I teach a class on English-American culture at Mokwon University. I wrote the textbook, I chose the topics, I designed the curriculum – this class is as much mine as any class can be. What’s interesting is that, even with all this design and predetermination, I learn something new almost every lecture. Today, my students taught me something about Osama bin Laden.
I don’t believe in good or evil, particularly as applied to large groups of people. When a colleague explains that such and such happened because (insert ethnic/religious/racial group X) is so wonderful, I tend to mentally file his analysis under the “bullshit” header. Similarly, when a friend explains something as complex as foreign policy as evil, I smile and nod and silently lose a little respect for said friend’s intellectual rigor.
These “analysis” are insulting in their simplicity. Those who subscribe to such views betray a low and dangerous desire to pretend the world is populated by comic book heroes and villains. They show a complete ignorance of the fact that normal, decent human beings can and will morally justify anything. Worst of all, these righteous men and women of clear judgments and strong morals make understanding the enemy an impossibility from the very outset.
Given my feelings on moral certainty, I’ve been trying to encourage my students to develop sophisticated opinions of both the “good” and “bad” figures in Anglo-American history. I let Cecil Rhodes justify the subjugation of “lesser races” in his own words. I asked the students to consider blanket hatred for white people from the standpoint of a Nation of Islam member. I encouraged them to feel the justifiable terror Senator Joseph McCarthy and his followers had for the Soviet Union.
Today, I asked them to understand the motivations of panic stricken, post 9-11 Americans who, like me, cheered when special forces shot up that secret compound in Abbottabad. But I couldn’t stop there without betraying my own principals. I had to ask them to also understand the man who caused all that panic.
Osama bin Laden got his start fighting against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan. His bravery, his connections and wealth earned him a position of leadership in that conflict. His CIA provided training made him effective. He and the rest of the Mujahideen fought against what was either the greatest or second greatest military power on earth and won. They drove back the brutal, awful communist forces and their associated rape squads, massacres and indiscriminate bombings.
The Mujahideen, through a willingness to sacrifice we Americans have never been asked to equal, broke the Soviet Fucking Union. There’s a reason Sylvester Stallone memorialized bin Laden’s buddies.
Perhaps time has lessened the importance of what bin Laden and the Mujahideen accomplished. Or, at least, I hope that’s what’s happening. The idea that the CIA made a mistake training those “holy warriors” is ridiculous. If you honestly think it wasn’t worth suffering 9-11 twenty years later in order to end a Cold War with the potential to destroy all life on earth, you are both completely delusional and in agreement with a distressingly large number of modern intellectuals. I would rather sustain a new 9-11 every year for the next hundred than go back to a world teetering on the nuclear brink and, if you really think about it, I’ll bet you would, too.
The Mujahideen, for all their barbarity, are and were men of exceptional bravery and competence. We forget this at our peril.
In his interviews and correspondence, it is very clear that bin Laden viewed the US as a second Soviet Union – another imperialist behemoth trying to destroy his religion, undermine his culture and scatter his people. Depending on how seriously you take the notion of cultural imperialism, this is at least an understandable way to look at the Middle East. The US is the primary backer of the nakedly imperialist Israeli Republic, it does prop up the oil sheikhs in Saudi Arabia and its military is present in any number of Muslim nations. The extent to which you justify support for Israel, oil sheikhs and military bases is frankly beside the point. The real thing to consider is that a reasonable person could look at those factors and decide that the US was the Soviet Union part two. Unfortunately for us, bin Laden combined this viewpoint with a refusal to misunderstand his enemy.
I once read that geography is destiny. I’m not sure if I completely accept this, but it is instructional in the case of bin Laden vs. the US. Americans enjoy a large, friendly neighbor to the south. To the north they have a humongous, ridiculously friendly neighbor. To the east, Americans are protected by the world’s second largest ocean. To the west, the largest ocean. The most threatening invasion force of the last 150 years ground to a grizzly halt 5,586 kilometers (3,471 miles) west of Los Angeles. Americans have grown used to safety. They expect it. They take it for granted. Perhaps because of his CIA training, perhaps because of his education, perhaps because of his advisers, bin Laden saw an opportunity in this expectation.
