Monday, Dec. 17, 42 A.B.

Looking Down The Barrel Of A Smoking Gun

On Thursday the Bush administration released a videotape in which Osama bin Laden apparently admits his intimate involvement with the Sept. 11 attacks.

Date stamped Nov. 9, the tape seems to reveal that bin Laden knew about the attacks 4 days before they occurred, that the damage they did exceeded his most optimistic calculations, that he and his followers were overjoyed by that damage, and that some of the hijackers who took part in the attacks were kept in the dark about what exactly they were a part of.

Many Americans have called the tape a "smoking gun" which indisputably links a chuckling, exultant bin Laden to the cold-blooded murder of more than 3000 Americans.

Many in the Arab world, however, seem to believe that the tape is a forgery - nothing more than crude "Made in America" propaganda.

"It is preposterous for anybody to think that this tape is doctored," Bush declared  after doubts about the tape were expressed.  "That's just a feeble excuse to provide weak support for an incredibly evil man."

It would appear that there's a great difference of opinion about the nature and significance of this tape.

Experience has taught me that such differences of opinion often reveal at least as much about the people who hold them as they reveal about whatever subject the opinions may deal with.  This seems especially true when these opinions seem to break along national, ethnic, racial, gender, religious, age, or cultural lines.

What do the differences of opinion about this subject seem to reveal most clearly?

That people often believe what they want or have been conditioned to believe and will warp the evidence to fit whatever strongly held preconceptions they bring to it?

So it seems.

The news reporting and commentary I've seen has pretty much echoed Bush's opinion.  The prevailing attitude seems to have been summed up by the title the Columbus Dispatch gave its lead editorial on Saturday:  "Evil on record: Bin Laden tape is a monster's testament."

Any disagreement with this assessment seems to be immediately slapped down rather than analyzed more deeply.  The fact that this "preposterous" disagreement raises certain questions which might teach us something significant about our common human psychology even if - no, especially if it is in fact preposterous apparently eludes most of the commentators I've encountered.

Among the most important questions situations like this raise in my mind is  "How can we reduce the chances that our own beliefs aren't in fact the ones which are preposterous?"

The answer seems to require us to examine our beliefs carefully - and the more natural, pleasurable, or prevalent a given belief is, the more closely we need to examine it.

Applying this rule of thumb to the current situation and my thoughts about it, I am moved to ask "What do I really know about this tape?"

----- I know that I do not understand the language spoken on it.  They tell me it is Arabic.  Whatever it is, it may as well be gibberish to me.  If it actually means anything at all, I am utterly dependent on others to tell me what.  Any opinion based on these unknown others is only as reliable as they are, and since they're unknown, that reliability is necessarily rather hard to gauge.  If someone really expects or encourages me to hate, despise, and even sanction the killing of a man based on this sort of thing, they're abusing my intellect.

----- I know that the Bush administration has provided me with an English transcript of the tape which it says was prepared by several language experts.  I appreciate that, but...  the Bush administration clearly has a vested interest in this matter.  Regardless of the issue at hand or the people involved, we can never accept anyone's version of events at face value when they stand to benefit from getting others to accept that version.  Haughtily acting as if their view is Absolute Truth beyond reproach is ugly behavior when it occurs in popes and poor parents; it is even uglier when it appears in democratically elected leaders who ought to know better.

----- According to an AP story written by Nadia Abou el-Magd and published in my newspaper on Saturday, "Because the quality of the audio was so poor, many Arabs listening to the tape could not follow what bin Laden was saying."  If I was a member of a jury trying to decide a murder case, could I in good conscience vote to convict someone on the basis of a tape this poor?  Could you?  What does it say about people who could?

----- My newspaper printed a transcript of the tape on Friday.  In a preface, the editors say this: "Because of the quality of the original tape, it is NOT a verbatim transcript of every word spoken during the meeting but it does convey the messages and information flow."  Besides lending credence to the claim put forth by the AP story cited above, this raises a very big question: If the quality of the tape really is as poor as my newspaper indicates, how can the editors be so sure what they've printed does, in fact, "convey the messages and information flow"?

