Back in 2001, the right-wing administration of George W. Bush—generally considered to have set a new standard for modern presidencies contemptuous of things like free speech and privacy—warned news organizations not to air or print the statements of Osama Bin Laden or Al Qaeda in full, because they would be helping spread terrorist propaganda or even hidden terrorist messages. The news organizations complied.
Twenty-two years later, and with Bin Laden long dead, a media outlet once again censored one of the terrorist’s public statements, deeming it too dangerous to let the public read for itself. This time, it didn’t even need to be asked.
Bin Laden’s “Letter to America” had been mostly ignored in the U.S. press when it was sent out in November 2002, a holdover from the Bush administration’s censorious finger-wagging a year earlier. But it hit new heights of fame and notoriety recently after TikTok users discovered the Guardian link to the full text and began urging others to have a read, too. The sudden explosion of interest sent the more than two-decades-old letter suddenly soaring to the top of the newspaper’s most-read articles.
Naturally, the Guardian responded by swiftly erasing it from the Web.
There is something in this episode that neatly sums up the shift in liberal attitudes, largely since 2016, towards issues of free speech and the free exchange of ideas. It was once a core liberal belief that open debate and free access to information were integral to democracy, and it was repressive forces from the outside—say, right-wing governments like the Bush administration—that drove the push to stifle both.
Once upon a time, the Guardian might have responded to the Bin Laden letter being “widely shared on social media without the full context” by attaching some kind of new editorial note or column providing that very context, while making clear the gravity of Bin Laden’s crimes. I’d nominate something like this 2007 column in the paper by political scientist Thomas Hegghammer, in which he addressed the “myth of al-Qaida’s alleged ignorance of Palestine,” and made clear how taking seriously Bin Laden’s grievances about US foreign policy didn’t mean you were lauding him, but that it was actually key to combating what he represented. Hegghammer argued that “Palestine matters greatly for al Qaeda” and that a negotiated settlement to end Israeli-Palestinian violence “will curb new recruitment [to Al Qaeda] by reducing Palestine’s potency as a symbol of suffering.” But are we allowed to write things like that in a newspaper anymore?
Apparently, no. In this post-2016 era, the liberal sphere appears to have given up on the idea of persuasion in favor of heavy-handed intellectual policing. (Though don’t worry, there’s been no shortage of government pressure for censorship of the letter, too). Somehow, it has become more dangerous for the public to read Bin Laden’s letter now then it was at the height of the “war on terror” and when the al Qaeda leader was actually still alive and not confined to a Pakistani bunker, at which point the Guardian had been one of the few news outlets to defy Bush’s strictures and print the letter in full.
The newspaper had good reason to publish it. When Bin Laden’s letter came out, the United States was still in the grip of post-September 11 paranoia and jingoism, a poisonous atmosphere in which Americans by and large were told that the only reasons for the attack were the terrorists’ “hatred of Western values,” their Nazi-like goal of conquering Europe to “reverse the triumph of the West,” and that anyone who said otherwise was an America-hating terrorist sympathizer. (Sound familiar?) This tone was infamously set from the top down, with Bush personally explaining to the U.S. public that terrorists simply “hate our freedoms” and “democratically elected government,” that they were merely the latest heirs to “fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism,” and that “they stand against us, because we stand in their way.”
It took a long time for this simplistic but powerful notion to be dislodged from the U.S. imagination, if it ever truly was, and to get to the point where a writer for the Atlantic could declare in 2021 that the United States “got nearly everything about our response [to 9/11] wrong” and that this had severely “weakened the nation.” Part of that process involved trusting the public to hear directly from the terrorists themselves, as with Bin Laden’s letter. “Why are we fighting and opposing you?” Bin Laden asks. “Because you attacked us and continue to attack us,” he replies, before outlining a list of examples of what he meant, including Israel’s occupation and repression of Palestinians, U.S. assent to Moscow’s destruction of Chechnya, and the deadly U.S. sanctions on Iraq.
It feels impossibly banal to say that understanding the motivations of your enemies is critical to rational and effective foreign policy, yet apparently it’s a banality that otherwise intelligent, well-read people in media and government still have to be reminded of every couple of years. Without being able to look at Bin Laden’s words first-hand, the U.S. public has been left with a distorted idea of what he actually said, and so, a distorted idea of what drove terrible acts like September 11. The only coverage of the letter I was able to find by a major U.S. paper at the time was this piece in the Washington Post, which placed front and center Bin Laden’s disappointment that Bill Clinton escaped serious punishment for sexually harassing a White House intern and entirely excised Bin Laden’s litany of complaints about U.S. foreign policy. The author basically mocked the idea that anything other than military action was a reasonable solution to Al Qaeda and its ilk.