What if he could bait this second Soviet Union into an overreaction or series of overreactions? What would it take to unite the Muslim world against the US and the West? Why, if he could come up with enough spectacle, enough violation of the US’s expected safety, he might not even need to kill that many people to get the necessary overreactions.
The emotional impact of this video is hard to overstate. I imagine feeling the vibration as 180 tons of aluminum, jet fuel and humanity bare down on my office building. I imagine pieces of wing tearing my body. I shudder as I think of how it must have felt, 300 meters up, to decide it would be better to jump out of the window rather than remain inside and burn in the flames. The panic and desperation of a firefighter as the collapse begins, the doomed sacrifice of those brave men and women who retook flight 93 right before it crashed into the Pennsylvania wilderness – this is powerful stuff.
But no matter how powerful these tragedies were, none of this changes the fact that 9-11 needs context. The Chinese Nationalist upheavals of 1917-37 killed 4,000,000 people. The Second Indochina war killed 2,800,000, the Second Sudanese Civil War killed 1,900,000, the Afghan Soviet War that bin Laden took part in killed 1,500,000. I’m betting you are unfamiliar with all these conflicts. Even the Spanish Civil War, which you are also almost certainly unaware of, killed 365,000 people or, to put it another way, the 30th worst tragedy of the 20th century, a historical footnote 98% of you didn’t even know existed, still killed 122 times more people than 9-11.
Think of all the mileage bin Laden got out of 9-11. He took control of US foreign policy for a decade, European foreign policy for three to five years and destroyed the United State’s image. Those of us who value democracy, the separation of church and state and human rights should thank God every night that al Qaeda sucks at governing, because if they’d been just a little bit better at running the busses on time, bin Laden would have reached his goal of uniting the Muslim world against the West. All of this from one man, a few thousand supporters and an offensive arsenal based on Soviet castoff guns and explosives built in people’s front rooms.
In every conflict there are three basic factors determining victory; willingness to sacrifice, leadership and resources. While bin Laden was willing to die for his beliefs, the American people put a decade’s long war on their credit cards. While bin Laden was playing the West like a flute and trying to paint us as evil, America and her allies countered by doing shit like this. It was almost enough to overcome one of history’s biggest resource discrepancies.
I sincerely hope that, next time around, those of us on the side of civilization and progress grow a little self awareness. And that’s what my students taught me today – if we haven’t learned, if the next enemy has even half bin Laden’s skill and a real army, we’re screwed.
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Thank you for a perspective driven assessment of bin Laden and the ‘War on Terror’! I cringe when I hear people talk about our troops ‘protecting our freedom.’ As you pointed out, we Americans sit pretty, geographically. Japan didn’t seem capable of attacking more than our territories in the Pacific, but many would argue that we (mainlanders) were under threat then. The only time we were truly attacked on our soil was the War of 1812. So, I agree that Americans’ sense of security can be shaken very easily (why else would we own so many guns?). While bin Laden was brilliant in his planning and execution of 9/11, I think it served the Bush administration’s nakedly aggressive foreign policy as well. Am I saying that there was a conspiracy? If not using actionable intelligence to thwart the plan is a conspiracy, then yes. History seems to agree that this also happened in the case of Pearl Harbor, and I think history will show this true in the case of 9/11 as well.
Before I get pilloried as unpatriotic, let me tell you that I lived in Manhattan on 9/11. I smelled the smoke. It made my blood boil, too. Osama bin Laden had successfully attacked NYC one too many times. It was time to get him, I believed. I still believe killing him was a good use of our resources, but I never believed that it would be the end of terrorism. He was just so damn good at planning attacks that we couldn’t let him plan another. Despite a world upset over American unilateralism, I spent 6 weeks in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon the following summer. I stood up for America in those countries, mostly in the face of angry Europeans. The local population was almost disappointingly tolerant of my presence and nationality. I am an American good or bad.
This was a well-written piece, Ben! I enjoyed digesting it!
Thanks for the kind words.
I really hate it when people try to make existence into a morality play, whether that’s cheap anti-Americanism (a tag that fits approximately 11 trillion European liberals) or continually chanting about how evil terrorists are (a problem that afflicts approximately 11 trillion American conservatives).
Life is complicated and evil people have a hard time attracting followers. I wish we’d remember these two simple facts when we choose our crusades of ultimate righteousness.