Letter to Osama ...
An Open Letter to Osama bin Laden
Dear Mr. bin Laden:
I read with interest your remarks broadcast on al-Jazeera on 12
November 2002. I wish to point out, however, that your argument rests
on a logical fallacy.
You point out, quite correctly, that the government of the United
States is a "criminal gang" that has committed, and abetted,
oppression and mass murder. You then go on to infer that Islamic
terrorist attacks against the civilian populations of the U.S. and
its allies are justified in retaliation. In particular, you write:
The road to safety begins by ending the aggression. Reciprocal
treatment is part of justice. The incidents that have taken place ...
are only reactions and reciprocal actions. ...
Why should fear, killing, destruction, displacement, orphaning and
widowing continue to be our lot, while security, stability and
happiness be your lot? This is unfair. It is time that we get even.
You will be killed just as you kill, and will be bombed just as you
Here is where the fallacy lies. Yes, reciprocal treatment is part of
justice. If X attacks Y, justice authorises Y to strike back at X.
But justice does not authorise Y to strike instead at an innocent
third party, Z. When you strike Z, despite Z's having done nothing to
you, that is not "reciprocal treatment."
Your quarrel is with the government of the United States, and with
the governments of its allies. It is not with the civilian population
of those countries. It is not with the innocent civilian occupants of
American passenger jets or New York skyscrapers or Moscow opera
houses or Bali nightclubs. When you attack them, they are not "killed
as they have killed," or "bombed as they have bombed." They have
killed nobody, bombed nobody.
In targeting these innocent lives, you forfeit your claim to be a
mere retaliator against aggression. Instead, you become an aggressor
yourself. You become the imitator of those you condemn.
You may say: "These civilian populations are not so innocent. They
support their governments. They're guilty too."
Remember, this is the same argument your enemies used when they
bombed civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Do you really
want to endorse it?
Here is what's wrong with the argument. The governments of the United
States and its allies are, as you rightly observe, "criminal gangs."
(For that matter, so, as you would probably agree, is the government
of Iraq; and so, as you might not agree, was the Taliban government
of Afghanistan.) Each of these criminal gangs occupies a certain
geographical territory and subjects its inhabitants to various forms
of oppression and extortion. In particular, such gangs exercise
control, partial or total, over their territory's educational
systems. The people in these territories end up "supporting" their
governments because they have been subjected to a lifelong barrage of
propaganda and disinformation.
Hence the civilians in these countries are not your enemies. They are
the victims of your enemies. When you strike at these civilians, you
are, in effect, joining forces with your enemies.
As a result of the September 11 attacks, Americans are less free
today than they were at the end of the century. In carrying out those
attacks, you gave our rulers the excuse to increase the extent of
their power over us -- just as you gave them the excuse to bomb the
civilian populations of Afghanistan and Iraq.
You call the U.S. government "White House gangsters" and "the
biggest butchers of this age." But you have become their ally -- not
in intention, but in practical effect. You are strengthening your
enemies, and attacking their victims.
You have become George Bush.
I could write a letter very like this one to President Bush. It would
end: "You have become Osama bin Laden."
Roderick T. Long
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Created By: Declan Finlay