Osama bin Laden was, among many other things, a master propagandist, who understood that a key battleground in any war is the minds of men. His fundamental strategy was to turn his followers from true believers into fanatics. Undoubtedly, Islam gave him a fertile field for his harvest, but he cultivated it with consummate skill.
I remember riding up Madison Avenue in a taxi a few days before 9/11. The cabbie, a large, heavily bearded man wearing a white tunic and the white skullcap of a pilgrim to Mecca, was listening to a tape—in Arabic, I presumed. But you didn’t have to be a native speaker to understand the point of the lecturer or preacher: the tone of rage, of hatred, of bitterness meant murder; and I knew that the message could only be “Kill the Jews; kill the Americans; kill the unbelieving dogs.” So chilled was I by the frank malice spewing out that I remarked to my City Journal colleagues the next day that it wouldn’t be amazing for a man like my driver to walk into the Empire State Building some day, ride up to the observatory, and open fire with a machine gun.
Bin Laden’s recordings, half a dozen or so a year, had video as well as sound, and, though in the same genre as my cabbie’s tape, they were much suaver altogether. In his self-presentation, bin Laden was a holy warrior, with equal emphasis on both terms. With his ascetic leanness, his gentle, otherworldly eyes and almost effeminately delicate gestures, he strove to seem the Tolstoy of jihad.
Would that the U.S. government had the same propaganda virtuosity. After the brilliant triumph of President Obama and our military and intelligence officers in tracking down and executing the murderer of 3,000 people on our own soil, the White House seems unable to get its story straight or even to make up its mind about what the storyline should be. We shot bin Laden but gave him a respectful Muslim burial? That is the definition of a mixed message. In the early days after 9/11, one expert on the Islamic world suggested announcing that we’d bury any slain jihadis in pigskin, to bar their entry to heaven with its bevy of virgins. That man understood propaganda.
President Obama has vacillated about whether to show the world our photos of the slain mass murderer. Here is a suggestion. Many believe that Osama bin Laden has at least one more propaganda stunt in store—one more video in which he suggests his immortality by addressing his followers from beyond the grave. If that happens, why doesn’t the White House have someone ready to push a button, the moment the familiar voice starts coming over Al Jazeera, to broadcast across the globe the photo of the dead face with the blood oozing out of the hole above the left eye? Here is bin Laden’s fantasy of eternal life; here is the brute reality. Sic semper tyrannis.