Osama bin Laden, A Retrospective

Osama_bin_Laden_making_a_video_at_his_compound_in_Pakistan-2I 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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For customers living in East Asia.




  1. Finally read this. Very well written and you certainly put 9/11 in its context with other tragedies. Americans, though, are no different than people from many other countries who view history through a narrow viewfinder. Here in Turkey, for instance, people have a rather rosy picture of the former Ottoman Empire but have blacked out atrocities committed by it toward groups like the Armenians, for instance, and certainly still have a strong prejudice toward the Kurds, which is a very complicated issue. And I found younger Asian students from China, Japan, and Korea who had very slanted views of the history of their region. But these are understandable when you see that the media in many of those countries is restricted in what they can publish or present. Here journalists are continually fined or jailed for any criticism toward the government, as they are in many other countries. The sad thing about the American people, though, is that there is so much information available about not only America’s own checkered past but the world in general, yet most Americans have a limited knowledge of the world outside their own neighborhoods. The last time I was home for a family visit, the husband of my niece asked me if there was grass in Turkey, thinking it was all desert. And I have been asked by a few older “educated” people if we still ride camels in Turkey. Misconceptions about what lies beyond the oceans are much too common in the US. It is a sheltered country, after all, and happy to be so. Less than half the population have passports and most still prefer an afternoon at the mall to a visit to a museum.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      I think the blinders you mention are a symptom of unsophisticated identity systems. One of the nice things about being a patriotic Turk (young Turk?) or American or Korean or whatever is that your identity, your pride, is automatic. “All I had to do was pop out of a Turkish vagina and bam! I get to be a proud and virtuous Turk! Awesome!”

      The problem is large groups of people, whether American or Turkish or Korean, are neither good nor bad. They are average, adjusted for circumstances. Therefore, if you have an unsophisticated identity system, you need to ignore huge chunks of not only your history, but everybody else’s so that you can continue to believe that you are good and special.

      Therefore, when somebody points out that the Turks killed 1.8 million Armenians that gets translated into “you, as nothing more than a Turk, are personally evil.” Or, in the case of a Donald Trump supporter (who I believe are mostly racial nationalists), the message that “ISIS hates US imperialism” (or whatever they hate these days) gets translated as “non-whites in general hate me, nothing more than a whitey, personally.”

      This is why, in my opinion, you can more or less universally depend on people being stupid once you engage their base identities.

      1. Unfortunately they choose to be so because it’s easier to get by that way.

      2. Absolutely true. I’m beginning to think it’s the duty of good citizens to go beyond primitive identities and the duty of good politicians to carefully manipulate those who can’t or won’t be good citizens. Be, in other words, Bill Clinton.

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