Misinterpreting Osama's Message: Erring on the Side of Danger

While media experts were preoccupied with analyzing Osama bin Laden's voice, they failed to comprehend, or even read, his actual words. Speculation about hidden meanings and secret clues totally ignored the obvious intended message, which is so clear that it doesn't even need decoding.

Because of the intense hate and fear evoked by Osama, because we are so traumatized by him, we automatically block those dimensions of his communication that are not pure threats. We simplify and reduce complex messages, transforming them into plans to attack unconditionally. Speculation is based more on fantasy than expertise.

We unconsciously refuse to perceive what he is actually saying, as if understanding this evil person is a betrayal to ourselves and is letting him win. Our dangerous assumptions can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies.

The image of the enemy universally generates a powerful emotional charge that distorts perception. Our narrow range of thinking, so deeply ingrained, is shaped by a homogenous media, with constant repetition of a simplistic worldview, characterized by black-and-white thinking, egocentrism and psychological ignorance. Our inability to receive meaning is tantamount to a collective cognitive disorder.

We see the enemy only as intent on destroying us, no matter what we do. We believe that the only thing we can do is destroy him before he destroys us; but that is an impossible endless game, because we will always generate new recruits.

Understandably, we see the enemy as only hostile and aggressive, and fail to see that he is also feeling anguish and desperation. There is a serious threat to us, but the way we respond can either increase or decrease the threat. We tend to leave out our participation in this dynamic dance of terror.

Shifting to a Survivable Paradigm

Some people reading this will misunderstand my intention to attempt psychologically sound ways of reducing the escalation of violence, which is about to spin out of control. Those who are committed to revenge and punishment, even if it provokes retaliation that endangers us, will dismiss this article. They are operating on the axis of right and wrong, good and evil, us and them. They will always be right, but the violence will escalate.

As we used to say in the days of the Soviet-American arms race, it's like shooting a hole in their side of the lifeboat. There is no way out using this paradigm.

In order to emerge from the imminent cycle of retaliation, we are required to operate from a new, transcendent paradigm principled upon tension reduction, violence prevention and conflict transformation. It is off the right-wrong axis.

When one is being threatened, understanding the psychology of the enemy is a matter of life and death. Like it or not, our fates are intertwined.

The Message of Reciprocity

We have received three clear, consistent messages from bin Laden in the last year: on Nov. 11, 2001; Oct. 6, 2002; and Nov. 12, 2002. All are credible, plausible, and make psychological sense. They have all been grossly misinterpreted.

All of bin Laden's messages have a consistent theme, emotional tone and logic. All are about reciprocity, expressed in many different ways. The message from Nov. 12, 2002, began, "The road to safety begins by ending the aggression. Reciprocal treatment is part of justice. The incidents that have taken place ... are only reactions and reciprocal actions. "

I have not heard one commentator address this. Ironically, the AOL headline for these excerpts said, "Bin Laden vows to attack." That is not quite accurate.

As a clinical and political psychologist, I consider these communications to contain information vital to our survival. Just because bin Laden is our arch enemy, it does not follow that we should not take his communications seriously, or accurately.

President Bush said on Nov. 13 that he would take bin Laden's messages seriously. His interpretation was the opposite of the true meaning. In fact the messages mean that if we do go to war, we will provoke a chain reaction of terrorist attacks that would not occur if we do not go to war. The CIA, political psychologists, terrorism experts, Middle East analysts and social psychologists including Dr. Phil Zimbardo, president of the American Psychological Association, expert on group violence, speaking about the Psychology of Evil at the University of Pennsylvania, Oct. 9, 2002, all agree that war will increase terrorism globally, as well as many other catastrophic unintended consequences.

Bin Laden's messages are misinterpreted as unconditional threats and vows to attack. This is incorrect. They are all conditional warnings that whatever we do, they will respond in kind. What is missed by media and political leaders, whether intentionally or unconsciously, is the conditionality, the centrality of our role in provoking retaliation or preventing retaliation and reducing terrorism.

Bin Laden's quotes listed below all say that our actions will determine their actions. This is credible. The media responds to the first half of a sentence without reading the rest. Entire commentaries are based on fragments taken out of context, which is irresponsible and dangerous. Commentaries promote an exaggerated sense of imminent threats that have the effect of increasing fear, helplessness and passivity. They create an irrational belief that we have to attack first to prevent this. They ignore information about how we can behave to reduce threats. We should wonder why these parts are left out.

Here are some of bin Laden's comments that were not reported in full.

Nov. 11, 2001: Bin Laden said that he had nuclear weapons. He said that he was holding them only as a deterrent, and that he had no intention of using them unless we did. If the U.S. used them, he would reserve the right to use them in retaliation.

Most media obsessed about whether or not he really had them. Most dismissed the possibility, saying he couldn't possibly have them, which was irresponsible. Almost no one took this seriously enough to explore what we should do if he did. The psychologically correct response would have been to reduce tension by reassuring us and them that we had no intention of using nuclear weapons. But that didn't happen because the administration refused to renounce the potential use of nuclear weapons, thereby increasing tension.

