Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Purpose of the Tape

We have had our October Surprise. The surprise was not the work of the mainstream media nor a "527" group delivering a last-minute exposé on what one of the candidates did decades ago. Nor was the surprise the doing of the Bush administration, as expected by those cynics who thought the administration would withhold news of bin Laden's death or capture until its revelation could have maximal effect on the electorate. No, though the surprise was the appearance of bin Laden, as Teresa Heinz Kerry had feared, it was not an appearance that anyone expected. We did not anticipate our October Surprise to be delivered, in the form of a videotape, from Osama bin Laden himself to the front door of the Islamabad office of Al Jazeera. And thus we were genuinely surprised.

The surprise went deeper. For we expected an October Surprise to represent an obvious advantage for one side or the other. On this weekend before the election, however, it is by no means obvious how this October Surprise is likely to sway the electorate. Even putting aside the fact that millions have already cast their ballot, it is hard to anticipate the effect of the tape on those who have yet to vote.

What was Osama bin Laden doing? Obviously, he was giving a message addressed explicitly to the American people. More important than the propositional content of his utterance, however, is what effects he intended to produce in those who heard his words. The philosopher J. L. Austin coined the term "perlocutionary act" to describe that part of a speech act that is directed toward producing an effect in the audience. What was the perlocutionary effect that bin Laden was seeking? One effect, no doubt intended, was that the Americans would be surprised. Another, perhaps, was directed toward the Arab world: to lift al Qaeda's image and morale. Perhaps another was to signal al Qaeda cells to proceed with an attack. Were there other purposes intended by bin Laden toward his American audience?

Undoubtedly there were. The timing of the videotape makes plain that bin Laden intended to have his words heard before the election. In the words broadcast by al Jazeera, and apparently in those words mysteriously not broadcast, bin Laden was intent on mocking Bush. (In Austin's terminology, bin Laden's mocking is one of his illocutionary acts.) It is understandable that those Democrats who echo Michael Moore, those who use similar language with similar intent, should wish to put distance between their own rhetoric and that of bin Laden. Some attempt to find that difference in the intended perlocutionary effects. The terrorists, they insist, would prefer to see Bush win, because al Qaeda could then continue to exploit the hatred of Bush to recruit more youth into al Qaeda. This response has the scent of desperation.

Others on the left do not attribute such subtlety to bin Laden's motives, but take him at his word when he claims that it will not matter to the security of America whether or not Kerry or Bush win. Here, I think they are only half-right. Note that bin Laden declared that the idea of attacking the twin towers came to him in 1982, when the United States aided Israel in its invasion of Lebanon. Yet, the groups with which bin Laden was affiliated did not wait until 2001 to respond. In 1983, a group known as Islamic Jihad destroyed the United States embassies in Beirut and in Kuwait. In 1992, that same group destroyed the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. In 1993, they first struck the twin towers, in the bombing attack planned by Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. These attacks span the administrations of both parties in the U.S. It is a fantasy to believe that bin Laden would respond to the election of Kerry by ordering a ceasefire.

So, it is a half-truth that al-Qaeda and bin Laden do not care who wins this election. To be sure, the election will have no effect on their intentions nor on their hatred of the West. Nor will the election change their impossible demand that the West disengage from the Islamic world, and only such a disengagement could constitute the security that bin Laden demanded in his videotape. Nonetheless, the election will have an effect on the level of resistance that the jihadists can expect to meet. That is the difference that explains why bin Laden would prefer that George Bush lose, and why he wished to demonstrate that he was alive, well, and capable of mocking Bush right before the election. The intended purpose of the tape was to help swing the election Kerry's way. We will soon see whether bin Laden gets what he wishes.

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|| headland, 1:54 PM


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