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Reality Wars

Bin Laden has demonstrated a canny understanding of American media with one televisual coup after another

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In the ways that humanity's conflicts have been organized and transformed by technology, we can now identify four main phases. One: For several thousand years, armies of men fought each other face to face, hand to hand, with horses, swords and guns. Two: From 1914, as war was mechanized, men, horses, swords and guns were increasingly displaced by large-scale weaponry and transport; nation-states fought each other on an industrial basis. Three: From 1945 and the advent of the atom bomb, the mere threat of its use displaced the use of large mechanized armies; as the nation-state enjoyed a brief apotheosis in the form of two "superpowers," an uneasy peace called Cold War reigned.

And now, Four: From Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of overwhelming material power gives way to the force of sheer ingenuity, manifested as tactical surprise, elusiveness and seeming ubiquity. In this moment, the modern nation-state and the concept of the superpower find themselves teetering, since the perceptions on which their authority rests have been crucially undercut.

We're still too close to the latter event to have any idea where it will lead. But its implications are staggering in how they point toward a reversal in the age-old direction of human conflict. For millennia, victory went to the side with "more and better": more resources and men, better weapons and information, and so on. In the modern era, this trajectory has neatly paralleled our belief in progress and science (which, of course, has been a great friend of the modern warrior). The nation with the most advanced technology enjoys the decisive edge, because more and better guns and gear necessarily equal insuperable strategic superiority--right?

Well, no. That was yesterday, when the world labored under the forgivable misimpression that war, being basically concerned with destruction, was about the destruction of things. Now we know differently. A hirsute gent named bin Laden, and his cronies, have shown that war is actually about the destruction of realities, an enterprise in which arsenals and armies are largely passe.

The stunning attacks of Sept. 11, we're coming to realize, were not aimed primarily at institutions, people or real estate. And if you say they were "symbolic," you're only halfway there. Because their real effect wasn't so much the destruction of things, even symbolic things, as the use of that destruction to create the televised pictures the world saw on Sept. 11, pictures which will remain seared into billions of memories for years to come. These images, primed to go on doing their work with unblinking efficiency, are the real weapons. They announce, with chilling authority, "The reality you knew--the basic understanding you had of the world before Sept. 11--is gone. Now everything is up for grabs."

It was, of course, cunningly deliberate for the perpetrators to avoid identifying themselves after the attacks. Our world's pre-Sept. 11 reality will never return (a thought that none of us can yet fully grasp), but the greater reality that these terrorists apparently hope to bring down, the secular, mechanistic worldview developed and exported by the West since the Renaissance, will require a long procession of assaults, and for now the attackers' most effective tool is uncertainty. The more they can leave us unsure as to what comes next, where the enemy is or even who the enemy is, the less they actually have to do. Indeed, their ingeniously minimalist approach leaves us doing most of the work ourselves of tearing holes of doubt and anxiety into our remaining reality.

This is not the same as psychological warfare, which has clear-cut, limited goals and strategies much as conventional warfare does. In this new form of conflict, deft, relatively small-scale attacks metastasize into wholesale, cascading transformations of reality, effecting changes across the spectrum from the purely mental to the palpably concrete. Nobody travels by airplane as they did five weeks ago; one step into an airport, if you choose to go there, announces the difference. In fact, every nook and cranny of American life has felt the change of climate; even people "going on with life as usual," in a spirit of cheerful, sane defiance, measure their actions against the transformed reality.

Personally, I don't consider myself at all afraid. But I do turn on the television now, as soon as I get up, to see if any notable chunks of my reality have been atomized since the day before. Nor is the focus on television incidental. TV, the medium for Sept. 11's initial, ghastly, all-but-impossible images, more than any other force, negotiates and determines what we consider to be reality, collectively and individually. It also, alas, happens to be an area for which these terrorists have shown an affinity that's almost preternatural.

Sept. 11 was just the beginning of it, a beginning so spectacular that it begged to be considered an obscene stroke of luck on the part of the bad guys. By that measure, the terrorists' televisual coup of Oct. 7 was as significant as the earlier one, and equally astonishing for anyone who doesn't require pyrotechnics to be awed.

First, around 1 p.m., President Bush came on TV to announce that the U.S. and Britain had begun air strikes on targets in Afghanistan. His presentation was crisp, authoritative and to the point. But what he said wasn't as important as the fact that he was present as this event's Great Narrator, the one who, in explaining events we couldn't see, seemed to exercise a kind of rational control over them, fitting them into a new reality-fabric that reassuringly resembled the old one. The conflict's second phase seemed to belong to him.

