Taking them seriously

Matthew Yglesias has a post that I think deserves more attention than it’s likely to get given it’s Saturday posting date and the ephemeral character of the blogosphere in which today’s posts get the most attention. In the post he makes two points, one I think fatuous (and I suspect he thinks so, too) and the other quite reasonable:

Now if you take this [ed. Osama bin Laden’s statements of his own objectives] with the appropriate level of seriousness, it really does lead to the conclusion that there’s no point in trying to redress Muslim grievances (i.e., engage in “appeasement”) since the emergence of a pan-Islamic Caliphate organized along Taliban lines and bent on recovering swathes of lost Muslim land that include all of Israel and, from time to time, all of Spain is not going to fly. The flipside, though, is that I don’t think we really should take these particular words all that seriously.

I, personally, find this “Surely they’re joking!” notion fatuous. The reality is that nearly all human beings take some very silly things, things that the bright young people dismiss, enormously seriously. Both Christianity and Islam, for example, are profoundly silly ideas that an enormous number of people (including me) take seriously.

But he does make a point that I found quite reasonable:

If you look at who actually conducts suicide terrorist attacks — al-Qaeda or otherwise — the overwhelming common thread is a concrete desire to coerce the withdrawal of foreign military forces from someplace or another. This is not the point of al-Qaeda as such, but it’s the motive that drives the people who are essential to al-Qaeda actually being a problem. Osama in a cave is just a guy in a cave. Osama in a cave inspiring someone to crash planes into office towers is a serious threat to national security.

The question at hand, however, is whether, so long as the state of Israel exists and there’s any Western presence at all in Muslim lands, the flow of cannon-fodder for Al-Qaeda’s plans will slow enough to make its brand of Islamist terrorism just a nuisance rather than a threat?

BTW don’t miss razib of Gene Expression’s great comment on taking things at face value.

6 comments… add one
  • Hi Dave,

    “The flipside, though, is that I don’t think we really should take these particular words all that seriously.”

    Matt, at times, is more breezy than bright.

    First, those words were not for his or our consumption but the Ummah’s. Specifically, the radical Salafist-Wahabbi-Deobandi demographic where Bin Laden was jockeying with other extremist groups for ideological dominance among militant Islamists and then generally to influence the passive devout middle-class.

    Secondly, what part of Bin Laden’s track record indicates that he does not mean what he says ? What sign of sincerity is Yglesias waiting for ? A mushroom cloud over Manhattan ?

    Matt typifies the cognitive dissonance a lot of westerners have when it comes to grappling with Islamist terrorism. Because the rationale of the terrorists for their actions seems preposterous and alien to our worldview then we start looking for alternative explanations for causation than the one our enemies are consistently stating. Because if we accept their motives at face value then we accept the notion that the Jihadi community and their financial and moral/ideological suppporters have to be ruthlessly killed off if we are to have peace.

    Even the Bush administration isn’t willing to do that so it is hardly likely that Liberals are ready to draw such conclusions

  • Dave,

    Thanks for this post.

    I have only this to add to Mark’s well-articulated comment: The West didn’t take Mein Kampf seriously either, thinking that Hitler could and would become more “rational” after he assumed the burdens of the chancellorship. But Hitler meant what he said and, to the best of his ability, translated words into deeds. Had Yglesias been around at the time, he would undoubtedly have bought into he-can’t-really-mean-it view, as did so many others — with catastrophic consequences.

    Until the “reality-based community” of which Yglesias is a part takes bin Laden’s words seriously, we will fail to come to grips with the threat we face. David Selbourne’s pessimism isn’t misplaced:


  • If someone told you that the mostly poor and uneducated followers of a Palestinian carpenter would start a religion that would take over the greatest empire the world had ever known and would be the world’s largest religion or that an illiterate merchant from an out-of-the-way town would start a religion that had over a billion adherents, you’d tell them they were crazy. Osama bin Laden and his immediate circle are well-educated, trained in modern business methods, and media-savvy. They have millions of fans. I think it’s enormously imprudent to dismiss them.

  • I think it an enormous error to dismiss UBL’s words. They are his intentions and they are existential, at least from his perspective. It’s simply dumb to not take someone else’s existential arguments seriously if those arguments include your death.

    UBL means what he says, it’s not a rhetorical exercise. He has acted and will act on his words.

    Yes, it matters that his analysis of history, the West, Christianity, Judaism, Zionism, whatever are faulty. But he is willing to act on that analysis.

    For a variety of reasons–some legitimate, some utterly demented, some because the state of education in this world is poor–there are others who accept his analysis as correct. Many of them are also willing to act on that analysis.

    We must, necessarily, distinguish between those who accept the UBL argument and those who both reject it and those who just aren’t sure. We need to recognize those who reject it and not nit-pick over lesser details for now. But we really need to work to affect the thoughts of those who aren’t sure. We need to make them sure that UBL’s way is the wrong way.

  • “We must, necessarily, distinguish between those who accept the UBL argument and those who both reject it and those who just aren’t sure. We need to recognize those who reject it and not nit-pick over lesser details for now”

    John makes a superb point.

    We need to politically and morally isolate Bin Laden from other Muslims, not help him consolidate his influence.

    This doesn’t mean using kid gloves but it means an IO campaign that emphasizes that America understands the distinction between enemies who make war on us and Muslims in general ( which is why World War IV rhetoric is counterproductive) and that our violence is directed at specific networks and not at a religion, treating this as a global version of COIN.

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