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7.12.02

Read Bin Laden's Letter

My friends in the peace movement who dissent from this country's response to the Sept. 11 attacks have another take on what must be done to free us from terrorism and restore security. Look, they say, at what America is doing to make people fly planes into buildings. They cite our "miserly" $6 billion foreign aid budget to help the world's poor vs. more than $300 billion "for the power to kill." Rather than crusade against wickedness, America should halt the arms trade, lift sanctions against Iraq and curb the CIA, they argue. Correct, they demand, the 50-year imbalance in the U.S. stance in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("the most important source of hatred for the U.S. throughout the Muslim world"). Embrace the United Nations, the Kyoto agreement on global warming, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Law of the Seas agreement and an international war-crimes court. To quote one author, "Until we take responsibility to try to lift up that which is good in us and cast out that which is bad, the scourge of terrorism will continue to torment us."

Sorry, but I don't think that's going to quite cut it with al Qaeda.

We are, I do believe, regarded by Osama as beyond the pale.


This highlights the problem with thinking of the war on terror as a fight against al-Qaida. Al-Qaida is a (relatively) small coordinating group, which links angry fundamentalists and lends them a catchy brand name (a la the Dread Pirate Roberts). Assuming we can take Osama's words at face value, that they're not propagandistic rhetoric or a high opening bid, they reflect the feelings of Osama and his close cohorts. They don't necessarily reflect the larger phenomenon of Islamic discontent that provides support and a friendly environment for al-Qaida and the less well known groups it works with. The sins of the West cited by the anti-war movement are part of what makes third-world Muslims turn to fundamentalism and al-Qaida for answers. Colbert King may be right that Osama and other leaders have a non-negotiable hatred of the West and won't be satisfied with anything less than a completion of the Holocaust. But what Osama thinks would be much less relevant to world affairs if millions of desperate people weren't looking to him for answers.

The anti-war movement makes the opposite mistake -- assuming that since some poor Palestinians hate the West because the Israeli Defense Force flattened their houses with an American bulldozer, then Osama's personal grievances are a list of legitimate complaints that the West can simply address. I'll admit to having been in this camp, as I wrote a commentary shortly after September 11 arguing that American foreign policy was the root of Osama's Islamist anti-Americanism. My point there should be revised to reflect that fact that American foreign policy is an important, not the only, factor in making a radical movement like Islamism appealing to third-world Muslims (though without saying that "they hate our freedom" is part of it). And that Osama is capitalizing on this, without saying that he is just like the "Arab street" that supports him.

Both schools of thought on Islamic anti-Americanism -- the "they hate us for what we did to them" and the "it's irrational hatred that we can't negotiate with" positions -- have elements of truth. But they both stumble over the assumption that Islamic terrorism is a unified phenomenon, rather than a process made up of diverse elements.

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