The Rhetoric of Terror
by Joshua J. Lax

From the writer: In the wake of September 11, the United States retreated into intense patriotism. However, love for this country is something more than hanging an American flag outside your home. True love of America is something more; it is civic virtue, practicing good citizenship. Vote on Election Day, read the newspaper and write letters to members of Congress. Failing to take advantage of freedom and democracy may lead to the rise of evil.

From the teacher, Vivian Rice: The events of September 11, 2001, dramatically affected the work in many of our writing classes during the 2001-2002 academic year. For many students from that morning on, the semester was an emotional time of worry, grief, and finally questioning. Joshua Lax’s essay was written in response to a research argument assignment. Lax used the opportunity to consider why and how Osama bin Laden was able to inspire his followers to accept his vision of the world. Lax draws on his understanding of the theory of media and propaganda from his Newhouse classes as well as our class’s activities in writing this piece.

From the editor, Patrick Dacey: Joshua Lax rips through the images that have plagued Americans since September 11th. But he does not antagonize the media; instead he focuses on how propaganda, rhetoric, and language are used to produce social change. The piece reveals reasons why America has become a target for war through the power of an outspoken, persuasive leader. Whether your opinions on the war are different, based on fear, or just hidden; Lax does not shy away from his views and uses powerful research to make his opinions known, and in a sense, justified.

The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on.

-Walter Lippmann

  On September 11, 2001, a group of young men flew two airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, killing over three thousand people and leveling the towers. At the same time, members of the same terrorist group flew a passenger plane into the Pentagon. On that same day, Osama bin Laden, alleged leader of the Al Qaeda network and mastermind of the September 11th attack, became something of a new age Hitler. Instantaneously, he became a household name and later a target of a massive military operation.

  Exiled from his native land of Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden resides in Afghanistan where he administers his network of terror. He blames the United States and the West for the struggles of the Muslim world. His goal is to create a society governed by Islam, free from the corruption of the West, and the culmination of this dream is to drive the United States and the Jews from the Middle East. He fights this war not only through terrorist action, but also with the power of language, and the skills of rhetoric and propaganda to accomplish his goals.

  Political scientist Harold Lasswell defines propaganda as "the management of opinions and attitudes by the direct manipulation of social suggestion rather than by altering other conditions in the environment or in the organism" (Finch). A propagandist manipulates a situation in the mind of the subject instead of manipulating the situation itself. The propagandist is a spin doctor, who takes an idea and makes it appear the way he or she wants. The ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, who refuted the science of rhetoric in his masterpiece Gorgias defines the role of a rhetorician as, "a creator of a conviction that is persuasive but not instructive about right and wrong" (Plato 238). The rhetorician is thus "competent to speak against anybody on any subject, and to prove himself more convincing before a crowd on practically every topic he wishes" (240). The rhetorician has the power to persuade the masses with his or her words without possessing expertise on a topic. For example, the rhetorician would be able to convince a person, despite lack of medical evidence, that he or she is ill, though the rhetorician is not a doctor. Rhetoric is, in essence, false expertise of a subject, disguised as the truth.

  In the 1930s, Walter Lippmann proposed his public opinion theory which has become the basis for modern propaganda and propaganda warfare. He wrote that human beings create a pseudo-environment, a collection of stereotypes that the mind forms. Human beings act in reaction to the pseudo-environment which is how human beings perceive reality. He states, "We are not equipped to deal with so much subtlety, so much variety, so many permutations and combinations. And although we have to act in that environment, we have to reconstruct it on a simpler model before we can manage it" (Finch). We must generalize and categorize reality in order to deal with it. He continues noting a, "triangular relationship between the scene of action, the human picture of that scene, and the human response to that picture working itself upon the scene of action." The propagandist takes the scene of action along with the human picture and tries to manipulate a desired response. "So the job of the propagandist is to construct a viable pseudo-environment for them" (Finch). Like the rhetorician, a propagandist’s goal is to persuade the masses of his or her position by manipulating reality.

  In terms of modern warfare, Professor Lynette Finch of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia writes, "To convince one’s own civilian population that they must identify with the aims at the point of martyrdom is a necessity of modern warfare." In order to win a war, the leadership must persuade the masses to take up the fight and sacrifice themselves for the war effort. Take, for example, the War of Independence. In the early days of this conflict, propagandists, "through leaflets and speaking tours, sought to rally the people into a united fighting force" (Finch). Pamphlets written by individuals like Thomas Paine and speeches made by the founding fathers like Benjamin Franklin and Patrick Henry were meant to show the colonists the need to shed British rule in order to preserve their freedom. Another point Finch makes is that that the propagandists must "attach culpability in starting the war to the enemy and to claim themselves the high moral ground." The initiator of war must convince the masses that the war they are waging is the enemy’s fault. For example, our War on Terrorism has been sold and packaged as a fight to bring the guilty party of the September 11th attack to justice and preserve our nation’s freedom.

