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by Gabriel Ash
November 1, 2004

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Bin Laden’s October surprise unleashed a competition of open outrage and almost as open calculations. Bush and Kerry competed on who is most resolute and properly outraged, who is better able to say, “we will not be intimidated”, or “we are united”, or your favorite triteness. The calculations, on the other hand, are confusing.

Is Bin Laden endorsing Kerry? If he is, does it mean that Bush benefits, because some voters will vote for Bush to spite Bin Laden? But if that is the expected outcome, doesn’t it mean that Bin Laden is trying to help Bush get a second term by appearing to attack him? To spite Bin Laden, shouldn’t voters then vote for Kerry? But what if Bin Laden wants to appear as if he is endorsing Kerry in order to help Bush, because he actually supports Kerry, but wants us to believe he supports Bush so we vote for Kerry? Does that mean that we should support Bush? The good news is that we can play this deeply satisfying game ad infinitum.

American voters should be forgiven for being peevish. Bid Laden is (perhaps) against Bush. On the other hand, the Iranian clerics endorsed Bush. Putin, Sharon and Blair also tacitly support Bush. But the rest of the world’s elite—and most Europeans—are overwhelmingly for Kerry, including the Guardian, which is helping British leftists write letters to undecided voters. With so many contradictory attempts to influence voters, Americans who are earnestly trying to vote their anger at foreign meddlers must be scratching their heads.

It’s a lost cause anyway; the election of the emperor is everybody’s business. 

The Bush bandwagon is particularly gleeful about the opportunity to use Bin Laden’s tape as a gift against Kerry. Nothing is too low for the party that made voter intimidation and suppression the core of its November 2 strategy. David Brook, the Times’ genteel admirer of all things banal, defined Bin Laden’s message as a litmus test of outrage. Only Bush, Brooks wants to imply, “fundamentally gets the evil” of Bin Laden, and “feels it so deep in his soul that it consumes him.” Bin Laden’s tape is an occasion for Brook to relive “the fundamental moral confrontation,” which just happens to be Bush’s fundamentalist crusader message from the get go (“you’re either with us or with the terrorists”).

Brooks enjoys being outraged by “this monster who killed 3,000 of our fellows showing up on our TV screens, trying to insert himself into our election, trying to lecture us on who is lying and who is telling the truth. Here was this villain traipsing through his own propaganda spiel with copycat Michael Moore rhetoric about George Bush in the schoolroom, and Jeb Bush and the 2000 Florida election.”  Outrage purifies, elates, cleanses, washes away doubts and ambiguities, and excuses the disavowal of unpleasant knowledge.

Instead of outrage, my feeling is weariness. So another mass murderer is speaking to us from the idiot box. Big deal! Aren’t we used to it? Isn’t that what television is for these days? Aren’t most of those who go about in black motorcades mass murderers of one sort or another? The thugs who run Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Sudan, Zimbabwe, the Congo. The generals in power, either overtly or behind the scenes, in Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey, Egypt, Colombia, El Salvador, Myanmar. Then there are the first class murderers, Ariel Sharon in Israel, Vladimir Putin in Russia. Both are darlings of George Bush. Bush called the former mass murderer “a man of peace”, and saw the beautiful soul inside the cold blue eyes of the latter.

Not a bit surprising, since Bush too is a well established mass murderer by now. He can mark his belt with thousands of Afghanis and tens of thousands of Iraqis (100,000 by the latest study). But he has so far failed to measure up to his predecessor, Clinton. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madleine Albright, admitted that causing the death of half a million Iraqi children, “was worth it” -- “it” being putting pressure on Saddam Hussein. But then, find me a single American President in the last century that passes Brook’s outrage test, a single American President whose total score in office is less than Bin Laden’s 3,000 deaths. Even Jimmy Carter probably fails (with his active support for mass murder in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere).

And then there is John Kerry, an enthusiastic Vietnam killer who promises that, if elected, he will commit bigger and better crimes.

In addition to the murderers themselves, TV news is the natural habitat of ex-mass murderers turned experts (Kissinger, for example), politicians with special skills in cover-up for mass murder (Colin Powell, for example), and journalists and pundits whose job is to excuse mass murder (“collateral damage”), glorify the tools with which mass murder is carried out, under-report mass murder or completely ignore it (except when the White House finds it convenient.) So really, David, why the sudden outrage? Bin Laden may be an irritating apprentice, but he certainly passed the qualifying exams for membership in the “world leaders” guild.

Outrage, like yawning, is a way of blocking the auricular canal. What did Bin Laden say that is so important for Americans not to hear? Here are a few pointers:

Bin Laden apparently saw “Farenheit 9/11”. He must have particularly enjoyed the jabs at the Saudi royals, as well as the stripping down of Bush’s fake war leader image. Does it matter? Expect shameless use of the Bin Laden tape to discredit Michael Moore and criticism of Bush in general. Thank God Bin Laden didn’t endorse Evolution, Einstein, and Set Theory.

Bin Laden put some effort into explaining that he doesn’t hate American freedom: “Contrary to what [President George W.] Bush says and claims -- that we hate freedom --let him tell us then, "Why did we not attack Sweden?"….We fought with you because we are free, and we don't put up with transgressions. We want to reclaim our nation. As you spoil our security, we will do so to you.”