Then, an hour or two later, his face still swimming in the ether, Bush is displaced, pushed off to the planet's margins, as it were, by another figure--Osama bin Laden. I practically fell off my chair. How could he be here, in my living room? But he is. He says his piece, by videotape from some mountain hideout, and as with Bush, only more so, what's important isn't what he says but the fact of his presence. He's the world's most wanted criminal, sitting in front of some godforsaken cave, and he's just trumped the President of the United States and is now talking to millions of people around the world.

I know there are rational explanations for how this happened, explanations that reduce bin Laden to the ranks of the merely super-clever. But I think we reduce ourselves when we refuse to allow such events their element of the uncanny, the fabulous, the metaphysical, just as I think we make a mistake when we put a tight box of prim censoriousness around our reactions to bin Laden. My own immediate, uncensored reaction to him on Oct. 7 was: This guy's a flippin' genius. It must take a combination of Merlin, John Dillinger and Andy Warhol to upstage the president on the world's airwaves just after he announces his big military action. If this is a crime, it's crime that vaults into the realm of conceptual art. Is there anything this bearded billionaire bandit can't do?

No doubt, bin Laden has achieved hero status among sectors of the Third World's disenfranchised, not only because he articulates their inchoate rage and resentment, but also because there seems to be something magical about his strategic dexterity. And indeed, compared to old-fashioned 20th-century warfare, his form of etheric jujitsu does smack of wizardry. Bush will spend millions of dollars and billions of man-hours to rain bombs on an impoverished peasantry half a world away. Bin Laden sends a five-dollar video to al-Jazeera and waltzes his way across America, popping up in living rooms from coast to coast, hiding out in the closets of countless nervous children.

In effect, this "war" pits Marshal Dillon against Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Kruger. The marshal has a badge and a belt full of deadly six-guns. Freddy can shape-shift at will, puncture the wall separating dream and reality, and somersault into even the most stolid of imaginations. Who said it would be a fair fight? (Iconically, bin Laden's masterstroke was appearing in a U.S. Army camouflage jacket, an extraordinary way of saying, "Look, I can take anything that's yours--airplanes, TV, information--and turn it against you. You are my camouflage").

Typically, none of the TV commentators on Oct. 7 gave any sign that they understood the unique brilliance of bin Laden's coup. But the Bush White House realized exactly what had happened. On Oct. 9, reportedly after a single conference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, all five of the nation's top TV news outlets--ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC--agreed not to broadcast any future bin Laden tapes unedited and, in effect, until getting government permission on when and how much they could show. This, of course, was bin Laden's second astonishing triumph of the week.

There was talk of the tapes containing dangerous rhetoric or even secret instructions to "sleeper" terrorists (as if these folks aren't connected to the Internet). One network executive explained the decision to surrender his own judgment to state control as "patriotic"--a word which in cases like this typically serves as camouflage for acts of mendacity. I saw no analysis on TV or in the major print outlets of this destruction of the illusion that American TV news operates independently of the government. Around the same time, the U.S. even tried to pressure the Qatar-based TV network al-Jazeera as to what it could show, which prompted one of its editors to recall in wonderment America's long-standing rhetoric regarding a "free press."

In the midst of all this, there was no acknowledgment of what I suggested above, that the content of bin Laden's video missives is basically irrelevant. What's at issue is their mere presence, which seems to give him a control over reality itself exceeding that of generals, experts and heads of state.

Bin Laden may or may not be a diabolical genius, but his personal qualities are also basically irrelevant here. As others have said, he could be eradicated tomorrow and his war--which is to say, the post-war form of war he has helped introduce--would go on unhindered. What's so hard to grasp is that this kind of conflict shows nation-states to be largely obsolescent. Its most significant factors are not anyone else's martial, economic or psychological strengths, but our own myriad vulnerabilities; and that it is prosecuted not so much by force as by intelligence, the steely application of a creative but essentially heartless calculation.

Vietnam was said to be the first television war. If so, this is the first camcorder, Internet, e-mail, computer-virus, anthrax-in-your-inbox, Nightmare on Elm Street war. We have not yet begun to figure out what that means, but one thing seems certain: The mostly dim, compromised or infantile forms of commentary we're being offered in the major news media will not be among our chief assets in trying to do so. EndBlock

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