In those harrowing first days and weeks after the 9/11 atrocity, Americans were traumatized – but also bewildered. What vicious hatred was this? Who was this new and terrifying enemy? What could possibly motivate people to sacrifice their lives for the honor of killing innocent American civilians – and cause thousands of others to cheer mass murder?
Naturally, some Americans couldn’t resist the temptation to ride their own hobbyhorses. We had it coming, said the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, for tolerating abortion and gay unions. (Falwell later apologized.) On the left, a veritable chorus of “blame the victim” analysis explained that America’s crimes had driven our enemies to terrorism. The Nation magazine declared that America was “the world’s leading rogue state.”
Noam Chomsky offered his own twist, calling the U.S. the world’s chief “terrorist state.” Michael Moore, who held a seat of honor at the Democratic National Convention in 2000, offered that we shouldn’t be surprised by the attack because “we have orphaned so many children … with our taxpayer-funded terrorism.”
The rest of us wondered how Muslims could be so fired with hatred of Americans considering that the last three wars we had fought had been on behalf of suffering Muslims: in Kuwait, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The usual suspects blamed Muslim hatred of the U.S. on our support for Israel (though that issue ranked below “infidel” troops on Saudi soil on bin Laden’s list of grievances). The rest of us have undertaken, during the past decade, a crash course in Islam, Islamism, the history of the Levant, al-Qaida, the clash of civilizations, and jihad. No sooner had we defeated communism than the scourge of Islamism seemed to reach straight out of the Middle Ages – a death cult promising its killers 70 virgins in paradise, and warning the faithful that only the strictest adherence to the Quran would bring salvation.
Osama bin Laden, with his talk of the Caliphate and regaining Spain for the ummah, seemed a figure of the ninth century himself – an image carefully cultivated with stories of living in caves surviving on goat’s milk.
But as the years have passed, it has become less and less clear that Islamism is just a throwback, or that the zealots who fantasize about killing ever larger numbers of Americans are acting on their interpretation of ancient dogmas. The ninth century does not coexist with the 21st.
A camera panned the room where Osama bin Laden died – a room in a multi-level mansion in the suburbs of Islamabad, not a cave in a hillside near the border – and lit upon the quotidian paraphernalia of his life. On a shelf lay a jar of Vaseline, bottles of what looked like vitamins, and a prescription box that seemed to be for a nasal spray. On the floor lay a vacuum cleaner. Next door were the computers.
It’s no revelation, of course, that bin Laden was conversant with modern technology. But just as bin Laden’s home held modern products, his mind held modern prejudices. By allowing ourselves to be too distracted by the turbans and the pietistic language, we may have missed that – and in the process overestimated the role of Islam in Islamism.
In 2007, in his longest videotaped message to the world, bin Laden mouthed some of the familiar invocations of “Allah, the most high,” but much of his message to the American people could have come straight from the pages of the Nation. He decried global warming, the “greed of major corporations and their representatives,” “globalization,” and “capitalism.” Here’s his explanation of the war in Vietnam:
“In the Vietnam War, the leaders of the White House claimed at the time that it was a necessary and crucial war, and during it, Rumsfeld and his aides murdered 2 million villagers. And when Kennedy took over the presidency and deviated from the general line of policy drawn up for the White House and wanted to stop this unjust war, that angered the owners of the major corporations who were benefiting from its continuation. And so Kennedy was killed … those corporations were the primary beneficiary from his killing.”
Oliver Stone couldn’t have said it better.
Yes, the late Osama bin Laden was a religious fanatic. But if religious zeal were his only motivation, he might have turned his hatred toward China – a consistent persecutor of Muslims (and others) or India (which some Islamists have attacked – though without justification). But bin Laden’s garrulous videos reveal someone who had drunk deeply from the well of hatred for America that nourishes everyone from Hugo Chavez to Vladimir Putin. It’s a well with springs that originate right here.