Surely we shouldn’t accept Bin Laden’s word for it. But there is no reason to doubt him on this. Bush’s explanation of the motivation behind September 11 (“they hate our freedom”) is moronic, and has been widely debunked. It is saddening to hear Bin Laden lecture Americans about the root causes of terrorism as if he was the schoolteacher and they not-so-bright pupils. It is sad that three years after 9/11, most Americans are still clueless, and the U.S. political elite and media continue to lie with impunity about U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

To explain why he orchestrated 9/11, Bin Laden weaves a sentimental, “confession”, relating how the idea of striking at America occurred to him as a reaction to Israeli crimes during the Lebanon war: “But after the injustice was so much and we saw transgressions and the coalition between Americans and the Israelis against our people in Palestine and Lebanon.…During those crucial moments, my mind was thinking about many things that are hard to describe. But they produced a feeling to refuse and reject injustice, and I had determination to punish the transgressors. And as I was looking at those towers that were destroyed in Lebanon, it occurred to me that we have to punish the transgressor with the same -- and that we had to destroy the towers in America so that they taste what we tasted, and they stop killing our women and children.”

It is hard to tell how much truth this story contains. Easier to note that the simplified narrative seems tailored to the level of the American political discourse. There are no big words, geopolitical analysis, jargon, abstractions, religious quotations, etc. There is a personal narrative of a young man transformed into a warrior by the sight of injustice, a narrative fashioned like so many others told by dozens of American politicians. One can almost hear echoes of John Edwards.

Bin Laden doesn’t just intervene in the U.S. elections. He describes his “finding his mission,” his conversion experience to international terrorism, in the typical, my-personal-experience-guides-my-politics, emphatic language of an American professional politician.

However debased the storytelling, the “moral” of the story is on target. Four years ago it was fashionable to claim that Al Qaida wasn’t interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The recent 9/11 Report contains new evidence that U.S. support for Israel was always crucial for Bin-Laden, as well as for other participants in the 9/11 plot. But the issue is bigger than Bin Laden’s personal views. Israel, and U.S. support for Israel, fuel the anger that nourishes terrorism. That is certainly the one simple truth both Bush and Kerry would rather you didn’t pay attention to. It is depressing that nobody who isn’t a mass murderer is allowed to say it on U.S. network TV.

Not only Bin Laden doesn’t “hate our freedom,” he pays it tribute, extolling and, in fact, exaggerating it. Bush’s weakness, according to Bin Laden, is that he is as corrupt and militaristic as the hated autocratic Arab regimes. Bin Laden points out, and this is quite remarkable, that the Bush administration is moving the U.S. away from its democratic past. He specifically mentions the PATRIOT ACT. Apparently Bin Laden is receiving top rate public intelligence about the U.S., and is paying close attention to statements coming from the American anti-war movement. His purpose in doing that is far from clear, but Bin-Laden’s level of interest and “concern” for American democracy ought to highlight, again, that the U.S. is dealing with enemies that study it carefully. One can expect continuing calibration and improvement in the ability of Bin Laden and other Islamic radicals to read and affect American politics.

Bin Laden closes with putting the responsibility for ending the war squarely at the door of the American public: “your security is not in the hands of [Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry or Bush or al Qaida. Your security is in your own hands. Any nation that does not attack us will not be attacked.”

As long as the U.S. is belligerent, however, he warns the listeners that there will be more terrorist attacks; “the motivations are still there for what happened to be repeated.” However unpleasant it is to hear, Bin Laden is not far from the truth. Neither

Bush nor Kelly can make Americans safe while their policies inflame the Middle East. You cannot extinguish a fire while dozing it with gasoline.

Nor can Al Qaida. Bin Laden took the genie of retaliation out of the bottle. He taught the Middle East that the U.S. is vulnerable and can be harmed. This lesson cannot be unlearned. Even if the U.S. managed to kill every single member of every single terrorist organization, the new Jihad movement will regenerate; its only necessary ingredients are anger and knowledge.

Unfortunately, and this is where Bin Laden exaggerates, the American public does not control U.S. foreign policy. It suits Bin Laden to take American democracy at face value, since the imputation of responsibility to all U.S. citizens provides a commonplace justification for attacks on civilians. One way to read Bin Laden’s message is as a nobless-oblige peace offer, not made in the expectation that it will be accepted, but made in order to both legitimize and encourage the next phase of the war. 

The sad thing is that it is on target again. U.S. Middle East policy is morally wretched, and the right way to advance peace and safety is by changing it. But political reality precludes such changes. Americans can make themselves safe, but they also can’t. It all depends on the definition of “can”. The American public holds the controls but is not in control. It is in a semi-conscious state, easily manipulated, a state, in Emmanuel Kant’s words, of “self-imposed immaturity.”

Power is in the hands of a small elite, an elite that couldn’t care less for the safety of Americans, but cares only for the safety of the American empire and the economic interests invested in it. The war between this imperial ruling elite and the people of the world will go on for a long time, with regular Americans alternatively cheering and booing, and serving as both cannon fodder and collateral damage.

Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an activist and writer. He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword - and sometimes not.  Gabriel encourages your comments:

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Other Articles by Gabriel Ash

* Diagnosing Benny Morris
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* Dear Ayatollah
* Settlements: A User’s Guide
* A Victory for Israeli Democracy
* Don’t Get Mad, Get Going!
* Pink Delusions