The White House’s efforts to seem convincing have faltered from time to time. Yesterday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice requested that TV news and newspapers neither broadcast nor print al-Qaida statements because such material might contain “coded messages” to “sleeper” cells across the globe. Perhaps someone in the White House has watched The Manchurian Candidate once too often. (If you remember, a playing card—the Queen of Diamonds—triggers the brainwashed assassin in the movie to kill his politician father.) As a New York Times editorial says: “This White House effort is ill advised in the absence of clear evidence that coded messages are contained in the videotapes. Even if full statements were withheld from networks and newspapers, any bin Laden associate in the United States could easily pick them up from foreign broadcast outlets or webcasts.”
Moreover, the White House demand overlooks the obvious. Bin Laden’s speaks a highly classical Arabic, as an acquaintance who teaches at Harvard’s school of Near Eastern languages told me last night. The phrasing and allusions in Sunday’s call to arms were immensely impressive. The “coded message” contained in the video—along with the Che Guevara-like appearance, the Lawrence of Arabia setting, and the post-colonialist touches (the borrowing of Islamic, religious, and Western imagery; the use of Western technology for Islamic purposes, etc.)—is that Bin Laden is a figure of authority, not a lunatic, and that his jihad is serious. If you are a Muslim and deplore what al-Qaida has already done and threatens to do, there’s nothing coded about Bin Laden’s words.
It’s unfortunate, too, that the administration and the FBI yesterday indulged in some coded-message-playing of their own by unveiling a “Most Wanted Terrorists” list. As the Bureau helpfully tells visitors to its Web site, Bin Laden could be using one of his aliases: “Usama Bin Muhammad Bin Ladin, Shaykh Usama Bin Ladin, the Prince, the Emir, Abu Abdallah, Mujahid Shaykh, Hajj, the Director.” The leader of al-Qaida “SHOULD BE CONSIDERED ARMED AND DANGEROUS.” As if we didn’t know. And what’s with the “Most”? There, on the Bureau’s site, are the faces of 22 men, many of whom want nothing less than a clash of civilizations and have shown the lengths they will go to provoke just such a battle. Creating this list may satisfy America public opinion, yet it may also further the goal of these terrorists by illustrating one of al-Qaida’s rallying cries. Those searching for justification of their belief that this is a campaign pitting America against Islam need only click through to the FBI’s Web site to see that every most-wanted terrorist is a Muslim. Before wondering whether “coded messages” might be contained in a Bin Laden video, perhaps the administration should ask itself about its own “coded messages,” especially those that could prove hugely detrimental in the realm of global opinion.