Jewish World Review Dec. 14, 2001/ 29 Kislev 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Evil in all its horror, and all on videotape -- JAY LENO or David Letterman he ain't, but Osama bin Laden won yesterday's ratings with the playing of that eagerly awaited videotape.

The world watched, drawn by the fascination of looking upon the face of pure evil, as the Evil One explained to his video interlocutor how his monstrous assault on human decency "benefited Islam greatly."

"I was the most optimistic of them all," he said, having reckoned that burning jet fuel would "melt the iron structure" of the World Trade Center towers, and bring down the top floors. What he hadn't reckoned was that the weight of the top floors would inflict such a crushing burden that everything would fall to the street.

The horrific tone of the tape gave the Bush administration added pause in deciding whether to release the tapes to the networks. The president himself is said to have hesitated, despite the persuasive evidentiary power of the video, lest it inflict new pain on the family and friends of those killed on September 11 - indeed, new pain on everyone anywhere in the world with a decent heart and a kind soul.

This was the smoking gun that will convince everyone with a normal imagination. That probably excludes the infamous Arab street, with its insatiable appetite for fantastical tales of the Arabian nights. Late yesterday in Cairo, the father of Mohamed Atta, the man bin Laden identified as the hijacker-in-chief, dismissed the tape as a fraud. He had not watched the tape, but said, "All this is a forgery, a fabrication."

But the most cynical revelation was bin Laden's assertion, delivered with a wicked cackle, that not all the hijackers knew the missions were meant to be one-way flights to paradise. Some of them thought they were merely hijacking airliners to take them to ... well, who knows. Since they took training only to fly the planes, learning neither to take off nor land, it's not clear how they expected to get back to the ground.

This should be the lesson for any remaining al Qaeda suicide pilots in waiting: if bin Laden will lie about how to hijack an airplane, he'll lie about the 72 virgins, too.

The tapes will have their greatest effect in the West, in whatever remaining pockets there may be of skeptics who think bin Laden and his criminal syndicate had nothing to do with September 11, that it was just a confluence of coincidence. "This video will open a lot of eyes," Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, predicted after getting an advance look at the tape. "The world will see that you are dealing with a level of pathology that is very, very twisted and sick."

Seeing, as the old saw goes, is believing, and in the post-literate age the visual is more persuasive than it used to be. "There's something about the combination of sight and sound that makes the information seem more real," says Robert Lichter, president of the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a Los Angeles psychologist who writes frequently on media psychology, says the revelation of the weirdly sick character of Osama bin Laden is similar in method to insights into Bill Clinton gained through the tape of his testimony to a federal grand jury, giving Americans their first glimpse of the former president's skill in feinting, dodging and parrying.

"I think it was his crucifixion, because you saw what he was doing," says Dr. Fischoff. "It's one thing to hear about Slick Willie; it's quite another to see him in operation."

When an amateur photographer, armed with a $300 video camera, captured on tape the beating of Rodney King by the Los Angeles cops, the result was a riot. The tape transformed what might have been a minor police-brutality complaint into a media phenomenon that reverberates still. "We've spent millions of dollars trying to prove [police brutality] exists," says one of the King lawyers, "and here we've captured it on tape."

But videotape, like sex and lies, can deceive, and no tape can seal all arguments. Many of his friends were satisfied with Bill Clinton's tortured argument about what the meaning of "is" is, and his fanciful definition of what sex is, and the Rodney King tape, horrific as it was, was open to interpretation. Says Stuart Fischoff: "People will interpret things in ways that are consistent with what they want to believe."

But the cold evil of Osama bin Laden shines through on the tape, as stark and chilling as the lights on a bloody wreck on the highway, and all but the farthest-gone fanatics will see him for what he is. There's no ambiguity in this tape.

To some, bin Laden might have become something of a victim himself, as he is pursued from cave to cave by the might of American will and technology. But not now. Nothing about this monster tempers his evil, or invites Christian mercy.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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