“As you liberated yourselves before from the slavery of monks, kings, and feudalism, you should liberate yourselves from the deception, shackles, and attrition of the capitalist system.” This prescription comes, not from the Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital, but a speech delivered by Osama bin Laden just before the sixth anniversary of 9/11.
In the tragedy that grips our hearts every year on this date, it’s vital that we understand the ideology that fueled the worst act of terrorism in U.S. history. The theology of jihadism and extreme fundamentalist Islam has been explored in depth, if not appreciated to the same degree. However, little attention has been paid to the role that anti-capitalism played in Osama bin Laden’s twisted worldview.
In the same video – released September 7, 2007 – bin Laden lashed out at the West’s free market economy:
If you were to ponder it well, you would find that in the end, it is a system harsher and fiercer than your systems in the Middle Ages. The capitalist system seeks to turn the entire world into a fiefdom of the major corporations under the label of “globalization” in order to protect democracy.
And Iraq and Afghanistan and their tragedies; and the reeling of many of you under the burden of interest-related debts, insane taxes and real estate mortgages; global warming and its woes; and the abject poverty and tragic hunger in Africa: all of this is but one side of the grim face of this global system.
In the eyes of the most determined anti-American terrorist in recent history, the War on Terror was a product of Western capitalism.
Capitalism and imperialism long topped Osama bin Laden’s list of grievances. In his 1997 interview with Peter Arnett, he complained that the United States had artificially lowered the price of oil through the mechanism of supply-and-demand. “We believe that the current prices are not realistic due to the Saudi regime playing the role of a US agent and the pressures exercised by the US on the Saudi regime to increase production and flooding the market that caused a sharp decrease in oil prices,” he said. “The U.S. today, as a result of the arrogant atmosphere, has set a double standard … [and] wants to occupy our countries [and] steal our resources.”
The idea of evil Western corporations plundering the Global South is a well-established leftist trope. For economic interventionists, capitalism is by nature exploitative. As all the world’s ills are attributed to free exchange, terrorists and socialists sometimes find common ground in justifying violence.
Professor Ward Churchill, who then chaired the ethnic studies department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, wrote just after 9/11 that civilians slain in the Pentagon were “military targets,” because they controlled America’s war machine. Then he proceeded to analyze those in the twin towers:
As to those in the World Trade Center . . .
Well, really. Let's get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire – the "mighty engine of profit" to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved – and they did so both willingly and knowingly. ... To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in – and in many cases excelling at – it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.
His remarks eerily presaged those of bin Laden himself, who just a month later would use identical language to justify his attack on the World Trade Center:
The towers are an economic power and not a children's school. Those that were there are men that supported the biggest economic power in the world. They have to review their books. We will do as they do. If they kill our women and our innocent people, we will kill their women and their innocent people until they stop.
Ward Churchill would be concerning were he alone, yet other thought-leaders shared in the efforts to whitewash bin Laden as a victim of stockbrokers and corporate middle managers.
Robert Paul Churchill (no relation), then the chair of George Washington University’s philosophy department, wrote that “[t]he terrorists' ‘war’ against America is more than anything else an iconographic war, and therefore it was aimed at dominant symbols, or icons, of what is globally regarded as the American way of life”:
What the terrorists despised and sought to defeat was our arrogance, our gluttonous way of life, our miserliness toward the poor and starving; the exportation of a soulless pop culture of Madonna, hip hop, lewd entertainment, Levi’s, coke [sic], and the golden arches; and a domineering attitude that insists on having our own way no matter what the cost to others. Unfortunately, the American way of life is now associated by millions of the world's citizens with exploitation, oppression, and humiliation.
As time went on, Osama bin Laden’s public statements would lean more heavily on his critique of capitalism. The words and syntax of the American Left crept into his incitements to jihad. He criticized the United States for not adopting the Kyoto Protocol and contributing to global climate change. He mentioned that he read Noam Chomsky and watched films by Michael Moore.
As the world’s foremost terrorist mastermind tried to radicalize a segment of fundamentalist Islam, his economic views were being radicalized by American socialists.
It is clear that bin Laden either embraced anti-capitalist views or found its arguments suited his purposes (which, for clarity’s sake, is the destruction of the United States and the Western way of life).
We who mourn the thousands of victims buried beneath fiery rubble at Ground Zero should defend the system the terrorists tried to destroy. Free exchange, while imperfect, is the greatest engine of prosperity, innovation, and freedom ever devised. The World Bank notes that “more than 850 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty” in China alone since the nation substituted capitalism for socialism in 1978. Even U.S. Census data released on the eve of this solemn commemoration show Americans prospering as the economy is freed through lower taxes and regulations.
Beyond the physical benefits, the free market gives people the resources to live life as they see fit – even if it means ignoring the dictates of al-Qaeda’s version of Islam. This is the true locus of terrorists’ hatred of the Western liberal order.
To be sure, the attacks of 9/11 extend far beyond a critique of an economic system. Their greatest objection is our freedom of religion – the fruit of America’s founding philosophy. Today, that value is also caught in a two-front war, with secularists intent on eradicating the influence of religion in public life and Catholic Integralists hellbent (I use that term advisedly) on totalizing it.
Eighteen years later, the war for the soul of the West continues. It always will.
In October 2001, Osama bin Laden boasted of destroying the entire edifice of the West. “The values of this Western civilization under the leadership of America have been destroyed,” bin Laden said. “Those awesome symbolic towers that speak of liberty, human rights, and humanity have been destroyed. They have gone up in smoke.”
But no foreign power can level another civilization except through total annihilation. Cultures must be destroyed from within. From the remnants of 9/11, the West arose and endured. As long as citizens of the West uphold liberty, Judeo-Christian values, liberal democracy, free exchange, and human rights, 9/11 will remain a failure, and freedom’s beacon will continue burning bright.
(Photo credit: The Machine Stops. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)