March 4, 2003
the principle that you cant judge a book by its cover, maybe
we shouldnt judge Khalid Shaikh Mohammed by the unkempt picture
of him that appeared on the front pages Monday, after his arrest in
Pakistan. The al-Qaeda big had just been rudely awakened and
photographed before he had time to pretty himself up. How many of us look
our best when we open our eyes in the morning?
Mohammed, of course, is the
alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. He is said to be a top aide to
Osama bin Laden, whose good grooming entitles him to be regarded as
terrorism with a comparatively human face. Meaning no offense, I must
say that my first reaction to the picture can be summed up in the words I
addressed to my son: This face is going to sell a lot of
In fact if I were a CEO of the
already thriving duct-tape industry, I would immediately use the
Associated Press photo in a major ad campaign. You must have nerves of
steel not to shudder at a face like that. Dark, hirsute, and bloated to begin
with, it bears the distinctly grumpy expression of a bear whose
hibernation has been interrupted well ahead of schedule and on whom the
advice to lighten up would be wasted.
Assuming his leading role in
conceiving the most spectacular crime in human history, Mohammed is in a
poor position to seek sympathy for his treatment at the hands of the news
media. Its not as if pity were a strong component of his own
All this being said, Americans
should beware of their own tendency to demonize foreign enemies. And
this is true not because there is any excuse for most of those enemies
who are often even worse than our allies
but because demonization tends, paradoxically, to dignify them. It
elevates them to the status of Satanic geniuses, well-nigh omniscient and
omnipotent. And, freaking out, we rush for the duct tape, as if each of us
were personally threatened by a few remote fanatics.
Nothing new here,
really. The other day I received an angry e-mail from a reader who
I promise you this is true said that if Franklin D. Roosevelt had
taken my advice to avoid war, we would have been enslaved
by Hitler and Tojo.
Who, you may ask, was Tojo?
Unlike Hitler, he is generally forgotten today. Hes hard to find even
in reference books. But during World War II Hideki Tojo was the Japanese
premier and military leader. Americans quaked at his very name. Yet his
military failures forced him to resign in 1944, and in 1948 he was hanged
(by the victors) for war crimes.
I pointed out to my
correspondent, unavailingly, that there would have been certain logistical
difficulties, for either Hitler or Tojo, in conquering North America across
the oceans. Hitler couldnt even conquer England across a narrow
channel, and little Vietnam proved too much for the United States. The
idea of Tojo pillaging Omaha and Des Moines is absurd beyond belief. Yet
many Americans imagined it during World War II, and even today some
people find it plausible. Think of Tom Ridge issuing Tojo alerts!
The point is that demonization of
the enemy really works. It destroys all sense of proportion. A mere glance
at the globe refutes the idea that the United States could be easily
conquered by any possible enemy, yet millions of Americans in every
generation are ready to swallow it. We spend trillions of dollars for
defense against phantom enemies in most cases,
enemies we didnt have to make.
To be sure, you can make enemies
without even trying to. I find that I make bitter enemies by ridiculing
official propaganda. Poke fun at George W. Bushs absurdities, and
youll be accused of blasphemy against all that is holy. As if it
were self-evident that American presidents never fiddle with the truth.
Which is not to demonize Bush
either. Hes merely playing the role he thinks hes expected
to play. But since he is in a position to hurt us, by virtue of his office, his
ineptitude may be a greater danger to us than al-Qaedas relatively
Organized crime, or even outright
terrorism, can do far less harm than the most well-meaning government.
Its a matter of power, not intentions.