Thursday, June 17, 2004

To Many, Osama Bin Laden = Cobra Commander

The standard American view of Al Qaeda is straight out of G.I. Joe.

Those of us that grew up with G.I. Joe toys, action figures, and comic books are familiar with Joe's shady nemesis: Cobra, an international terrorist organization led by the mysterious Cobra Commander. The motives of the Cobra Organization and its members were all but unknown from Joe's (...and our) point-of-view. For Joe, it was enough to know that Cobra was The Enemy and that it/they threatened American interests.

Since 9/11, an uncritical view of Al Qaeda has emerged that oddly parallels G.I. Joe's cartoon melodrama. Al Qaeda's leader and its members are portrayed as so utterly different from us that they are not subject to human frailties or impulses felt by the non-fundamentalist.

I bring up this simplistic view of Al Qaeda because the 9/11 commission has recently released findings that paint this foe in a more human -- but not a more sympathetic -- light. Since yesterday, the infighting among 9/11 hijackers has been widely reported. Moreover, it seems that Bin Laden ignored concerns raised by his advisors and by the Taliban that the attacks would bring a US military response.

As findings like these trickle into the consciousness of the news-aware American, the people and the press will find it easier to address more difficult human questions in a thoughtful way. 10 years from now, it may be that the majority of Americans will be able to describe how US foreign policy at the close of the Cold War played a role in arming Islamism and building a current enemy. Such a cultural awakening is only possible through baby steps that -- in our minds -- transform our violent opponent from automaton to human.

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