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Bin Laden’s Modest Goals

October 2, 2001

I’m no different from the next guy: I’d let out a yelp of delight if Osama bin Laden were smashed like an insect. But I also know I might have second thoughts afterward. Would making him a martyr make this country safer? So I try to have my second thoughts in advance.

The startling thing about bin Laden is that his proclaimed goals aren’t extreme. He has said he would be willing to call off hostilities against the United States if three conditions were met: the removal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia; the end of sanctions against Iraq; and Palestinian possession of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.

It’s the third goal that amazes me. Notice that unlike most Muslim radicals, he doesn’t demand the annihilation of Israel, merely its withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders. This is by no means an admission of Israel’s right to exist; he would no doubt be delighted if Israel were wiped off the map. But this relatively moderate goal is not what one would expect of him.

Notice too that, contrary to our apocalyptic rhetoric, bin Laden has no apparent animus against “freedom” and “democracy.” He hasn’t suggested, let alone demanded, that we change our way of life or convert to Islam — only that we get out of his part of the world. These are the foreign policy goals of many patriotic Americans.

What makes bin Laden an extremist is not his (professed) goals, but what he is willing to do to get his way: namely, to kill as many Americans and Jews as it takes. The paradox lies in his combination of defensible goals and fanatical methods.

Obviously bin Laden hasn’t read Dale Carnegie. His methods make it hard, to say the least, for Americans to entertain his goals. We are in no mood to say: “Yes, well, maybe we should have done those three things anyway.” What we might have done freely, we refuse to do as a reward for horrible violence.

[Breaker quote: Extremism in 
defense of moderationIn fact, any American who urges the same goals now (even if he has been urging them for years) is apt to be accused of treason, or “anti-Americanism.” Thanks, Osama.

Edward Cardinal Egan, the archbishop of New York, when asked if he thought U.S. foreign policy may have bred hostility to this country around the world, replied: “Definitely, we have to examine our consciences.” He added: “It is not necessarily that the explanation is that there have been some misdeeds on the part of the United States, but that is a possibility.” Thanks to bin Laden, the cardinal will be roundly denounced for summoning us to introspection at a time like this.

If bin Laden is serious about his announced goals, he has only proved that violence is usually self-defeating — not a bad lesson for us. He has shown an undeniable criminal genius, but the U.S. reaction has put those goals out of the question for the time being.

If, on the other hand, he has abandoned those goals, he may have adopted a new purpose: to spark a war between the United States and the entire Muslim world. Some of our Israeli “allies” also crave such a war and are calling for a U.S. overthrow of several governments in the region. But in the event of war, the regimes most likely to topple are those that have been friendliest to this country — just what bin Laden may be counting on. Do we want to risk that?

One perennial human folly is the belief that the course of a war can be controlled. Experience thoroughly refutes it. Even victory may carry an unexpected cost: we have finally paid for winning the 1991 war on Iraq. You may think the war was just, you may even think it was worth the loss of the World Trade Center and thousands of lives, but you can hardly say that you foresaw the consequences. We only just got the bill.

In no way did America’s war justify bin Laden’s crimes. But that’s the point. When men are enraged, they don’t settle for proportionate justice: they seek measureless revenge. And our cost-benefit experts didn’t budget for revenge.

Joseph Sobran

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Reprinted with permission
Copyright © 2001 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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