|READING OSAMA'S MESSAGES
By Diane Perlman
November 21, 2002
While media experts were preoccupied with analyzing Osama bin Laden's
voice, they failed to comprehend, or even read, his actual words. Speculation
about hidden meanings and secret clues totally ignored the obvious intended
message, which is so clear that it doesn't even need decoding.
We have received three clear, consistent messages from bin Laden in the
last year: on Nov. 11, 2001; Oct. 6, 2002; and Nov. 12, 2002. All are credible,
plausible, and make psychological sense. They have all been grossly
All of bin Laden's messages have a consistent theme, emotional tone and
logic. All are about reciprocity, expressed in many different ways. The
message from Nov. 12, 2002, began, "The road to safety begins by ending the
aggression. Reciprocal treatment is part of justice. The incidents that have
taken place ... are only reactions and reciprocal actions. "
Bin Laden's messages are misinterpreted as unconditional threats and
vows to attack. This is incorrect. They are all conditional warnings that whatever
we do, they will respond in kind.
Bin Laden's quotes:
Nov. 11, 2001: Bin Laden said that he had nuclear weapons. He said that he
was holding them only as a deterrent, and that he had no intention of using
them unless we did. If the U.S. used them, he would reserve the right to use
them in retaliation.
Sun Oct 6, 2002: "By God, the youths of God are preparing for you things
that would fill your hearts with terror and target your economic lifeline,
until you stop your oppression and aggression against Muslims."
..."So let America increase the pace of this conflict or decrease it,
and we will respond in kind."
Nov. 12, 2002: "If you were distressed by the deaths of your men ...
remember our children who are killed in Palestine and Iraq everyday ... Why
should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and widowing
continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot?
This is unfair. It is time we get even. You will be killed just as you kill,
and will be bombed just as you bomb.''
We should understand that the overriding sentiment in bin Laden's
messages is about the effects of our actions in provoking a reciprocal response. This
is credible. Reciprocity is guaranteed. There are two ways to get even. The
way to be more secure is to make your enemy more secure. The humiliation
of Versailles led to the Holocaust. The Marshall plan turned enemies into
allies. Envy and humiliation provoke destruction. It is incumbent upon us to
turn the tide.
Liberation from Retaliation
We are on the verge of going to war under the illusion of preventing a
threat. What has been sold as a "preemptive strike," a misuse of the term,
is actually a provocative strike. This war will unleash a cascade of
unintended consequences. Terrorist attacks are likely planned for the onset
Terrorism is a form of asymmetrical warfare. There is no amount of
domination that cannot be turned against us, demonstrated by Sept. 11.
Misinterpreting Osama's message fuels the irrational drive
toward war. With asymmetrical warfare and weapons of mass destruction,
the consequences are unthinkable. By exaggerating the threat and censoring
the message of the conditionality of violence, we collude with the forces that
promise permanent world war.
If we consider that bin Laden's theme of reciprocity could be authentic and
if we take that message seriously and accurately, we could shift to
strategies that will reduce tension, and have legitimacy in their own right.
We could work to resolve the Palestinian problem, which has to be done
anyway, for many reasons. If we use alternative strategies to war in Iraq,
if we support economic development in Afghanistan and other places, and
reduce the suffering and the envy, we can begin to de-escalate the cycle of
If we act in good faith to reduce tension and to address just grievances
that fuel recruits to terrorism, we have everything to gain. This win-win
approach could promote mutual security. If it does fail, we have lost
nothing, and still have the capacity to retaliate.
I end this by repeating bin Laden: "The road to safety begins by ending the
aggression." The choice is ours.
Diane Perlman, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, is co-chair of the
Committee on Global Violence and Security, Psychologists for Social
Responsibility and author of "Intersubjective Dimensions of Terrorism and
its Transcendence" in The Psychology of Terrorism, edited by Chris Stout.
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