Behind Enemy Lines
In the days following Adolf Hitler's suicide in 1945, amid the rubble of Allied aerial bombardment, the Red Army's westward advance and Nazi surrender, a company of American infantrymen made their way up Munich's Prinzregentenstrasse, toward the late Führer's personal residence. Hitler had owned a second-floor luxury apartment in Munich. The soldiers' mission was to commandeer important Reich documents that might be stored there and to locate Hitler's will. In the apartment, they found a sculpture and a painting of Hitler's niece and love interest, Geli Raubal. (Hitler was rumored to have murdered her in the bedroom.) They found costly furnishings, spacious rooms and state-of-the-art gadgetry. They did not find important Reich documents, nor did they find a will. Several floors below there was a bomb shelter. There was also a safe, which an Army mechanic managed to force open. Save for twelve first-edition copies of Mein Kampf, the safe contained not a scrap of paper.
Hitler bequeathed many contortions to modern history, but none were so sharp and so horrific as Nazism's animating idea, its blueprint, as expressed in his notoriously tortured prose, laid out in searing hatred and sketched across the vast catalogue of political ravings and paranoia that compose his "reckoning." The twelve volumes of Hitler's book were a disappointing discovery for the infantrymen who stumbled upon them in his Munich apartment; in the war's immediate aftermath they were undoubtedly of little use. But the manner in which Hitler's personal copies of Mein Kampf were entombed and protected was consistent with the idolatry bestowed upon the books throughout the Reich. In Nazi Germany, Hitler's writings evolved beyond their message into the realm of revealed scripture. They became totems that were worshiped in their own right. Mein Kampf was used in wedding ceremonies. In 1935 senior Nazi officials commissioned calligraphers to painstakingly transcribe every one of its 782 pages onto parchment, in the style of a medieval Bible. The project took eleven months, and when the edition was finally completed, it was bound in heavy iron sheaves and weighed seventy pounds.
Organized political violence, by definition, must be directed by ideas--ideas about the use of power, about society fallen from grace, about revolutionary upheaval and the promise of a utopian future; ideas that are at once urgent, intoxicating and sweeping, even when they are used to justify the smallest and dirtiest of objectives. Manifestoes and political doctrines can be propagandistic and mired in tactical minutiae, but at their core they are intended to reflect deep, timeless truths. For Hitler, Mein Kampf was immutable. (To a journalist who once suggested revision, he scoffed: "I enter my corrections in the great book of history.") Mussolini, who was not so steadfast, banned earlier writings when they were inconvenient or contradictory. Stalin wrote at such mind-numbing length--his complete works fill more than a dozen tomes--that it is doubtful even his staunchest supporters read everything he put to paper. The act of writing, in Stalin's case, seemed to be its own truth.
Since the end of the cold war, a new ideologue has joined the literary canon of American enemies. His full name is Osama bin Muhammad bin Awad bin Laden. During a recent address, George W. Bush described bin Laden as one of history's "Evil Men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience," and one can find both truth and hyperbole in this assessment. Men like Hitler and Stalin wrought catastrophic ruin upon their societies and were responsible for the deaths of millions of people. So far, bin Laden has proved to be much less adept at mass murder and physical destruction. Nevertheless, he demands our attention, and for obvious reasons. Bin Laden leads a sophisticated global insurgency that is largely unseen, profoundly violent, hostile to Western values and full of rage and bloodlust. More important, he has come to personify a dark strand of modernity, one that fuses austere religious ideas from eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia with recent innovations in political Islam. He has drawn the United States into a worldwide conflict. He hopes to kill on an unimaginable scale.
For more than a decade, bin Laden has been unapologetic about his own struggle to correct "the great book of history," and he has carefully and lucidly described the specifics of his Kampf in a series of epistles, declarations and interviews. As far as it is known, bin Laden has never written a book, but that may be because he believes the most important book, the Koran, has already been written. Where Mein Kampf elevated the all-encompassing state (der totale Staat), and specifically the German nation, into the realm of the sacred, bin Laden seeks to bring the Islamic faith into the realm of the profane. The Koran, in his reading, is a revolutionary document. There is no need to hire calligraphers to give it the authenticity of ancient wisdom. It is already ancient and wise. Beside it, bin Laden's scattered pronouncements are meant to seem derivative, as if he were merely a clerical warrior interpreting the word of God. But that notion clouds bin Laden's real significance. In fact, he has a complex political vision that is highly coherent, uniquely contemporary and in many ways irreligious. And it is startling that only now, several years after 9/11, a number of new books give us the chance to inspect, firsthand and in detail, precisely what he has been saying.
Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, an anthology of bin Laden's oral and written opinions edited by Bruce Lawrence, a professor of religion at Duke University, is among the best primary Al Qaeda resources available. It is divided into two dozen chapters that chronologically progress through what will probably be regarded as bin Laden's most important decade, 1994 to 2004. In his introduction, Lawrence explains the difficulty in assembling a collection of bin Laden's statements, which have been virtually unavailable to the public. "Occasional fragments are cited, and--much more rarely--a few speeches have been reproduced here and there in the press," he writes. "Yet official pressures have ensured that, for the most part, his voice has been tacitly censored, as if to hear it clearly and without cuts or interruption would be too dangerous." In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the White House urged newspapers and TV networks to refrain from publishing unedited Al Qaeda statements or videos, and for the most part they have complied. Chief among the government's concerns was that bin Laden might transmit coded messages to his operatives (a dubious claim offered without any real evidence) or, as then NBC News president Neal Shapiro pointed out, that he could "arouse anti-American sentiment getting twenty minutes of air time to spew hatred and urge his followers to kill Americans."
The longevity of these official pressures became apparent in November when Lawrence was invited to discuss his book on CNN. One of the network's evening anchors, Carol Lin, began the segment by assuring viewers that "respected media" censored bin Laden. Then, after confusing Lawrence with another author, she testily asked, "Well, but aren't these messages dangerous? I mean, you are essentially making Osama bin Laden the possibility of a bestseller." Lin's curt skepticism echoed a much more intense debate over a similar anthology, the Al Qaeda Reader, which is scheduled for publication by Doubleday in 2007 and which attracted a fusillade of hysterical criticism from conservative media for helping "to promote Al Qaeda's evil." When the anthology was announced last year, a National Review columnist accused Doubleday of going "too far" and acting "naive at best, harmful at worst." The New York Post, in tones even more shrill, called for legal action against the publishing house. Its editorial writers effectively tarred Doubleday's parent company, Bertelsmann, as treasonous and then, in a strange rhetorical gesture, doubted that anyone would read the book anyway: "Yeah, right," the Post noted, "Americans are just clamoring to have the Bearded Butcher and his Egyptian sidekick, Dr. Death, spew their venom at the United States."