Have you noticed? These days we're all sending messages to each other, usually rather oblique ones. People do; countries do. Are these actually messages? If so, what happens to them?
"Messages" are especially big in accounts of other countries' policies and strategies. A recent L.A. Times story proclaims that Taliban suicide bombers killed many people in Kabul to "send a message" that no matter how effective our offensives may be, and wherever they may be, the Taliban control the country anyway. "Pulling off the attack in central Kabul . . . was designed to send a message that the Taliban are not intimidated by the stepped-up military offensive in the southern city of Marjah . . . " No word on whether the message was returned, replied to, understood, filed away, or what.
This cliche' of the "message" is disquieting. It hints at great mastery on the part of our policy makers but, I think, shows just the opposite.
In reality, the message is often the deed itself. The Taliban are doing this, almost obviously, because it furthers their goal. The more Westerners they kill, the more likely a NATO withdrawal will be. No message, really. It is simply itself. Sometimes, Freud said, a cigar is just a cigar -- and sometimes a battle is just another battle.
The reason we call it a message is to satisfy ourselves. We like messages; we like decoding them. Not that the Taliban never send messages, or that we're smarter or more devious than they are, but we always seem to see a message. Their trying to communicate with us somehow satisfies our sense of how the world works.
And especially it satisfies the decoders, the analysts, the think-tankers, the State Department paper writers and shufflers, the memo masters at the Pentagon, the desk-bound Intel bureaucrats, and of course the cliche' spouters in the media. What they lack in understanding, they gain in self-importance. Some in these outfits may well be first-rate scholars, but, sadly, most are not.
We employ hordes of these people, of varying capacity, and we do so, once again, because their sort of thinking is recognizable and familiar to us. We know them, we're comfortable with them, and they give us the illusion of doing something.
The ones who kill civilians with suicide-bombers in order to gain their strategic ends remain distasteful and remote, and must be made more familiar by seeming "to send a message."
So much for Know Thine Enemy.
But despite our regrettable myopia, or self-centeredness, or even obtuseness, I can't help but see something heartening in our trying to find messages. It says to me that words and signals are our bias, that thinking and talking remain our value far more than killing; that discussion is what we favor over annihilation; and that somehow, naively or not, we like to think that compromise with fanatic enemies is ultimately attainable. This may prove untrue, but it's still a belief worth noting and honoring.