You Donít Understand Us
Paranoia, that spooky tendency in all of us at various times to think that "someone" out there somewhere, is out to get us, thrives on the ordinary process in our minds to associate things in our memories. We continually look for things that might relate to whatís going on at the moment, and sometimes see connections that might be more apparent than real. The more common type of paranoia is described this way on the Web:
I have to admit that this clinical description fits me sometimes. I find that a few sips of alcohol often are the best antidote for the symptoms, when they do occur. (I love everybody when Iím a little high.)
But this essay isnít so much about paranoia as it is about recent events. I bring up my mental aberration only to suggest why these events might have inspired what I am about to write.
We all know that Osama bin Laden released a video just before the presidential election, not taking sides exactly but patiently trying to explain why his agents have been so hostile toward us, even sacrificing their own lives to make the point that Islam has been trodden on for hundreds of years, and this treading has got to stop.
The response by most people Iíve heard was to give Mr. Laden the bird (if I may be permitted a popular vulgarism). Nobody tells us how to run our own elections. Both Republican and Democratic candidates promptly conveyed this response to the gentleman in no uncertain terms. Others in this country interpreted his video as an attempt to persuade the electorate to defeat Mr. Bush, since the President has been so outspoken in his intentions to hunt down and kill, if possible, Mr. Laden and his cohorts. Osama bin Laden must hate Mr. Bush more than he hates Mr. Kerry, since the latter has criticized the current administrationís handling of the whole affair. So, it is assumed, all those citizens sympathetic to the Republican view of things got out and voted, demonstrating to the mullah that he canít tell us what to do, and in the process assuring the re-election of Mr. Bush. Point taken, but consider the twists and turns of mind that leads to this conclusion.
I have been reading The Atlantic Monthly for December, in particular the lengthy article by Mark Bowden "Among the Hostage Takers," about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis, which my own paranoia interpreted as the reason President Carter lost the 1980 election. The author has been studying the Crisis from the perspective of twenty-five years after the fact, and finds that some of the students involved in that affair now regret their actions, partly because it didnít turn out the way they had expected, and partly because (to a couple of them, at least) it wasnít a nice thing to do. Others in the group made the most of the notoriety that ensued for them, landing plush jobs in the Iranian revolutionary government. It is still celebrated as a national holiday, a moment when a few young people grabbed the mighty United States by the, ahem, throat. (I suspect that Carter would not have lost the election if the attempt by the U.S. military to rescue the hostages had succeeded. We simply lost the game.) Many Iranians think that the freak sandstorm that the rescue team encountered was not only the work of their Allah but a sign that theirs was indeed the right side of the conflict. Itís hard to argue against Acts of God.
Back to this most recent election, though, from Osama bin Ladenís point of view, it doesnít make much sense for him to wish George W. Bush out of his hair. His complaint is not just one president (after all, heís been railing against the U.S. since before George W. became a non-exceptional governor of an obscure American protectorate). Bin Laden has more important things on his mind, such as the organizational challenges of recruiting people to blow themselves up in the process of making grand statements to the world about how Islamic people have been down-trodden by Western Society for millennia. Which candidate is elected to lead the American military probably doesnít make much difference to him.
In fact, the stronger-appearing the Enemy is, the more readily his own soldiers are apt to be willing for their sacrifice. The Great Satan, as the United States is called, needs to be an imposing target. How willing would a soldier be to give his life to defeat an enemy who was destined eventually to fall apart from his own excesses, as the Soviets used to be told. No, this has to be a victory against overwhelming odds, to give Our People the feeling of great victory.
So I think, in my moments of paranoia, that things turned out exactly as bin Laden had planned. A lot of Islamic students have studied in American universities. Thereís no reason to assume that all of them were studying nuclear engineering. Americans have demonstrated the value of public relations in getting oneís own way in the world. He would surely have enough insight to use our own weapons against us. So he makes the American society more imposing and therefore a more attractive target for his suicide bombers.
The Atlantic article by Mark Bowden seems to support this. In his interviews with some of the 1979 hostage takers, he finds that paranoia is not just an American characteristic. He writes:
"Iran is still very much in the grip of CIA-phobia, which has spawned a national industry of conspiracy theories. One of the more breathtaking of these holdsóand the irony here is apparently lost on most Iraniansóthat the embassy seizure was actually orchestrated by the CIA. In other words, the [hostage takers] were nothing but CIA stooges."
The author interviews an Iranian writer who has published a book elaborating on this theory. ". . . he told me with a straight face and a strong voice that the CIA had been responsible not only for installing and preserving the Shah but also for engineering his overthrow and secretly planning his return, for propping up the provisional government that followed the coup and fomenting the national unrest that ultimately undermined and toppled it, and for secretly orchestrating the seizure of the [the American embassy] and keeping fifty-two Americans . . . hostage for more than a year.
"ĎArenít some of these things mutually contradictory?í I asked. ĎFor instance, why would the CIA wish to foment trouble for a provisional government it was secretly supporting?í
"The slender, bearded Ghapour smiled at me with sweet condescension. ĎYou must view the world through the lens of Islam to see the logic of these things,í he said."
Paranoia has trouble with logic. If some Islamic people want to redress the wrongs that have been perpetrated on their people since the Middle Ages, when they lost much of the territory they conquered while the West was sucking its thumb after being conquered by the Romans, it doesnít seem logical that they would use their shows of force against such an overwhelming enemy, except to help in their recruitment campaigns. Itís like the Los Angeles gangs that paint their symbols on public buildings. They donít convince anybody but themselves.
I hesitate to link Osama bin Laden and Ralph Nader in a common cause. Neither gentlemen would find it comfortable, I suspect. Yet my paranoia allows me to wonder if the election would have gone differently had the infamous video not been released and if the illustrious giant-slayer had kept his sling in his pocket this time around.
Perhapsóand this is a big perhaps, I admitóboth men wanted the outcome to be exactly as it was. You have to admire their ingenuity.
Obviously, it doesnít stop there. Stories abounded during the campaign that Republicans were supporting Ralph Naderís campaign, simply to drain off votes for Kerry. And not a few Web sites suggested that the bin Laden video was a CIA production. How far do you want to go?
Thereís some controversy about whether the term "paranoia" can be applied to a belief if it turns out to be true. Iíll stay with the idea that it doesnít matter; paranoia is a process of the mind that comes out to seem extreme to others. With enough of these flights of imagination, one begins to be considered "strange." When events themselves become even stranger, one wonders if the term is useful at all.
Donald Skiff, November 16, 2004