When a nemesis such as Osama bin Laden speaks, one would expect his words to be of great interest. But this is apparently not the case. The latest audiotape of a voice purporting to be bin Laden’s prompted discussion principally of three issues: (1) Was it really him? (2) Why wasn’t it a videotape? (3) Where is he?
There was virtually no analysis of what the voice said. Could it be that bin Laden’s words contradict the official version of why al-Qaeda struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon? Those attacks were monstrous crimes against innocent people. Thus the search for an explanation is not an exercise in exoneration — there can be no exoneration. It’s an exercise in comprehension so that such crimes can be averted in the future. It is in that spirit that bin Laden’s words should be scrutinized.
The official version of 9/11 is that Muslim radicals attacked America because they hate our way of life: freedom, democracy, secular affluence. President Bush has said this repeatedly. There were many indications at the time that this was not accurate. Bin Laden’s own recruiting tapes, which were aired post-9/11, never showed him denouncing the American way of life. Rather, they routinely stuck to three grievances: the embargo against Iraq, the stationing of American troops on Islamic holy ground in Saudi Arabia, and the ill treatment of Palestinians by America’s ally Israel.
Despite this, the U.S. official position was that to acknowledge that bin Laden was motivated by anything other than blind hatred was to make excuses for him. That was a preposterous, even demagogic response to the efforts to understand Muslim anti-Americanism.
But it served a purpose: it averted a candid evaluation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. That response continues to this day. It can be seen in the refusal to discuss or even acknowledge what bin Laden said in his latest tape (and the one before that). As President Bush reacted, “Whoever put this tape out has put the world on notice yet again that we’re at war.”
But that is precisely what it does not do.
It is worthwhile to note that in the new tape, bin Laden, again, nowhere condemns the American people for their way of life. Rather, “the unjust government of the United States” is singled out for criticism. The governments of U.S. allies are similarly condemned.
Moreover, as bin Laden sees it, his past acts and threats of future acts are not unprovoked. They are responses to what he regards as acts of violence committed by the U.S. and Israeli governments: “[what] Bush…did by murdering our children in Iraq and what Israel, the ally of America, did in bombing houses of the elderly, women, and children in Palestine, using American planes.” He goes on: “Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning, and widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time that we get even. You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you bomb… The road to safety starts with stopping aggression.” His message is clear: if the U.S. government and Israeli governments stop their use of violence, so would his devotees. Maybe he is not to be believed. But why isn’t this message worthy of discussion?
Is U.S. policy so sacrosanct that it may not be questioned? Maybe it’s time we looked at it the way the people on the receiving end see it.
Americans do not like to hear it, but their government has behaved like an imperial power in the Middle East for more than 50 years. This has caused untold misery to innocent people, generated violent resentment, and spawned terrorism, the historical price of empire. In more ways than one, bin Laden is another in a series of Frankenstein’s monsters created by U.S. foreign-policy makers.
No, the American people did not deserve what happened on 9/11. But they neither did they deserve being put in harm’s way by their government’s policies. It’s time we returned to the foreign policy of our Founders: minding our own business.
Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation in Fairfax, Va., and editor of Ideas on Liberty magazine and author of“‘Ancient History’: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East since World War II and the Folly of Intervention.”.