Scott Atran is an anthropologist who studies the kids who keep Al Qaeda and its spinoffs going. They're young people like the ones who grew up to blow up trains in Madrid in 2004, carried out the slaughter on the London underground in 2005 and hoped to blast airliners out of the sky en route to the United States in 2006.
Atran has looked at whom they idolize, how they organize, what bonds them and what drives them. And he's reached an unconventional but, to me, convincing conclusion: what has inspired the "new wave" terrorists since 2001 is not so much the Qur'an as what Atran calls "jihadi cool." If you can discredit these kids' idols (most notably Osama bin Laden), give them new ones and reframe the way their families and friends see the United States and its allies, then you've got a good shot at killing the fad for terror and stopping the jihad altogether.
For Atran, a senior fellow at the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, this is pretty much Public Diplomacy 101. But he's found that the battle of ideas is not just hard to win in the field, it's a very tough slog at home. In Washington last year he was briefing White House staffers on his findings when a young woman who worked for Vice President Dick Cheney said in the sternest tough-guy voice she could muster, "Don't these young people realize that the decisions they make are their responsibility, and that if they choose violence against us, we're going to bomb them?"
Atran was dumbfounded. "Bomb them?" he asked. "In Madrid? In London?"
So when Atran went back to Washington to brief National Security Council and Homeland Security staff in January this year, he went armed—with comic books. He wanted to show that nothing cooked up by the Bush administration's warmongers and spinmeisters comes close to delivering the kind of positive messages you can find in a commercial action adventure series called "The 99."
(via Cabinet of Wonders)