Of course, there was plenty in Bin Laden’s letter that read like the ravings of a religious zealot, from his indictment of U.S. “debauchery” like “fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants,” to his comments about Clinton and his outrage at the separation of church and state. But it also suggested that the anti-American rage fueling Bin Laden—and more importantly, the anti-American rage fueling those to whom he was making his appeal in his letter—went far beyond complaints about lifestyles and sexual mores, particularly given the top billing he set aside for his explanation that “you attacked us and continue to attack us.”
Bin Laden suggested that there were things the American public wasn’t being told about this conflict; that when dissidents like Susan Sontag called the attack “a consequence of specific American alliances and actions,” they weren’t just America-bashing; that this kind of hatred couldn’t be defeated by simply bombing it out of existence, and that if more people had understood this, we might’ve seen a different response to the attacks—one that didn’t end up a costly disaster for both innocent foreign people and Americans alike, as it ended up being. Crucially, as critics of the “war on terror” constantly pointed out, terrorist after terrorist made clear over the years that their violence was motivated by a similar anger at U.S. foreign policy, only for U.S. policymakers to resolutely plow ahead with a policy response that made that anger grow.
None of that means that we should venerate or endorse either Bin Laden or his crimes, which would be different from understanding the motivations behind them. Besides the casual antisemitism woven throughout the letter—referring to “the Jews” when discussing Israeli actions, and claiming said Jews “have taken control of your economy,” media, and “all aspects of your life”— Bin Laden’s medieval social views overlap neatly with the Christian fundamentalists who were ostensibly his loudest enemies, from his hatred of “immorality” (read: socially liberal attitudes) to his denunciation of “separat[ing] religion from your policies.” Meanwhile, his repugnant argument in favor of killing civilians—“the American people are the ones who choose their government by way of their own free will” and “have the ability and choice to refuse the policies of their Government and even to change it”—is the exact same warped reasoning we’re seeing Israeli officials deploy right now to rationalize their own civilian slaughter of Gazans.
Still, it’s not clear that many of the Gen Z social media users who stumbled upon the letter actually read it as a vindication of Bin Laden or his crimes. Even NBC reported they used it “as a springboard for discussion about American foreign policy in the Middle East” and that “many clarified that they were not praising or defending bin Laden’s orchestration of the 9/11 attacks.” One video shared on Twitter, in which the poster claimed that someone was “stanning” Bin Laden, actually shows the TikToker making explicitly clear that, “I’m not saying that the 3,000 people deserved to die, cause they did not deserve to die; nobody deserves to die.” Most of the users highlighted by reporter Yashar Ali did something similar, talking not about a sudden realization that Bin Laden was actually a good guy, but about being left “disillusioned,” having their eyes opened, or being plunged into an “existential crisis” by the letter.
To be fair, Ali also wrote that many users “say it has made them reevaluate their perspective on how what is often labeled as terrorism can be a legitimate form of resistance to a hostile power.” It might be interesting or clarifying to find out exactly how many, or what ratio of, users expressed such sentiments in response to the letter. Unfortunately, thanks to members of Congress, that’s impossible, since searching “Bin Laden” on TikTok now only yields a message that “this phrase may be associated with behavior or content that violates our guidelines.” Censorship leaves us in the dark in multiple ways.
The U.S. public, in fact, could only have benefited if as many people as possible, including politicians and others in the halls of power, had read more of Bin Laden’s tirades. For instance, this 2004 videotaped message where Bin Laden openly laid out his strategy to “provoke and bait” the U.S. government with the goal of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy” might have been instructive.
“All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point East to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qa’ida in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies,” Bin Laden said then.
Had more people known about these passages, we might have realized that the disastrous course of action Bush was taking was exactly what Bin Laden wanted the United States to do. But the message was ignored, with tragic results for both Americans themselves, far more of whom would die thanks to the post-9/11 wars than died in the attack itself, and for the millions of foreign peoples killed and displaced in the “war on terror.”
Wiping Bin Laden’s words or those of other U.S. enemies and adversaries won’t wipe their views and beliefs from existence. But doing so will leave us with a poorer understanding of what motivates those who commit violence against Americans and a greater willingness to resort to military responses to combat them. And that means making the same disastrous mistakes over and over, mistakes that have left us with nothing but a perpetually rising tide of blood and death.