Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Listening to Osama

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 9, 2004 --  

For more than three years since al Qaeda launched attacks on New York and Washington, Americans have been pondering why Arabs hate them. The smug theories dreamed up by politicians, intellectuals and journalists vary widely, but they share a common theme -- the theories refuse to consider the fact that specific American policies have been enraging people in the Arab world for years.

All Americans need to do to realize al Qaeda's true motivation is to listen. When the transcript of Osama Bin Laden's latest videotaped message was released last Monday, the contents of the message was lost in a flurry of reports about the American election. Television coverage was limited to nonsensical discussions of whether the Bin Laden message was intended to support Bush or Kerry. This was as stupid as debating whether the erupting Mt. St. Helens volcano was motivated by support of Bush or Kerry.

Anybody really wondering "why do they hate us" should go back and read the transcript of the videotape, because Bin Laden simply tells us.1 Unlike his previous messages, this one is addressed to the American people. And Bin Laden says unequivocally that it is specific U.S. policies in the Middle East that motivate his hatred for America, including America's continued support of Israeli occupation of Palestinian Arabs, and America's occupation and killing of Arabs in Iraq.

While the message is unusual in the direct way it answers the question, the reasons come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has closely followed al Qaeda. This motivation is consistent with their history, their actions, and their previous statements. Given this consistency, it is troubling that so many Americans continue to deny their motivations.

For evidence of this denial, one need look no further than the President of the United States. Six months after September 11th, President Bush said "They hate our freedom. They hate our freedom to worship. They hate our freedom to vote. They hate our freedom of the press,"2 an explanation he continued throughout the presidential campaign. This opinion has been repeated dutifully down the chain of command. Rear Admiral Jim Lair, for example, put it this way during his dedication of a Vietnam War Museum in Texas, "The cowards that attacked us hate America because we are happy and free and will pay any price, bear any burden."3

Such statements are nothing more than feel-good nonsense, intended to inflate Americans' pride while washing their hands of the need to reflect on whether they had done anything to justify the hatred. It should come as no surprise to anyone, including the supporters of the feel-good theory, that Bin Laden denies hatred for freedom directly in his message. "If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike for example - Sweden?"4

Americans' other common explanation for why the Arab world hates them boils down to this: Arabs are a bunch of losers. This theory was put forth as a Newsweek cover story about a month after September 11th, which argued that hatred of America is an outlet of frustration for Arabs' failed societies.5 This theory continues to go strong. In March, the usually more insightful columnist Thomas Sowell concluded, "Maybe it is because the alternative to hating us is to hate themselves."6

But while Arabs' economic disadvantage may help fan the flames of hatred against America, it cannot explain the spark that started the fire. The loser theory is popular with Americans not because of its power to explain the behavior of terrorists, but because like the feel-good theory, it exonerates Americans from having to consider whether their country has done anything to inspire the feelings.

Given that the leader of al Qaeda directly says the reason he hates America, Americans who cling to alternate theories are simply sticking their heads in the sand. While it's certainly proper to be skeptical about the statements of the world's worst terrorist, his stated motivations are likely to stand up to any skepticism. Since his explanation is perfectly consistent with other evidence, there is no reason not to accept it at face value.

After listening to the words of a mass murderer like Bin Laden, Americans should react the same way as when dealing with any other at-large serial killer. In such situations, police make superficial efforts to placate the murderer, while simultaneously working to capture or kill him before he can act again. It should be the same with al Qaeda.

The United States pulled its troops out of Saudi Arabia in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, thereby eliminating one of al Qaeda's original stated reasons for attacking America. Because this served America's interests independent of placating Bin Laden, it was not seen as rewarding terrorists, and properly so. The U.S. government should consider similar moves that would both serve American interests and lessen the hatred felt by Arabs for the American government's nearly unequivocal support for Israeli actions. Placating Arab anger may not change the actions of Bin Laden himself, who is unlikely to be swayed from his desire to attack America, but it could serve to deny al Qaeda some of the recruits it needs to carry out a future attack.

Unfortunately, making these changes will require Americans to put pressure on their government to change policies that have well-entrenched supporters. This can only happen if Americans learn the real reasons that so many Arabs hate America. Doing so is as simple as opening our ears. When it comes to their motivation, there is every reason to believe what terrorists are saying.


1. Aljazeera, Full Transcript of Bin Ladin's Speech, November 1, 2004

2. The White House, Remarks by the President at Missouri Republican Party - Victory 2002 and Talent for Senate Dinner, March 19, 2002

3. National Vietnam War Museum, Museum Site Dedication Speech - Rear Admiral Jim Lair, July 3, 2004

4. Aljazeera, Ibid.

5. Newsweek, The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?, October 15, 2001

6., Why Do They Hate Us? March 17, 2004