  Osama bin Laden is a manifestation of these propaganda theories. In terms of Lasswell’s definition of not altering the real life conditions, one simply has to look at the conditions from which bin Laden draws his followers. The average salary in Lebanon is thirty dollars a month. With the exception of Israel, there are no democracies in the Middle East. Powerful dictators control Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq, whereas Saudi Arabia and Jordan are ruled by tyrannical monarchies. Free speech, free expression, and free assembly are limited in all places except the mosque, where impressionable Arab men, like all people living in uncertainty, are susceptible to extremism. When they go to the mosque, extremists come and tell these disillusioned men that the squalor and oppression in which they live is caused by infidels that seek to limit the power of Allah. They are told that these infidels can expropriate oil and other resources the infidels need (Shomar). Compare the mosque in this case to the forums the American founders held to rally support for freedom. In France, Benjamin Franklin successfully won French support for independence by gathering crowds and arguing the merits of his cause (Finch). If these infidels can be eliminated and the followers of Allah can be allowed to prosper, Islam will flourish, such as America has.

  Osama bin Laden convinces his would be followers to take up his war on the United States, fight the Arab governments he claims the United States manipulates, and help him expel the United States, Israel, and the other infidels from their territory. As demonstrated by the September 11th attacks, he has convinced some individuals that the United States is culpable in his war. More importantly, he convinced eighteen men and a handful of private terrorist organizations to become martyrs in his war.

  Aside from the Mosque, bin Laden has released several video-taped statements filled with rhetoric on the destruction of the West and a call for Muslims to take up the fight. In his first statement since the attack, bin Laden sat in a rocky outcropping wearing a camouflage jacket flanked by several of his lieutenants. On his head is a white covering, the sign of a religious teacher, which is never removed for the public. In the background, AK-47s rest against the side of a cave. The terrorists appear relaxed. Other clips show bin Laden walking at night with his aides in the darkness holding weapons and dressing in fatigues. In another clip has bin Laden talks to some one off camera, lounging on a cot. Numerous clips have him addressing a crowd. In a recruiting video, bin Laden speaks outside, and one can hear children’s voices in the background, thus implying that he is discussing with ordinary people the problems they are facing and the reason for those problems ("A Recruiting Tape"). These images hark back to World War II, where Hitler and Mussolini spoke from balconies, inspected their troops, and participated in every day modern life. Mussolini even took his shirt off, got right into a ditch with a group of workers, and began digging along with them.

  In terms of Walter Lippmann’s theory of the pseudo-environment, one can understand the hardships that face would-be terrorists in their home countries. In Egypt, motherland of Mohammed Atta, alleged mastermind behind the September 11th attack, 87% of children enter primary school, but half of those children drop out of school after their sixth year. In 1995, 48% of Egypt’s adult population was literate. In Egypt it is difficult for the poor to unite politically in order to improve their living conditions as political parties based on class are prohibited by law, and labor unions are strictly regulated ("Background Notes"). In Libya, another home to some of the most wanted terrorists, a convoluted system of democracy exists as a cover for military dictatorship, where political parties are also banned.

  In addition, in 1994, 50% of the population was under fifteen ("Background Notes"). In Lebanon, where the Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah attacks Israel, the average yearly income in 1994 was $1,430.00 ("Encyclopedia Britannica: Lebanon"). The would-be terrorists experience turmoil around them everyday. They see their countrypeople starving, suffering, and dying, and need answers to explain the complicated aspects of life that confront them. Magnus Ranstorp wrote in the Journal of International Affairs:
  Between the mid-1960s and the mid 1990s, the number of fundamentalist movements of all religious affiliations tripled worldwide. Simultaneously, as observed by Bruce Hoffman, there has been a virtual explosion of identifiable religious terrorist groups from none in 1968 to today’s level, where nearly a quarter of all terrorist groups active throughout the world are predominantly motivated by religious concerns. Unlike their secular counterparts, religious terrorists are, by their very nature, largely motivated by religion, but they are also driven day-to-day by practical political considerations within their context specific environment . . . . A survey of the major religious terrorist groups in the 1990s would reveal that almost all experience a serious sense of crisis in their environment, which has led to an increase in the number of groups recently formed and caused escalation in their activities. (Ranstorp)
These terrorists feel helpless and desperate, so they turn to violence. A war for some, revenge for others.

  Osama bin Laden and his network shelter the crisis and provide an answer to these problems: the West, capitalism, and American culture. From the material conditions that exist in Muslim nations, bin Laden molds a pseudo-environment in which the United States conspires with Israel and the moderate Arab governments to prevent the full glory of Islam and the oppression of the common Muslim citizen.

