Center for Strategic Communication

by Kristin Fleischer

In his book Fighting the War of Ideas like Real War: Messages to Defeat the Terrorists, J. Michael Waller argues that the United States already has a “secret weapon worse than death,” and it is cheap, readily available and easy to deploy. That weapon is ridicule.

Although the suggestion that ridicule and satire are legitimate tools of strategic communication might receive some – dare I say it – ridicule, Waller’s argument is a good one. Ridicule and satire have a long history in warfare, and they have been deployed both offensively and defensively. In the U.S., ridicule was used in the Revolutionary War, both to mock the British troops and to raise the morale of the American fighters. In WWII, domestic use of ridicule targeted Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito. In a more contemporary example, Waller cites Team America: World Police as an example of effective parody of Islamic terrorists and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il.  While a movie that features graphic sex between puppets might not have universal appeal, Waller is correct in pointing out that prior to the movie, American audiences would likely not consider the Korean dictator someone to laugh at.

Nor is humiliation merely a Western conception. In pre-Islamic society in the Middle East, law breakers were often mutilated – either whipped or dismembered – as much for purposes of humiliation as pain. They became living symbols of what befell criminals in the community. Ridicule was also used as a weapon of war in both pre-Islamic and early Islamic society and poets were often assassinated because of their power to create and spread ridicule. Today, Waller argues, “many extremists equate ridicule with pain or death.” Bin Laden himself has been quoted as saying he fears humiliation more than death. Well known strategic advice says ‘know your enemy.’ If your enemy fears humiliation over death – which would serve to make him a martyr – then the use of ridicule seems highly appropriate:

In nearly every aspect of society and across culture and time, ridicule works. Ridicule leverages the emotions and simplifies the complicated and takes on the powerful, in politics, business, law, entertainment, the media, literature, culture, sports and romance. Ridicule can tear down faster than the other side can rebuild. It can smash a theoretical or intellectual construct (p. 95).

Jarret Brachman makes a similar argument:

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about jihadis in my career it’s this: they are our secret weapon in the fight against jihadis… they are more than happy to point us in the directions of their weaknesses.

Brachman has coined the term ‘jihobbyists’ to refer to a growing number of armchair terrorists, who cheer on extremism from the web. The term, and the attitude that accompany it, have ‘stirred the pot’ in a most revealing way: “What you find by doing this is that the jihadis can’t not respond. And what they respond to is what they are most sensitive about.” And as Brachman points out, what really gets under the skin of these jihbbyists is not an insult to their ideology or religious beliefs, but the suggestion they still live in their mother’s basement. After all, it is very difficult to maintain a serious and terrifying self image when you get compared to this guy.

Waller’s suggestions regarding the strategic use of ridicule are an expansion of arguments he and others have made about the importance of language use in ‘the war of ideas.’ In ‘buying into’ terrorist’s language – especially by using terms such as jihad and mujahidin – Waller argues that the U.S. and its allies, “ceased fighting on our terms and placed our ideas at the enemy’s disposal” (p. 54). If this is a war of ideas, and words are weapons, then we need to be using the right ammunition, so to speak. More than that:

Being a declared adversary – even enemy – of the United States is a status symbol among the world’s terrorists, dictators, and political extremists. By taking that enemy too seriously, by hyping it up as a threat, the United States is unintentionally credentializing a heretofore insignificant individual or group, and giving it the stature it needs to rise above its own society, establish itself, attract recruits, and gain influence. Ridicule can cut the enemy down to size (p. 104).

According Waller (p. 109), ridicule is vital because:

  • It sticks;
  • The target can’t refute it;
  • It is almost impossible to repress;
  • It spreads on its own and multiplies with each re-telling;
  • It boosts morale at home;
  • Our enemy shows far greater intolerance to ridicule than we;
  • Ridicule divides the enemy, damages its morale, and makes it less attractive to supporters and prospective recruits; and
  • The ridicule-armed warrior need not fix a physical sight on the target. Ridicule will find its own way to the targeted individual. To the enemy, being ridiculed means losing respect. It means losing influence. It means losing followers and repelling potential new backers

While Al Qaeda and its ideological offshoots are certainly not insignificant, one recent event that would seem to support Waller’s case and would have been an excellent opportunity to ‘deploy’ ridicule is that of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, commonly known as the ‘underwear bomber.’ Although nothing these days drives the current 24-hour news cycle like the mention of terrorist activity, the facts are that the would-be bomber of the Christmas day flight quite literally sewed explosives into his underwear… and then couldn’t ‘get it off.’

Also, given Waller’s arguments, the appropriate response to Bin Laden’s (alleged) praise for the attack – nearly a month after the fact when intelligence analysis suggested that the video was an example of Al Qaeda struggling to maintain relevance – came not from major media outlets, but from The Daily Show. Snore indeed.  Another, more general example of ridicule that is aimed at the idea of the suicide bomber is a ventriloquist routine by comedian Jeff Dunham, titled Achmed the Dead Terrorist, an example Waller points to in his own blog.

This is not to suggest that the threat of terrorism is non-existent or a call to underestimate Al Qaeda’s ideological appeal or material capabilities, and Waller is quick to point out (correctly) that ridicule can be as dangerous as any kinetic weapon when improperly deployed. In the nine years since September 11, however, far more people in the United States have died of heart failure, diabetes, or car accidents than terrorist attacks. Given this, pointing out that Americans statistically have more to fear from a cheeseburger than a ‘guy in a cave’ is not only true, it’s good strategy.