Friday, March 26, 2004

Rebranding Product

A reader writes to say that anti-Coalition forces in Iraq may attack Americans in the name of Sheik Yassin's death regardless of statements by Hamas that they are not at war with the United States. The attacks were probably planned regardless and by tying it to a recent hot issue, the anti-Coalition forces will get additional propaganda mileage on the cheap. As Belmont Club has observed before, Hamas itself has a fairly restricted operational radius and will probably rely on other Jihadi or terrorist groups to carry out any threats abroad on their behalf.

This underscores importance of the message element in a terrorist act. The objects of terrorism are only secondarily of military importance. It is its symbolic content that matters. Hence certain dates, particular landmarks, the nationality and innocence of the victims are part and parcel of the message. The death of 200 commuters in Spain would be less than the loss from a widebody airline crash. Yet the one conveys no political content at all while the other is a slogan scrawled in blood and body parts.

But the targeting of Americans in Iraq in reprisal for Yassin also highlights the Jihadi movement's difficulty the in controlling the exact content of the message. While it is obviously not to the tactical interest of Hamas to link Gaza to the Global War on Terror, it  is to the immediate benefit of the anti-coalition forces, recently in slow decline, to prove they still exist. Thus one terrorist band improves their prospects at the expense of another; and only a handful of Americans need pay the price.

These twin characteristics highlight why it is so difficult to negotiate or pacify terrorism. There is a structural incentive inherent in terrorism to keep up a steady stream of outrage. Outrage equals publicity. Publicity equals political stature. Political stature equals money. Outrage is the product of the terrorist industry and its astute marketing managers in Western capitals can rebrand violence in any way necessary to suit their book, in the same way that fast food restaurants can create Value Meals or Blue Plate specials out of standard menu items. The "sale" of terrorist product would be impossible without a sympathetic press; if it did not exist, the terrorists would have to invent it. Witness Al Jazeera.

But the lack of a centralized Jihadi command and control system, despite the pretensions of Osama Bin Laden, means that there is ultimately no one the appeasers can surrender to. The inability of the Palestinians to unite under Hamas or Fatah, indeed the inability of Hamas to unite itself, as evidenced by its recent power struggles, illustrates how civilization will be dealing with a succession of banditti who keep boiling out of the stews of dysfunctional Islamic societies. The recent threats by the "Servants of Allah, the Powerful and Wise" against the French Railway system probably comes from a group that has no direct operational connection to either Hamas, Hezbollah or Al Qaeda proper. But they don't need to. All they need know is that violence brings the press, the press brings the French government, and the French government brings money. It also illustrates why the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists would be insusceptible to solution by negotiation or even surrender. There will always be someone with a bomb who will not get the word, some punk who will let it off to gratify his ego and some reporter willing to convey the boast to his burned and blackened victims.

Incoming Spanish Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is representative of a generation of politicians eager to consume the terrorist product, to hearken to its message -- even to listen, like a connoisseur, to its nuance. In the echoes of bomb and the screams of the victims they hear other voices; sweet pleas for justice, historical warnings, deep symbolisms, policy proposals and aesthetic messages that only a sophisticated European can discern. What American soldiers will see in the moments when they confront the enemy who will attack in the name of Sheik Yassin is something rather simpler: a hopped-up thug who would kill a civilian just as soon as anyone else did they not stand immovably  in the way.