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Sam Smith: The Bin Laden Tape


By Editor Sam Smith

The new bin Laden tape (click for transcript) is by far the most interesting, and perhaps most important, of the numerous dicta released from that quarter. Gone are the cosmic statements, replaced instead by a somewhat rambling account of why bin Laden did what he did and how the U.S. can stop him from doing it again, interspersed with almost satirical comments about the Bushes, pere and fils.

How one reacts to this document depends on how far one has bought into the masochistic machismo of the war on terror AKA a war on a substantial part of the Islamic world. If one believes the myth that bin Laden controls the anger and hostility of the Islamic world then the tape is just more of the same, especially aggravating for coming so close to the election.

If, on the other hand, one believes that bin Laden is more a manifestation than the manufacturer of Muslim hostility towards the West, then the tape is useful and well worth studying. Someone skilled at mediation rather than firebombing, for example, might find in the changed language some ideas for how we might move to deescalate our de facto war against Islam.

From the start, Bin Laden has been a confusing character. For example, although he alleged to “hate us and our freedoms,” he was perfectly willing to put up with them when we were helping the Taliban. Although he appears now to be a sort of Muslim cowboy riding out of distant hills, he is, in fact, a sophisticate who knows enough about engineering to be rightfully astounded by how easily the World Trade Center fell down.

To make matters even more complicated, while his techniques have been extreme, some of his underlying demands have not been. Early on, it was clear that three things bothered him: the status of Palestine, the American presence in Saudi Arabia, and the Iraqi sanctions. In these concerns he had plenty of company from rational people.

It was the failure to deal with such concerns that created the fertile soil for bin Laden and his operations. If we continue to ignore them, the fertile soil will remain, and if bin Laden is not there to take advantage of it, then someone else will.

If we wish to move towards sanity and away from suicidal dreams of empire, then examining this tape seriously and without the hubris of imperial ambition is a useful endeavor. For example, when bin Laden says, “Each state that doesn’t mess with our security has automatically secured their security” what does he really mean? To a skilled negotiator this combined threat and promise might seem at least to open the window a bit.

The dilemma we face is that while the actions of bin Laden were drastically wrong, the policies that enraged and transformed him were terribly wrong as well. To admit that we bear some responsibility is unthinkable to those who equate obstinacy with virility, but for those who wish to turn away from the current madness then bin Laden’s step back from unmediated jihad is worth examining with care rather than with spin.



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