin Laden and his mentor Ayman al-Zawahiri (a leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad). The 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center seems to be a clear instance of this organization at work. However since then, the United States and some allies attacked the Talliban government of Afghanistan, which gave al Queda a base for its operations, as well as al Queda itself and, at the very least, has crippled this organization. More recently, we have seen attacks in Bali, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Western Europe but not, interestingly, the United States (knock on wood). This is an interesting fact that wants an explanation.

The attacks in Madrid and London have generally been attributed to al Queda both by ordinary citizens and their governments. An AP article run in the Columbus Dispatch on July 26 begins with

British police arrested a third man in connection with last week’s failed attack against London’s transit system and said yesterday that they were trying to penetrate what they suspect is an al-Qaida network behind the plot.
Al Queda has joined the International Communist Conspiracy and the Bogeyman as providing people with a "feeling of understanding" (a very useful phrase I learned from a wonderful Rice Professor, Trent Wann, many years ago) of what is happening to them.

Citizens of both countries seem sure that the involvement of the Spanish and British governments with the United States in the most recent war in Iraq is the cause of these attacks. I very much doubt this.

There seems to be no doubt that the second, and most deadly and economically devasting attack on the World Trade Center was done by imported killers. It is important to remember that this was before the War in Afghanistan and the second Iraq war -- nothing new had happened to cause al Queda to attack the US. Moreover, in my opinion, our policy in regard to Israel serves more as an "after the fact rationalization" (another nice phrase from Professor Wann) than as cause. It is no accident that these killers came from Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Their motivation was first and foremost to try to reduce Western economic and cultural influence in the Middle East and should that be accomplished, reform the governments of these two countries.. It wasn't what the US and Western Europe did as much as what the US and Western Europe are. The West is perceived (correctly, I think) as a threat to fundamentalist Islam thanks to such notions as the liberation of women, the separation of church and state (including especially the judiciary), a free press, and all the rest, including blue jeans. That certainly was the original motivation for al-Zawahiri's hatred of the United States.

But what of these more recent attacks in Madrid, London, and Egypt? The claim that al Queda is the cause of these attacks provides a ready explanation for their occurrence. But in my opinion, the attack on London's subways and busses is largely indigenous and reflects the economic and social state of Pakistanis and other Muslims in the UK. No doubt attacks like 9/11, the continuous bombings in Baghdad, and the Madrid attack may have been the inspiration for the London bombings but they are not, in my opinion, the root cause.

The philosopher Ernst Cassirer in his Language and Myth argued that the primary distinction between scientific and mythic thinking is that science looks to a multiplicity of causes for any event while mythic thinking looks to a single cause, and where possible, an act of will. In Iraq, for instance, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi provides the US with its "cause" for many of the bombings -- if it could just kill him, we Americans are invited to think, perhaps these bombings would diminish in number and effectiveness. In London, it is al Queda and perhaps even Ossama bin Laden who is seen as the cause of their current problem. However, the fact that the second round of bombings failed strongly suggests that local talent, and not very well educated local talent, not al Queda, provided the expertise for creating these bombs. I don't know much about the Madrid bombings but the history of treatment of Muslims in Spain is well known.

I am greatly saddened by these recent bombings. I have traveled the subways of London and Madrid. I hope to do so again. If I were the Brits I would take heed of Pogo's famous line "We have met the enemy and he is us" and search within their society for how it is that they might have created an environment that breeds killers.

Is there an al Queda in fact? I don't know. I do know that back in the 1960's and 1970's there were interactions of killers from Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, and the Arab world when there was no al Queda. Muslim killers like those that have attacked targets in the West, as well as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bali, and elsewhere very well may interact at some level. Perhaps one of the elements is the remnants of the original al Queda. However, with the exception of an attack like 9/11, which was clearly an import, the governments experiencing these attacks should, I think, resist the nice, neat mythic explanation that the Bogeyman was at work and look to how they could ease the situation for the populations from which the killers come.

I could, of course, be wrong about the London attack. I don't have enough facts to know one way or another. However, it is my bet that most terrorist attacks originate from within, whether they are in Northern Ireland, the Palestine area, or London and Madrid, or Egypt, or Saudia Arabia. Those that originate in the Middle East doubtless have very different motivations from those in Europe. No fundamentalist Muslim is surely sufficiently deranged to think the UK or Spain is going to turn into a fundamentalist Muslim state. But those in the Middle East can hope that.

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