Sobran's -- The Real News of the Month

 Phantom Enemies 

March 4, 2003

On the principle that you can’t judge a book by its cover, maybe we shouldn’t 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 duct tape.”

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. It’s not as if pity were a strong component of his own makeup.

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.

[Breaker quote: Tojo and duct tape]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. He’s 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 couldn’t 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 didn’t 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. Bush’s absurdities, and you’ll 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. He’s merely playing the role he thinks he’s 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-Qaeda’s relatively impotent malice.

Organized crime, or even outright terrorism, can do far less harm than the most well-meaning government. It’s a matter of power, not intentions.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2003 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
This column may not be reprinted in print or
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