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George W. Bush, Mythmaker

by Benjamin Radford

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Americans naturally asked why it happened. Due in part to our inadequate and xenophobic news media, many Americans were jarred by the realization that our country has made powerful enemies in the world. Why did Osama bin Laden attack America? What was the motivation for such a destructive act?

There were several answers to the question, though the Bush administration's official line was quickly and carefully set: America was attacked because Osama bin Laden hates our American freedoms. President Bush said the terrorists are a "barbaric enemy that hates what we stand for, hates our freedoms, hates our openness." Using the wonderfully abstract and patriotic word freedom, Bush recast the war in his own simplified and politically convenient terms: "We will defend freedom; we will defend the values we hold dear." How bin Laden (or Saddam Hussein, for that matter) threatens American freedoms or values was not explained.

The president's facile explanations aside, there can be little doubt as to why bin Laden attacked America. He explained his motivations clearly and repeatedly in his writings and speeches: his chief complaint is the presence of infidels (i.e., Christian American troops) in the holy land (i.e., Saudi Arabia, homeland to Mecca and Medina, Islam's shrines). He is a terrorist, a religious terrorist, and from those motivations come his actions.

In a December 22, 1998, interview with ABC News, Osama bin Laden began by stating that "We, in the World Islamic Front for jihad [holy war] against Jews and Crusaders, have . . . issued a crystal clear fatwa [religious ruling] calling on the Nation to carry on jihad aimed at liberating Islamic holy sites . . . and all Islamic lands."1 Bin Laden repeated the purpose of the war on America several times, including making statements such as, "We will continue this course because it is part of our religion, and because God . . . ordered us to carry out jihad" and because of the "unjust American occupation of the land of the two mosques."

How this was interpreted to mean that bin Laden hates American freedom and openness is unclear. It is not American freedom he objects to; it is American religion and foreign policy. Instead of trying to address the root of the problem, the Bush administration ignored the real causes and pursued its own agenda. Bush avoided mentioning the real reasons for the attacks in an effort to downplay religious tensions and not alienate our (few) Muslim allies. But bombing straw men (and their arguments) is a misguided and dangerous approach.

George W. Bush, a born-again Christian, has made no secret of his faith. Both Bush and Osama bin Laden are deeply religious men, and each has claimed that his own nation has been chosen by God. Bin Laden has called for a jihad against Christian America; Bush has called for a "crusade" against Muslim terrorists. There is plenty of ammunition in both the Bible and Koran for those looking to justify their wars. Unfortunately, those who do not share either leader's extremist views (i.e., much of the world) are caught in the middle.

In the wake of a series of highly public political embarrassments (the Immigration and Naturalization Service issuing visas for known terrorists, the inability to locate Osama bin Laden, seizing—then releasing—a North Korean ship containing secret missiles for an ally, and so on), the government's focus turned from their repeated failures to an old enemy: Saddam Hussein.

To legitimize an attack on Iraq, Bush had to somehow tie Iraq and Saddam to bin Laden. It is well documented that Saddam Hussein does not share bin Laden's fundamentalist fanaticism. This is an important point, because the very reason America was attacked is wholly missing from the Iraqi situation—a fanatical religious leader. Saddam and bin Laden are hardly ideological brethren. (Bin Laden, in fact, offered to fight against Saddam when Iraq invaded Kuwait.) Bush, apparently unaware of how he undercuts his own arguments, at times goes out of his way to tar Saddam Hussein as nonreligious. (See, for example, the White House's statement that "Experts know that Saddam Hussein is a nonreligious man from a secular-even atheistic-party.")2

The Bush administration's attempts to demonize Saddam led to the revelations of some uncomfortable parallels between the two leaders. On October 23, 2001, during a congressional briefing, Bush commented on the evil character of anyone who would develop or use anthrax: "It's hard for Americans to imagine how evil the people are who are doing this. . . . We're a kind nation, we're a compassionate nation, we're a nation of strong values and we value life." In a radio address to the nation on November 3, 2001, Bush reiterated that "Anyone who would try to infect other people with anthrax is guilty of an act of terror."

Just a month later the Bush administration was forced to admit that U.S. government scientists had been developing and weaponizing anthrax for years despite having signed an international treaty banning the development of biological weapons. Published reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times confirmed that officials at Utah's Dugway Proving Ground had in recent years produced dry anthrax powder—the same strain, in fact, that was used to terrorize America. The Pentagon had secretly been devising ways of carrying out biological warfare, and making even more damaging germ strains.3 The Bush administration had in fact expanded the existing germ warfare program. The New York Times reported that in early 2001, "the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax."
So which is it? If Bush is correct that "anyone who would try to infect other people with anthrax is guilty of an act of terror," then that, by definition, makes the U.S. government guilty of engaging in terrorism. Yet the news was released to a largely indifferent public. There was little outcry, perhaps out of fear of seeming unpatriotic during the first few months after September 11. The Bush administration took the moral high ground regarding anthrax development until it had to admit doing the same thing. The public moral outrage soon dissipated, and the war on terrorism stepped up.

While Bush was accusing Saddam Hussein of helping to finance the Al Qaeda terrorism network, the Bush administration had knowingly done the same thing—even after the September 11 attacks. In March of 2002, the White House was involved in arranging a ransom payment to the radical Islamic group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.4

ABC News reported that the U.S. government helped pay $300,000 in cash to the group, known to U.S. intelligence agencies as part of Al Qaeda. The ransom was arranged to secure the release of two American missionaries taken hostage at a resort on May 27, 2001. The money was paid but the hostages were not released; one was later killed. Not only was the Bush White House willing to fund bin Laden's group and negotiate with terrorists, the administration even changed its policy on ransom to accommodate the payments. In February of 2002, the policy changed from stating that the U.S. government "will not pay ransom" to a more flexible policy allowing payments.5

Bush's mythmaking, though transparent, has received very little attention even from his critics. If, as they say, truth is the first casualty of war, then it seems that the ill-defined war on terror will spawn many, many more myths in the years to come—just at a time when truth and rational thought are most needed.


1. Available online at http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/DailyNews/transcript_binladen1_981228.html. This statement was also repeated in an interview published in the January 11, 1999, issue of Time magazine.

2. Apparatus of Lies, available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/.

3. Report: U.S. Army Weaponized Ames Anthrax; FBI to Mail Bids for Help, ABCNews.com January 13, 2001; and Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg, and William J. Broad. "U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits," The New York Times, September 4, 2001.

4. John McWethy, Ransom Arranged to Rebel Group, ABC News report, April 11, 2002.

5. Marc Lerner, "Rebels Funnel Ransom Money to Al Qaeda," The Washington Times, April 4, 2002.

Benjamin Radford is author of Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us, to be published by Prometheus Books in July.

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