The Terrorist Mind - David Pryce
They just don’t get us.

October 15, 2001 4:45 p.m.


et me share with you my theory as to why American Media, parent company of The National Enquirer, The Star, and other tabloid magazines, may have been targeted by Osama bin Laden's anthrax-wielding henchmen. First, recall, if you will, how the original 1993 attackers of the World Trade Center were caught: One of them asked for a refund of the rental deposit on the truck used to bomb the Twin Towers.

Now, this sounds like an extra-credit effort toward an honors degree at Stupid Terrorist School. But I think what it actually reveals is that these people don't really understand how America works. They are intelligent and dedicated, but they're not fully literate culturally with respect to America or the West. I like to think that the best evidence of their civilizational illiteracy is their eagerness to murder thousands of Americans. Few people who truly understood America on its own terms could maintain that level of hatred. Or maybe they could. Not that it matters, because the people who did this only deserve to have their hearts and minds captured with a dull spoon.

Anyway, my idea's that they sent that envelope of anthrax to "American Media" because they were given explicit orders to attack "the American media." Some former goatherd or eye surgeon or whatever — you don't need to be poor and uneducated to be ignorant — simply grabbed the yellow pages and looked up "American Media." And, lo and behold, there was an address. How convenient!

I'm sure they were more than a little confused when they tried to look up the other targets on their to-do lists — "The Jew-Run Media," "The Military-Industrial Complex," "Joe Sixpack," "American Soccer Moms," and so on — but, hell, "The American Media" was number one anyway.

If my theory is right — or, what the hell, even if it's not — I do think it's important to recognize that very intelligent, very sane people can still think according to very different standards. "Standard" may even be the wrong word for it. I'd say "paradigm," but most of the people who use the word "paradigm" seem like they need a vigorous enema.

When I say people think differently, I don't mean that in some parts of the world, people think bacon doesn't taste good, and in others they do. I don't merely mean the product of their thinking is different. I mean the actual mechanisms of their thinking are different.

My favorite example (as longtime readers know) comes from David Lamb's wonderful book The Africans. On December 8, 1978, two Zairean air-force jets approached the airport in Kinshasa, the capital of the nation now known, again, as the Congo. The tower radioed the pilots, telling them they couldn't land; the controllers were concerned with low visibility. The pilots, told that they "couldn't land," ejected and parachuted to safety. And two perfectly good — and very expensive — Mirage jets crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Problem solved.

Now, these men were educated and trained to fly these complicated pieces of equipment. But, just for an instant, they were thinking according to an entirely different set of rules about how life works. "Can't" means "never, ever possible" according to these rules — not "wait an hour," or "find a different runway" — so… let's bail!

Lamb points out that many Africans have a slightly different interpretation of cause and effect. In the West, the lesson the average person would take from a near-fatal car crash at high speeds on a hairpin turn would be "Man, that was close. I better not try that again." But in Africa, Lamb writes, "if an oncoming car has to swerve off the road to avoid his vehicle, and there are no collisions or injuries, the African does not say, Next time I'd better not do that." Instead, he goes with what works. I've heard similar stories about drivers throughout the Third World, particularly in Latin America, where traffic accidents and fatalities are much higher than in more advanced nations — despite the fact that the rate of car ownership is much lower.

Now, the minds of Osama bin Laden and his gang may be different in a different way. But the similarity between the members of al Qaeda and the guy who doesn't quite grasp cause-and-effect is that both of them live in the past.

When we say, "so-and-so lives in the past," we usually mean nostalgia: a longing to restore not so much the past, as a gauzy rendition of the past. But while nostalgia — which derives from the Greek concept of homesickness — has its own pitfalls, the Taliban crowd suffers from something far worse. In the West, when we're nostalgic, we know the era we're in, we just don't like it. With bin Laden, it isn't entirely clear he knows he's in the 21st century at all.

This means that, like the driver who doesn't understand cause and effect the same way people (of all races) understand it in the First World, the Taliban crowd doesn't understand how the world works the same way we do.

For example, all of bin Laden's apparently sincere talk of Americans as "crusaders" overlooks, completely, the inconvenient fact that nobody here has any frickin' clue as to what he's talking about. The only way you can think America is behaving like a crusader nation is if you see the whole world through a medieval lens. He says we're fighting "under the banner of the cross," but that is entirely imagined.

And sure, bin Laden may be playing the propaganda game, but if so, that only makes the point even more powerfully. Even if he's not sincere when he says Bush is leading the infidels to attack Islam — and I think he is — the fact that he thinks such propaganda will work on millions of Muslims and Arabs is proof positive that his intended audience, at least, does live in the past.

This doesn't mean these people aren't smart. It doesn't mean they aren't deserving of our respect, the way all cagey enemies deserve respect. But it does mean that reasoning with them will be very difficult and, probably, in many cases pointless.