Reflections of a Terrorist
Osama Bin Laden’s documents show him grappling with the moral and political failure of terrorism.
How could a man responsible for so much killing write these things? How could a man who wrote such things be responsible for so much killing?
The answer that emerges from the Abbottabad documents is that Bin Laden didn’t understand what he had unleashed. Only at the end did he begin to face the consequences of terrorism, not for all the infidels he had slain, but for Islam, justice, and al-Qaida. His movement was destroying itself.
That, inevitably, is what terrorism does. Most people think it’s gravely wrong to kill children and other noncombatants. They don’t like sectarian conflict or perpetual war. They don’t want to live under oppressive government. If you go around blowing up crowded markets and chopping people’s hands off for petty crimes, they’ll turn on you.
Bin Laden blamed these moral and political mistakes on his followers. He thought they had misunderstood and abused the ideas he preached. He never recognized that the cancer was in the ideas themselves. He thought you could blow up markets full of Christians without blowing up markets full of Muslims. But once you start blowing up markets—and rationalizing it through creative interpretations of scripture—it’s easy to justify killing whoever’s in the way, or whoever’s available. And once you declare war on infidels, it’s easy to extend your definition of infidels from non-Muslims to Shiites.
Bin Laden was too deep in this madness to find his way out. But his letters are a warning to those who would follow. If you kill civilians in God’s name, you’re on the path to betraying God, your values, and your people. You’ll destroy yourself and your movement. Turn away.
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Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.