Terrorism and Propaganda

An old saw has it that a lie can circle the globe before the truth even laces its sneakers. That’s more accurate now, an era when satellites and the Internet have revolutionized communications, than ever before.

In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the United States is fighting not just a war of arms but, simultaneously, a war of ideas. Consider how effectively our enemies have learned to meld actions, words and images into weapons.

When Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, bombs Iraqi policemen, murders aid workers or decapitates foreign hostages while rolling video cameras, then sends the tapes out to audiences around the world, what has he accomplished?

Militarily, not a thing. It’s not like when the United States shot down the plane carrying a top Japanese general in World War II. Nor is it like capturing a beachhead or a city or an airport or even a hill.

But it is extraordinarily effective as what might be called extreme public relations. It drives a message. It serves to intimidate. It affects you in your living room. It is intended to shatter your will to fight; because if Americans lose their will to fight, they are, by definition, defeated.

There has been at least limited recognition of this within the White House. “Car bombs,” said President Bush, at a press conference on Dec. 20, 2004, “are effective propaganda tools.”

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, has called the videotaped beheadings, the suicide bombings, even the 9/11 atrocities themselves “weapons of mass effect.”

“We have nothing to fear from this enemy other than its ability to create panic,” he argues. Correct, but our enemy’s ability to create panic is formidable.

Abizaid adds: “This enemy is like water _ it seeks an unguarded path. They’ll go for the place they can use a weapon of mass effect _ and gain a media victory.” Correct again, but in a war of ideas, it is unwise to minimize the significance of media victories.

Abizaid also notes that the crimes of Saddam Hussein against the Kurds, the Shia and dissidents, the crimes of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the crimes of the Iranian mullahs against dissidents and the Bahai, are not similarly on view in the Arab and Muslim media. Nor are they seen extensively in the United States and Europe. This creates a distorted picture of reality.

Beyond the acts of bloodshed staged for dissemination on TV and computer screens around the world, are the media outlets that have the same strategic communications mission _ giving renewed meaning to Marshall McLuhan’s phrase: “The medium is the message.”

The worst of the Islamist Fascist media is almost certainly al Manar, a television station wholly owned by the terrorist organization Hezbollah, which broadcasts incitement to violence (against Americans and Israelis in particular) to millions of people throughout the Middle East.

The people responsible for al Manar appear to have a sophisticated understanding of what they are doing. They have said that their purpose is to wage “psychological warfare.”

Al Jazeera broadcasts even more widely. It also is more subtle. While conveying messages of hate and intolerance, as well as justifications for terrorism, it generally stops short of actually advocating mass murder.

And then there is the broader universe of media in the Arab and Muslim worlds, for instance, Palestinian Authority television which recently asserted that Jews and Americans were responsible for the tsunami that devastated the shores of southern Asia.

“The Jews are a cancer that spreads inside the body of the Islamic and Arab nation,” Palestinians were told. “They invest in the East Asian countries, which were destroyed (by the tsunami) because of the Jewish and American corruption and destruction.”

Billions of dollars are spent to support the propagation of such messages. Financiers in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and other Gulf states pick up the checks, largely based on oil sales, not least to America and Europe. So, in a sense, Americans and Europeans are paying for the propagation of hate speech _ supplying, for example, al Manar spokesmen with a megaphone to urge people to kill us.

Vladimir Lenin once said: When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope. But even he didn’t expect that anyone would be foolish enough to provide their enemies with the money to purchase the rope as well.

This is not the first war of ideas Americans have fought. Before and during World War II, the Nazis developed propaganda into a high art, cleverly blaming the conflict on its intended victims. During the Cold War, Soviet lies were found persuasive not just by the poor and oppressed, but also by some of the world’s most urbane intellectuals.

Eventually, the Free World fought back and, in the end, good and truthful ideas won the day. It’s time for the defenders of freedom to start lacing their running shoes again.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.