Monday, March 30, 2009

Laughing at the Terrorists

The Outlook section of yesterday's Washington Post had a very interesting article in its recurring section titled "What's the Big Idea?" In yesterday's article, the big idea was a unique antiterrorism tactic: Want to Fight Terrorists? Try Mocking Them.

The article was based on a longer essay from the April issue of the magazine Prospect titled License to Kill. In this essay, the authors hypothesized that violent extremism often appeals to young Muslims because it appears to offer "adventure, excitement, and notoriety," in contrast to their lives which are frequently ones of poverty, oppression, and sexual repression (the 72 virgins waiting to service them in paradise if they're killed in their adventure are just icing on the cake). The authors cite research which shows that most members of Islamic terrorist cells "...tend to be young men with little religious training beyond 'a few cut-and-paste lines' of jihadi literature."

The suggestion? Attack the mystique of glorious jihad, and show that the life of the Islamic extremist is more like that of the petty thug than the heroic secret agent. The authors contend that if the extremists are mocked and belittled, their appeal will diminish.

This may not be as silly as it may sound.

In a 2006 article titled Ridicule as a Weapon, Professor J. Michael Waller of the Institute of World Politics suggested that "...we inadvertently aid our enemies and potential enemies by taking them too seriously," and wondered whether "...our relentless portrayal of individuals, ideologies, movements and philosophies as mortal dangers to America enhance the enemies’ status and prestige." His suggestion: use ridicule as a weapon. He contends that ridicule

- raises morale at home;
- strips the enemy/adversary of his mystique and prestige;
- erodes the enemy’s claim to justice;
- eliminates the enemy’s image of invincibility; and,
- literally, can be a fate worse than death.

We always tend to demonize our enemies, but this runs the risk of making them seem larger and more fearsome than they are. During World War II, Nazi Germany was a truly existential threat to the nations of Europe and to the United States, and the German army seemed utterly invincible for the first few years of the war. But one strategy used against the Nazis was ridicule directed against Adolf Hitler. Hitler was mocked in cartoons that exaggerated his toothbrush mustache and bombastic rhetoric. Comic entertainer Spike Jones lustily sang his hit song "Der Fuehrer's Face," in which the Nazis' "heil!" salute was punctuated with loud raspberries, and Nazi racial and political theories were lampooned. The result was a boost in allied morale at a time when it was sorely needed.

Would ridiculing Islamic terrorists actually work? It might, but it would have to be carefully planned and executed. Care would have to be taken not to mock essential Islamic religious beliefs, but those which are twisted and exaggerated to offer a religious justification of murder. Good targets might be the theological two-step that attempts to show that suicide bombers are not really committing suicide, but carrying out "martyrdom operations," or the promise that those killed in violent jihad will be served in paradise by dark-eyed virgins (what's offered to the women who are conned into being suicide bombers, after all?).

Terrorism justified by religious beliefs is despicable, and the alleged "holy men" who encourage it surely have a special place awaiting them in hell. But if we can use weapons other than guns and missiles against them...if we can make the impressionable young men and women who are swept up in the mystique of violent jihad question their motivation...perhaps we can slowly strip away the appeal of violence.

It's worth a try.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



The Mistress of the Dark said...

I'm not sure I want to mock a guy with a bomb strapped to his back.

anOCgirl said...

while i like the idea of using words rather than weapons, i'm curious as to how effective the ridicule might be. you gave that spike jones song as an example from WWII. did the popularity of that song correspond with any kind of turning point in the war?

Amanda said...

What an interesting concept. However, for it to have even the slightest chance of working, I think ALL the current 'serious' talk of terrorism would have to be replaced with mocking. And, I don't think thats going to happen.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts and interesting comments. However, I must add that the effect of mockery is mostly upon us, rather than the suicide bombers, and that should be borne in mind. I will email to you a very interesting article that maintains a potential motivation of some suicide bombers is the sexual abuse of which they were the victims when young. Sexual abuse of young boys is said to be common in some Arab societies. We know the damage caused to children by sexual abuse in our society--but within the context of a Wahabbist society it can result in as much social devastation as child abuse in a Western society results in the victim's personal devastation. (And if the victim acts out their pain, it often results in violence that seems senseless--to everybody but the perpetrator and the police, who often recognize the real source of the rage.
You know who.

Leslie David said...

I've had my dad sing the Spike Jones song to me (shows how old I am). Riduculing someone else's religious beliefs is s touchy subject--look at what happened to those guys in what was it, Denmark? Unfortunately, Muslims don't seem to have much of a sense of humor when it comes to their religion, so how do you riducule the idea of suicide bombing without getting into an area that's sensitive to them?

Glad you're back--I got your hour Friday night. ;p

fiona said...

I wonder if the women are told that they are going to be the "dark eyed virgins" ?
This was a great post btw.
I think you hit the mark with "lampooned"
It works. In this case, as with Nazi Germanys Hitler, to mock an individual (facial caricatures, voice etc)
Leave the religion out of it?

wv - maddali - sometimes I think wv knows what I'm writing

Mike said...

I think it was General Pershing that had his troops dip their bullets in pig blood so there would be no virgins waiting.

Wv: decdyral - 10 dyral's

Bilbo said...

Andrea - mmm...yes, it could be a bit risky!

Liz - the popularity of any individual parody or song didn't correlate to any specific turning point, but taken together, they all had a positive impact on allied morale. Whether they directly affected the bad guys is still a matter of dispute.

Anonymous - I'd seen the article you reference several years ago, and found it fascinating. See my comments sent to you by separate e-mail.

Leslie - I think the idea is to ridicule specific ideas that are outside the recognized "mainstream" beliefs. You are, of course, correct in reminding us of the utter lack of perspective and humor exhibited by most Muslims as evidenced by the Danish cartoon fiasco. Looking forward to squiring you around the dance floor on Friday!

Fiona - leaving the religion out of it could be a good way to move forward with ridicule as a weapon. There are certainly Muslim zealots (bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Muqtada al-Sadr, to name a few) who offer plenty of exploitable points other than their religious beliefs. dark are YOUR eyes...?

Mike - there was also the joke about the new, secret, weapon the army was testing to use against radical Muslims: ham grenades.