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Monday, May 2, 2011

Gushee and the Uniqueness of bin Laden

In an otherwise thoughtful, reasoned essay, the ethicist David Gushee has written a sentence that invites correction if not rebuke. Towards the end of the essay he writes that 

“we must recognize that to the extent that our nation's policies routinely create enemies, we can kill a Bin Laden on May 1 and face ten more like him on May 2.”

First of all, while I welcome the kind of self-reflection that Gushee urges the U.S. to engage in over how our policies in the world have played a role in fueling terrorist movements, I think it is ironically another example of American arrogance and self-centeredness to imagine that we created bin Laden. This type of overstatement weakens the broader point that I think Gushee wants to make—that fear of bin Laden has been manipulated to justify a host of new policies and continued priorities that do not contribute to a more peaceful world. True enough. But the deep roots of Al Quaeda, as described magnificently in Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, are due to way more than just American policies. The complex web of ideologies, relationships, and motivations that led to the type of justification of mass terror that is Al Quaeda’s unique contribution to the evil of modern terrorism can not reasonably said to have been created by our nation’s policies.

The second glaring weakness in this sentence is Gushee’s comment about “facing ten more like him”. This is the kind of reading of history that denies the power of individual choices and the unique responsibility that individuals have in shaping our collective history. It is very much like saying that had Hitler been assassinated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it would not have done much because there were lots of German leaders who agreed with Hitler, or that if Stalin had not succeeded in ruthlessly taking power after Lenin it would not have mattered because some other communist would have been just as lethal. I think not. Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden—these are unique leaders whose charisma, ruthlessness and staggering narcissism are irreplaceable. That does not mean that the ideologies they advanced would not have been powerful without them, but it does mean that in each cast their elimination dramatically weakened the movements they led. When you read and study the life of bin Laden you see how unique his background was and you see how he could have chosen a different path at so many moments that would have lead to a more peaceful world, not some other person doing just what he did.


  1. excellent writing and correcting!
    thanks for sharing!

  2. In keeping with Dr. Gushee's logic that we created UBL and are responsible for provoking him somehow, he must also believe that the Jews provoked the Nazis, Tibetans provoked the Chinese, Cambodians provoked Pol Pot...etc.