Sun Oct 6, 2002: "By God, the youths of God are preparing for you things that would fill your hearts with terror and target your economic lifeline, until you stop your oppression and aggression against Muslims."

News reports said bin Laden was threatening our economic lifeline, and planning an attack. All omitted the conditionality in the end of the sentence: "So let America increase the pace of this conflict or decrease it, and we will respond in kind."

Nov. 12, 2002: "If you were distressed by the deaths of your men ... remember our children who are killed in Palestine and Iraq everyday ... Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time we get even. You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb.''

What was reported, again, was plans to attack, missing the conditionality. What is also missed is the excruciating suffering of the people, the envy and humiliation, all ingredients for a destructive response. Many, across the political spectrum, have said that economic development of Afghanistan after the U.S. supported victory over the Soviets might have prevented much misery, recruitment to terrorism and the Sept. 11 attacks.

We should understand that the overriding sentiment in bin Laden's messages is about the effects of our actions in provoking a reciprocal response. This is credible. Reciprocity is guaranteed. There are two ways to get even. The way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure. The humiliation of Versailles led to the Holocaust. The Marshall plan turned enemies into allies. Envy and humiliation provoke destruction. It is incumbent upon us to turn the tide.

Liberation from Retaliation

We are on the verge of going to war under the illusion of preventing a threat. What has been sold as a "preemptive strike," a misuse of the term, is actually a provocative strike. This war will unleash a cascade of unintended consequences. Terrorist attacks are likely planned for the onset of war.

Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare. There is no amount of domination that cannot be turned against us, demonstrated by Sept. 11.

Counter-terrorism, attempting the physical elimination of terrorists, only creates more terrorism, inspiring new recruits and new strategies. There is no "end game." Attacking Afghanistan provokes al-Qaeda to decentralization and better hiding. We have the illusion that if we kill bin Laden we will be safer. Is it not likely that killing him will magnify his power and influence? If we kill bin Laden then the terrorists will have won. We are focused on the concrete and the physical, and so miss the powerful psychological dimensions.

The connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda is created by us; we are driving them into each other's arms. Osama has suggested that if we invade Iraq, he will respond in kind. There is every reason to believe him. The only way to reduce terrorism is to address the root causes and to transform our use of power in the world.

History is filled with military blunders. Going to war would be a megablunder. Misinterpreting Osama's message fuels the irrational drive toward war. With asymmetrical warfare and weapons of mass destruction, the consequences are unthinkable. By exaggerating the threat and censoring the message of the conditionality of violence, we collude with the forces that promise permanent world war.

Mutually Assured Survival: Erring on the Side of Caution

Bush has unwittingly resurrected the policy of "Mutually Assured Destruction," MAD, except he is replacing a posture of deterrence with provocation. We plan to attack you and your brethren. You have vowed to respond in kind. This will lead to a global version of the Israeli-Palestinian deteriorating cycle of retaliation. This is as dangerous as can be. When people are suffering and feel dominated, when they keep getting rejected and humiliated, they expel their suffering and trauma into others, especially the dominators and the envied.

The alternative is a policy of "Mutually Assured Survival." We promise we won't attack you and you promise you won't attack us. There is nothing to lose by trying. Many will say this is foolhardy and we cannot trust him. This may or may not be so. If we assume we can't trust him and keep on the path we are going, we will be right, as we provoke increased terrorism worldwide.

If we consider that bin Laden's theme of reciprocity could be authentic and if we take that message seriously and accurately, we could shift to strategies that will reduce tension, and have legitimacy in their own right.

We could work to resolve the Palestinian problem, which has to be done anyway, for many reasons. If we use alternative strategies to war in Iraq, if we support economic development in Afghanistan and other places, and reduce the suffering and the envy, we can begin to de-escalate the cycle of violence.

If we act in good faith to reduce tension and to address just grievances that fuel recruits to terrorism, we have everything to gain. This win-win approach could promote mutual security. If it does fail, we have lost nothing, and still have the capacity to retaliate.

This can be an effective strategy, called Graduated Reciprocated Initiatives in Tension Reduction, or GRIT, by Charles Osgood. There are historical examples where this has worked. I have coined a term for its opposite: BITE, Bold Initiatives in Tension Escalation, which is what we are doing.

We are steamrolling down a path toward endless escalation of global violence and retaliation. We need to explore possible ways out of this. Throughout history, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, wise leaders were aware of the need to provide the enemy with face-saving ways out.

We have an opportunity to avert disaster. We need to clearly and accurately hear messages even from our most hated adversaries. If we go to war, we will create more Saddams and Osamas who will emerge in future years. The stakes are as high as can be. It will take major miracles to prevent this war, but we can start with consciousness.

I hesitate to end this by repeating bin Laden: "The road to safety begins by ending the aggression." The choice is ours.

Diane Perlman, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical and political psychologist, co-chair of the Committee on Global Violence and Security for Psychologists for Social Responsibility, and author of "Intersubjective Dimensions of Terrorism and its Transcendence" in The Psychology of Terrorism, ed. Chris Stout. Email: NineDots@aol.com


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