-----  Because it's easy to overlook or forget this note in the preface as one reads the transcript, it seems an unfair, even deceptive way of reporting this story.  As with televised "re-creations" of an event, the impact of the transcript form seems to exceed the impact merited by the bare facts alone.  The harsh editorial based on this transcript which the editors ran the next day only compounds the problem - and suggests that the editors are more in tune with their own prejudices than with the reality reported elsewhere in their own publication.

----- In reading this transcript, I am struck by how Osama's most incriminating comments seem to be free-standing interjections that cannot be predicted from what comes immediately before them and do not inspire much follow-up commentary.  The flow of the conversation doesn't seem natural to me.  There are many possible explanations for this, but if my perceptions are accurate or shared by others, it's rather easy to see why some people might conclude that the tape was doctored - especially if the alternative required them to revise any of their deeply held beliefs.

Assuming that the tape hasn't been doctored and that the transcript is in fact reasonably accurate, many questions come to mind which I haven't heard raised or answered by people or reporters as they rush to condemn Osama rather than attempt to reach that level of understanding which is a prerequisite for any just condemnation.

Among those questions:

-----  Where did this tape come from?  Who made it?  Why?  How did it end up in American hands?  If it really isn't a fabrication, why aren't these questions being asked much, let alone answered?

----- If the tape had shown Osama denying all knowledge of the attacks, would the Bush administration have accepted that as proof of his innocence?  If not, why should what Osama says on this tape be accepted as absolute proof of his guilt?  It's possible that Osama is merely acting like a big blowhard, taking credit for things he didn't do and knowledge he didn't have merely to impress people.  Had the tape been made before the attacks, it would be far more incriminating.  If it contained information only the plotters and perpetrators could have known, it would be far more incriminating as well - but everything Osama says seems to have been reported in the press well before this tape was made in November.  Recent investigations have raised major doubts about Albert De Salvo really being the Boston Strangler despite his confession.  How can we be sure Osama isn't confessing to things he didn't do for reasons we can only guess at?  It seems certain that Osama knew that he was being taped as he spoke.  Why did he allow this if confessing didn't serve his purposes rather than those of his enemies?

Finally, there's this....

Many Americans from President Bush on down have now condemned Osama's performance on this tape as the epitome of pure evil.  In their view, anyone who can plan, orchestrate, and exalt over the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians is sub-human, beyond understanding, and deserving of nothing but hatred, death, and the harshest of divine judgments.

It remains terribly hard for me to square this with the other attitudes and behaviors expressed by presidents and common citizens over the course of my lifetime.

I can recall a time when it was considered un-American to even question the morality of napalming civilians in Vietnam.

I can recall the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and how numerous Americans angrily ridiculed anyone who thought that tens of thousands of Japanese civilians weren't getting exactly what they deserved when The Bomb was dropped on them.

 For decades, the United States to threatened to incinerate cities around the world if attacked by the governments of Russia or China.  Many Americans have made careers out of planning the best way to incinerate those cities, and far from calling them evil, people like President Bush have signed their paychecks and cheered them on.  At times, senior officials of the U.S. government have actually contemplated launching unprovoked nuclear first strikes in the belief that a few hundred million foreign deaths was a small price to pay to achieve the elimination of Communist (or whatever other lofty goals they may have had in mind).  Many of these officials had medals heaped upon them - not hatred.

In recent times, I've heard ordinary Americans call for the nuking of cities such as Teheran and Baghdad and Kabul while few of those within earshot have blinked, let alone stood up and denounced such calls as evil.

Osama bin Laden may indeed be a cold-blooded killer in both practice and theory, but he's not the only one or the worst one and it would be a very serious mistake to think that he is.

Given American silence and inaction in the face of far worse evils than the Sept. 11 attacks (such as those which have been committed in Cambodia and Rwanda), it is hard for me to see the current American outrage over Osama as amounting to much more than a morally perverse, childish self-centeredness.

Given the long-standing American willingness to annihilate masses of foreigners without qualms or regrets, it is hard for me to witness the current American outrage and still keep my lunch down....

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(©Now by DJ Birtcher even though some might believe
doing so constitutes a Crime Against Humility)