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
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
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:
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
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.