By Roger Repohl
THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s all in the story you tell. The story need not be true, or even plausible. In fact, it could be objectively absurd, but if you tell it convincingly to an audience begging to be convinced, even absurdity does not matter. People will eat it up and digest it into their worldview, and it will make them do, or allow others to do, things they would formerly have thought unthinkable.
It’s especially like that with societies under threat. Stories can lead to genocide and to suicide bombers, to precipitous wars and to interminable occupations. And oftentimes the identical story can be perfectly convincing to opposing sides.
Take the story told by the so-called “mastermind of 9/11,” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to the American military’s “combatant status review tribunal,” a transcript of which was released last week. In it, this major operative in the Al Qaeda terrorist network (commonly known by his initials, “KSM”) either admitted or asserted, depending on the reader’s point of view, that he was a principal player in over 30 plots against the West. Some were realized, including 9/11 (“responsible from A to Z,” he noted) and the Bali nightclub bombing of 2002. Others were proposed, including the assassinations of Pope John Paul II and former President Jimmy Carter, anthrax and dirty-bomb development and deployment, and the destruction of the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, Heathrow Airport, Big Ben, nuclear power plants, and U.S. and Israeli embassies worldwide.
Had he been truly imaginative, KSM might have also thrown in calling forth Saddam Hussein from the tomb, posting on You Tube the untouched photos of Rudy Giuliani in drag, going undercover as Hillary Clinton’s hair stylist, and raising the mean atmospheric temperature five degrees by the year 2010.
Why did the Pentagon release this document, to revive our flagging post-9/11 paranoia? Could be. For the paranoid, the evidence presented here was overwhelming. It fed the narrative that America is under siege by that omnipresent octopus Al Qaeda. It did not matter that KSM’s admissions, or assertions, were plainly megalomaniacal; for the true believer, as a medieval Latin poem has it, faith supplies where senses fail.
The same, and then some, can be said of KSM’s disciples. Emerging miraculously after four years of CIA detention in secret spots throughout the world and presumably subjected to torture by his interrogators, he remained unbroken, even triumphant. To his admirers, this was not a confession, it was a manifesto, full of defiance and ironic wit, boasting of his exploits and sniping at his captors, comparing himself to none other than George Washington, a fellow “enemy combatant.” His story fed their narrative too, burnishing the myth of the agile guerilla Al Qaeda, taking down the armored giant with five smooth stones.
There has been a parallel story coming from the other side for over six years now: the “War on Terror.” Our government could have treated the 9/11 attacks as it had treated all previous acts of terrorism, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: as a crime. It could have utilized the FBI, the CIA, and the intelligence operations of almost every country in the world, then outraged by this disaster and sympathetic to the United States, to ferret out Osama bin Laden, KSM, and their collaborators, round them up, and deliver them to the U.S. for fair and speedy trials before juries of ordinary citizens. With that, a major part of this sordid business would have been over by now. That revolting cast of characters would have had their day in open court, legitimately prosecuted and defended, with evidence presented and refuted, verdicts reached, and sentences passed. The American system of justice, long admired as a paradigm of fairness, would have been vindicated on an international scale.
Instead, the Bush administration chose to name the 9/11 attacks an act of war. In doing so, an entirely different set of players was called upon: the military and its apparatus. Fueled by the myth that this was actually a war - even though there was no nation to confront, no army to fight - the might of the world’s remaining superpower was brought to bear on a phantom. Not used to fighting phantoms, the military had to objectify “terror,” first in Afghanistan, the very sump that had drained the Soviet Union dry just a few short years before, and then in Iraq, the hapless target of that sub-myth, the “Axis of Evil.”
The dismal result in both cases was not so much the product of poor planning, as is often suggested, but the product of a great army engaged in battle with a concept. In order to give it flesh, like staging a Greek tragedy, it was forced to play everything out in military terms, regardless of how unsuitable or ineffective.
At the heart of all the confusion about the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, the status of the detainees, the suspension of due process, the internal surveillance, and even the Presidential suggestion that the best way to support the war effort is to go shopping, is the straining attempt to make believable the myth that “we are at war.” This is nonsense, and it all could have been avoided if Al Qaeda and the host of similar terrorist rings had been treated as international criminals, more like the Mafia than a nation.
In his statement, KSM proudly calls himself an “enemy combatant,” but he is very self-aware; he knows he is adroitly exploiting Bush’s own megalomaniacal vision of himself as “the War President.” In perhaps intentional broken English that obviously befuddled the transcribers, he repeatedly emphasizes that we are playing a deadly game of “language”: “You know very well there are language for any war,” the transcript reads at one point; and at another, “But now language also we have language for the war.”
It’s all in the story you tell.