The recent popularity of Letter from Osama bin Laden justifying the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States is a warning sign. In many ways, the renewed interest in this forgotten man and his (largely decimated) terrorist organization is not so much a sign of radicalization as of confusion. As Israel continues its horrific war in the Gaza Strip, using Hamas’ horrific attack on October 7 as justification, most people are desperately trying to make sense of the scenes of enormous human suffering they see every day. More importantly, they struggle to understand why the world – particularly the United States – allows and facilitates this.
To some extent this is due to ignorance. People everywhere are quick to draw conclusions about distant conflicts about which they know little compared to nearby conflicts about which they might know a little more. For example, Indians – with a few honorable exceptions – who tout how easy it could be to resolve the problems in Israel and Palestine seem to remain largely silent on the horrors of Manipur or our colonial policies in Kashmir. The Chinese remain silent on Xinjiang and Tibet, the Iranians on the rights of their own women, etc.
But this is not the sum of things, and such rationalizations can easily degenerate into anything. The scale of the carnage in this particular conflict is enormous. Like Saving the Children States“The number of children killed in just three weeks in Gaza is more than the number killed in armed conflicts globally – in more than 20 countries – in an entire year. » For reference, in that other conflict, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 500 children were killed between February 24, 2022 and October 9, 2023. In the Gaza Strip, the number is around 4,000 in five weeks. Tens of thousands of tons of bombs were dropped on the most densely populated area on Earth, fuel was denied and water and medicine restricted.
We are witnessing an unprecedented atrocity compared to almost any other conflict in the world. It’s no wonder people struggle to understand why the world isn’t taking action to stop it.
This happened earlier. Likewise, during the Israeli period brutal invasion of Lebanonthen-US President Ronald Reagan summoned Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin – former leader of the Irgun terrorist militia – in 1982 and called the massive damage “holocaust“. Reagan had initially supported the operation – in fact, he had overridden the advice of the US State Department to meet with Begin – but his use of the term to an Israeli prime minister showed how much how bad the daily destruction on television was affecting America’s view of Israel. The invasion led to the destruction of Lebanon, a violent civil war, numerous atrocities and the rise of Hezbollah before Israel’s final decision to withdraw – several years later – in 2000.
But the link with bin Laden stems from another, much more publicized war, which was the Balkan conflict after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, during which the siege of Sarajevo, when Serbian forces surrounded the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dropped mortars. The unlimited shelling and sniping lasted four years (from April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996). Rape and ethnic cleansing were used as tools of war, with the killing of more than 7,000 civilians in the UN-designated “safe zone.” Srebrenica by Serbian forces in 1995 would be for many the decisive moment of the war.
As with the current conflict, many people do not understand why the “Never Again” principle does not apply. Why did Europe hesitate? NATO, mainly pushed by US President Bill Clinton, launched airstrikes after the 1995 Srebrenica massacre – the largest massacre in Europe after World War II – which led to a negotiated settlement. So why did NATO wait so long?
For many people, the answer was simple: Bosnia and Herzegovina was majority Muslim (largely Muslim eating pork and drinking alcohol, but when did religiosity matter in ethnic conflicts?) . The Europeans and the United States were hypocrites, and the “West” would not save the Muslims. Human rights only made sense to those whom “the West” valued.
For most European policymakers, the answer was different. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 set off a series of events that led to World War I, then World War II, and then the Cold War. They were terrified to get involved again. Even the United States, which ultimately pushed for the bombing and was instrumental in ending the war, was hesitant at first. The US Secretary of State at the time, James Baker III, said famous“We don’t have a dog in this fight.”
But for young people, for those not originally from Europe or the United States, and for non-European immigrants now living in Europe and the United States, this was neither obvious nor clear. They watched the horror unfold on their screens every day, a “holocaust” as Reagan would have said, and did not understand why the world did not act. A very small section became easy for Osama bin Laden to recruit.
Today, such scenes are repeated. For the United States and Europe – especially Germany – the backdrop is the Holocaust. “Never again” has particular resonance given that the October 7 Hamas massacre – mostly of civilians – was the largest murder of Jews since World War II. But for the rest of the world, watching the horrific images of all suffering – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever – “Never Again” has a different meaning. It’s not just about Jews, but about humans as humans. They will inevitably conclude that for the United States, Europe and colonial states like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, brown lives, Muslim lives, do not matter, and that suffering of Southerners makes no sense.
And there will inevitably be those who exploit the trauma of others for their own ends and who will use that.
When I applied for my master’s degree in the United States, I had written about how I wanted to study the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and how it had been seen as a “just war”, a defensive jihad. I arrived in the United States in August 2001. A month later, things changed.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.