To the workers, peasants and soldiers of a war-weary Russia in 1917, Lenin promised “peace, land and bread.” To Germans of the Great Depression, Hitler promised an end to war reparations and the overturning of the injustices of Versailles.
Now, Osama bin Laden, with his remarkable videotape on the eve of the U.S. election, seeks to embed his cause – overthrow of the regimes of the Arab world, expulsion of the Americans and the re-establishment of an Islamic caliphate – with the causes of Arab nationalism and independence.
He is also attempting a transformation of himself – a la Ben Bella, Kenyatta, and Mandela – from terrorist and guerrilla into elder statesman.
Asserting authorship of 9/11, for which he may have been only the financier, Osama claims the idea of bringing down the towers of the World Trade Center came to him in a vision, as retribution, as he watched Israel, with the aid of the U.S. 6th Fleet, destroy the towers of Beirut during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Osama is fabricating here an ex post facto justification for mass murder. But, more than that, by invoking the causes of the Lebanese and Palestinians, by altering his dress and demeanor, he is trying to redefine himself as no longer an Islamist terrorist, but a visionary, the leader of a great and historic cause.
That he is lying, that there is nothing in his personal history to suggest he came upon the idea of dropping the World Trade Center towers in 1982, is irrelevant. For, to Osama, the truth is irrelevant. After all, Lenin never intended to give the Russian people land or peace, and Hitler’s agenda was somewhat broader than he let on to President Hindenburg in 1933.
But Osama’s fabrications serve his purposes, one of which is to drive wedges between Arab peoples and their rulers, and Western peoples and their rulers.
Taking a page out of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, bin Laden suggests that the seven minutes during which President Bush sat listening to the reading of My Pet Goat after he learned the second tower had been hit enabled Al Qaeda to succeed.
Such mockery and insult is designed to rally an impatient and impotent “Arab Street,” and convert this conflict in Arab eyes into a great climactic struggle, with Bush as leader of the Crusaders and bin Laden as a taunting Saladin. By attacking Bush personally, bin Laden puts himself on a plane with the leader of the world’s greatest power.
He goes on to attack the “sons of kings and presidents” who rule in the Arab world as arrogant and greedy collaborators and moral kinsmen of the Bush dynasty, and writes directly to Americans:
”Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your hands. Each state that doesn’t mess with our security has automatically secured their security.” If you wish to be as safe as Sweden, bin Laden is saying, all you need do is act like Sweden and end your interventions in our Middle East.
What bin Laden is saying here is in conscious echo of what many have said: The terrorists of 9/11 were over here because we were over there. We are not hated for our principles. We are hated for our policies. The neo-imperial presence of U.S. troops on Arab soil, our support of Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinian people, our backing of regimes in the Arab world that deny their people freedom and rights we champion before the world – this is why we are hated; this is why we were attacked.
So says Osama bin Laden.
His grand vision, of course, is not at all about freedom as we know it. It is about the overthrow of existing Arab regimes and resurrection of a caliphate where militant Islam – i.e., universal submission to the will of Allah – is the established faith of the superpower destined to rule the world.
The problem with Osama’s message is the messenger, a man complicit in the murder of 3,000 innocents. He can never escape it. It is as though we were given a moderate message against the injustices of Waco and Ruby Ridge from Timothy McVeigh, after Oklahoma City.
Osama’s moderate words, his appearance – the robes and turban, with no AK-47 – suggest he is also making his case to history. Should his end come at America’s hands, he wishes to be remembered as one who had to resort to extreme methods to rectify extreme injustices, a man who died fighting in a great and noble cause.
Unfortunately, that is probably how he will be remembered by hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims. And we should not cease to ask ourselves why.