  Osama bin Laden’s attempt to build a pseudo-environment is evident in his recruiting video. The video’s main point is that the Arab governments have betrayed Allah and allowed what the video calls "Crusaders and Jews" to enter the holy lands of Islam, and therefore, Islam suffers. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq, are not based on Islamic law. These lands are Dar al-Harb, or an "Abode of war", for they are not Dar al-Islam, lands that are ruled by Islamic law like Afghanistan and Iran. Throughout the first section of the video, which describes the condition of Islam, clips of the leaders of the Dar al-Harb are shaking hands with leaders of the west. The audience feels as if their leaders have sold them out. There are scenes of the Camp David Accords being signed, American defense officials shaking hands with the Royal Family of Saudi Arabia, and tanks riding past herds of camels. In one clip President Clinton receives a medal from the King of Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden asks, "How could it be that the Americans are permitted to wander freely on the Prophet’s land? Have Muslim peoples lost their faith? Have they forsaken the Prophets religion? Forgive me, Allah, I wash my hands of these Arab rulers!" ("A Recruiting Tape").

  Next, bin Laden begins to construct his pseudo-environment. He accuses the Jews of manipulating the American Government for their own benefit. Jews are in high level defense and security positions in the United States. They send American forces into Saudi Arabia and oppress other Arab nations so that they can maintain their control over Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque. "Where is the Muslim umma," bin Laden asserts, "and its one billion believers? The umma sees and hears that the Quran is being defamed, burned, and used by the Jews as disposable tissues, yet it stands idle by." He attacks the United Nations sanctions against Iraq saying, "They (the West) have besieged Iraqi children. More than one million Iraqi children have died, as acknowledged by the Christians (Nasara) themselves." Even poetry that denounces the Israeli treatment of Palestinian women and children is recited.

  In explaining the cause of the Arab plight, Dr. Ayman Zawahiri, a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, explains, "America claims to be the champion and protector of human rights, democracy, and liberties, while at the same time forcing on Muslims oppressive and corrupt political regimes." The United States, the Jews, the Middle Eastern Governments, Christianity, and the West are all forces conspiring against Allah and the teachings of the Quran ("A Recruiting Tape").

  There is a way to save Islam, though. First, "bin Laden notes that the main problem facing Muslims lies in the love of this world and hatred of death." Muslims must accept martyrdom for Allah and join bin Laden in his quest to save the Islamic world. In one scene, a picture of a mosque is flashed between images of injured Palestinian children, implying that only Allah as well as war in Allah’s name will heal the children. The video depicts agents during target practice, firing at images of world leaders like President Clinton. At the conclusion of the clip, bin Laden is shown speaking and, later, amongst a group of his soldiers and horses, signifying that he will lead his people against the United States and Israel ("A Recruiting Tape").

  What makes this last clip important in terms of propaganda is that bin Laden, with weapons and warfare expertise, is not himself a warrior. How could he himself lead an Army into combat against the most powerful militaries in the world, on horseback or otherwise? What is more, he is a terrorist, not a general. He may call his fatwah, or purpose, a war, but it is not legitimately a war, rather a campaign of terror. His modus operandi is to recruit as many poor, oppressed, and disillusioned young men as possible and take them to his training camps. Once there, he schools them in the art of terror and murder, and sends them out into the world. He builds a network of these soldiers of Allah and, when he wishes to strike, he coordinates amongst his network of operatives and terrorist cells. While these cells carry out an attack, which usually results in their deaths or arrests, bin Laden waits in Afghanistan, protected by the mountains, caves, and the Taliban.

  How has bin Laden managed to survive until now? The September 11th attack aside, he survives because he understands what Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and Castro understood: All a leader has to do is convince and persuade, even with twisted facts and half truths, the people needed to accomplish his or her goals. Osama bin Laden has taken advantage of the full uses of propaganda. He has convinced his followers that the turmoil they see around them is the result of the United States’ greed and the evil of the Jews. Osama bin Laden may never have to point a gun and fire at his enemy, for he is clever enough to brainwash people to carry out his purpose.

Works Cited

"A Recruiting Tape of Osama bin Laden: Excerpts and Analyses." CIAO Responds to the Terrorist Attacks against the United States. Columbia International Affairs Online. 27 November 2001 http://www.ciaonet.org/cbr/cbr00/video/cbr_v/cbr_v.html.

"Background Notes." U.S. Department of State. Bureau of Public Affairs. 25 November 2001 http://www.state.gov/r/pa/bgn/.

"Encyclopedia Britannica: Lebanon." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 25 November 2001 http://www.search.eb.com/bol/topic?tmap_id=118138000&tmap_typ=gd.

Finch, Lynette. "Psychological Propaganda: The War of Ideas During the First Half of the Twentieth Century." Armed Forces & Society: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26.3 (2000): 367.

Plato. "Gorgias." The Collected Dialogues of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961. 229-307.

Ranstorp, Magnus. "Terrorism in the Name of Religion." Journal of International Affairs 50.1 (1996): 41-63.

Shomar, David. "United States and the Muslim World: How We See Each Other." The University Forum: The Global Response to Terrorism. Byrd Library, Syracuse. 18 October 2001.


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