Accustomed as we are to believing that everything in the world has to do with us, we’ve misunderstood what the recent beheadings are all about. The terrorists are not trying to make us cower. They are not using the beheadings as a technique to drive us out. Insofar as the slaughter of Westerners affects the policies of Coalition members, the same effect could be accomplished by other forms of murder; a government that is prepared to be routed from Iraq will turn tail when its public demands it, regardless of how its citizens have been killed.
This is not about us–it is about them. The beheading films are recruitment tools. They’ve been around for a long time, part and parcel of the first generation of “jihad” home movies, circulated mostly in North Africa to excite homicidal fanatics and lure them into the Islamist bands. The main difference between then and now is that their marketing and distribution have improved, thanks to their comrades at al Jazeera and al Arabiya, and the Internet.
We should have no trouble understanding this and drawing the proper conclusions. A movement that draws its foot soldiers from people who dream of beheading one of us is clearly a barbarous phenomenon, one that puts the lie to the notion that our enemies in this terror war are human beings driven to desperation by misery and injustice. Not at all: The recruiting films are aimed at subhuman homicidal maniacs who revel in bloody brutality. Given the human capacity to rationalize most any ghastly behavior, some of the killers’ supporters–even in the Western intelligentsia–include misguided souls who are so confused they can accept and even justify barbarism in the name of the cause of the moment. There is nothing new in invoking ends to justify dreadful means. But in this case, the means–the beheadings–define our enemies and their followers.
It follows that there is no policy that will successfully end their jihad against us short of total surrender and mass conversion to their brand of Islam. They see us, quite explicitly, as animals who deserve slaughter. The terrorists’ recent response to Tony Blair’s statement that he would not negotiate with them was eloquent: We are not interested in negotiations, they said. Either the British withdraw or we will slaughter the hostage.
Do not think for a moment that the beheadings are a unique form of viciousness aimed only against Americans or American allies. Beheading has been a common form of execution of Islamic (and Christian, and Bahai, and Zoroastrian) enemies, and I have no doubt the jihadists have beheaded more of “their own” than of ours. It is not about us, it’s about them.
Our debate, however, is not about them; it’s about us. Should we permit the horrible videos to be broadcast? Does it not risk either dulling our sensitivities or truly terrifying our own people? The very nature of this debate shows how far we have strayed from the understanding we gained on September 11, 2001. That day we saw scenes every bit as horrible as the beheadings, and we recognized that we were facing a war that would have to be fought to the finish. The people who were burned or crushed in New York and Washington, those who jumped to certain death from the Twin Towers–they provided the clearest possible documentation of what awaited us all if we did not win.
The opponents of our campaign against the terror masters immediately recognized that it was crucial to cancel that message, to dilute it with nuance and deception, and the first step in their campaign was to stop broadcasting the images of 9/11. They justified it by saying they did not want to shock the American people, that the pictures were too horrible, that we needed to move on. In like manner, they now say that the beheadings should not be shown, because they too are too shocking, too upsetting to our sensitivities. Others say they should not be shown because in showing them we risk becoming indifferent to such acts, losing our sense of shock and our will to resist.
This is all nonsense. We cannot wage an effective war unless we understand the nature of our enemy. If we do not grasp that the terrorists’ ranks are full of people who are there precisely because they are thrilled by the prospect of beheading human beings, we will fail to see the war through to its necessary conclusion. The beheadings are about them, not us. They show us very important things we need to know: What they are, what they want, what they will do if we do not stop them.
Two factoids from recent days should enhance our understanding. The first is a story about a man recently released from Guantanamo who showed up back in Afghanistan, working to kill Coalition soldiers. A fine triumph of legal nicety! The second has not yet been published, so far as I know, but it helps us understand a bit more about the terror network. It turns out that many of the hostages in Iraq are taken by “common criminals,” who then sell the hostages to the terrorists so that they can behead them. I suspect, for example, that the Italian women held by terrorists in Iraq fell victim to such a gang.
It is folly to think of the terrorists and their masters in the various capitals of the region as people merely trying to avenge injustice or settle old grievances. The only way sensible people can come to believe that is to censor the evidence–by taking the scenes of 9/11 and the beheading videos off the air, by filtering the utter barbarity of these people through the use of uncharged words that lose their emotional impact.
Don’t worry about our sensitivities. Show us–we need to see–so that we bring our full political and military might to bear and end this thing as quickly as possible.
Faster, confound it.
–Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen is Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.