By JIM GERAGHTY
News that TikTok users are approvingly quoting a 2002 letter from al-Qaeda terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, and insisting that bin Laden makes a lot of legitimate points, is the sort of thing that makes you wish gullible young people would go back to eating Tide Pods. You might have thought that the minds of America’s young people would not be so malleable that they could perceive one of the most notorious mass murderers of Americans in history as a justifiable critic of American policies, but here we are. For those of us of a certain age, this development is a difficult reminder that the unforgettable events of our younger years, the ones that shaped us and the world we live in, are just dry pages in a history book to the younger generation. That creates a giant vacuum, a big blank space for reinterpretation.
Why Osama bin Laden Is the Latest Hot New TikTok Influencer
As I said earlier this autumn, because TikTok is basically a way for the Chinese government to suck data out of your phone, and it has been characterized as “the digital equivalent of going down the street to a strip club filled with 15-year-olds,” I don’t think anyone should be on it.
TikTok’s algorithm is also a good way for the Chinese government to put whatever message it wants in front of America’s young people. And this week, the hot new message is: “Osama bin Laden had a lot of valid arguments, and was unfairly demonized by the U.S. government.”
Remember, someone who was in kindergarten in 2001 is 27 years old today. Today’s teenagers and early-to-mid-20-somethings have no memory of the 9/11 attacks, and the long, difficult global war against al-Qaeda that followed. They probably do not recognize the names “Mohammad Atta,” “Mullah Omar,” “Ayman al-Zawahari,” “Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” “Ahmad Shah Massoud,” “Pervez Musharraf,” “John O’Neill,” “Father Mychal Judge,” “Todd Beamer,” or perhaps even “Colin Powell” or “Donald Rumsfeld.” Names and terms like “USS Cole,” “Northern Alliance,” “Tora Bora,” “the shoe bomber,” and “the 7/7 attacks,” have little or no meaning to them. Telling them that the DHS threat level has been raised from yellow to orange probably doesn’t mean much to them, either. They likely have only the vaguest idea of why opening an envelope and finding white powder would be so ominous. To them, the Transportation Security Administration has always existed.
If you’re roughly 30 or older, I apologize for starting your day with a flood of memories and probably making you feel old. But we should keep in mind that, never mind the attacks themselves, most of today’s teenagers likely have no memory of the U.S. Navy SEAL operation that killed bin Laden. To them, he’s always been dead, always been history — like the Challenger explosion to the Millennials, the JFK assassination to most of Generation X, or the Great Depression to the Baby Boomers.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we wanted more than anything to give our children a world where they would not live in fear of al-Qaeda attacks. We’ve done that, and largely left al-Qaeda on the ash heap of history. And apparently bin Laden and al-Qaeda are so forgotten . . . that someone can come along and paint an absurdly sympathetic portrait of one of the worst mass murderers in modern history, and America’s extremely online young people will nod along in agreement.
Since the beginning of the Hamas crisis, TikTok has been flooded with pro-Palestinian messages and arguments excusing the actions of Hamas and demonizing Israel. Jeff Morris Jr. noticed anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian high-school walkouts occurring and wondered how and why American teenagers had become so enamored with the Palestinian cause, right after Hamas committed a spectacularly bloody massacre. He noticed that once he engaged with one post, “My entire feed became aggressively anti-Israel. It was as if I was placed in an AB test variant and was told to see this war with Israel being the evil side.”
TikTok insists it does not tweak its algorithm to promote certain viewpoints, and that it opposes antisemitism. One reason for suspicion is that in Chinese state-run media, you can find lots of comments comparing Israelis to Nazis and proclaiming that “Hitler truly knew the Jews” . . . leaving us wondering just how accurately the managers of TikTok define antisemitism.
In this environment, a surprisingly high number of TikTok users reading and reacting to a letter from Osama bin Laden concluded that the most notorious terrorist in American history wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
A decades-old document allegedly written by Osama bin Laden and titled “Letter to America” recently went viral on TikTok, with some young Americans believing that the al-Qaeda founder made valid points about their own country.
The two-page document, which was published by The Guardian, is a letter Bin Laden wrote in 2002 as a polemic against the U.S. and an explanation of the ideology that led him to orchestrate the 9/11 attacks. . . .
“It’s wild and everyone should read it,” said one TikTok user, warning that the letter had left her “very disillusioned” and “confused.” Another user talked of having an “existential crisis” after reading the document and having her entire viewpoint on life changed by it. . . .
“The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq,” bin Laden wrote. “This is why the American people cannot be innocent of all the crimes committed by the Americans and Jews against us.”
Realizing that it was the source for most of these nascent TikTok terrorism historians, The Guardian deleted the 2002 letter, but you can still find it here and here, and various excerpts of it in books here and here; his letters from 1994 to 1998 here; his 1998 interview with John Miller here; and his bookshelf here. (Also enjoy this ABC News headline from 2016: “New Osama Bin Laden Letters Show Paranoid Micromanager in Hiding.”) I actually think taking down the letter from websites is a bad idea because it will set off a million and one conspiracy theories. Osama bin Laden’s letters — making absurdly unconvincing arguments that his acts of terrorism were justified — are a part of history just like Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf is a part of history. That is to say, they’re a terrible part of history, a demonstration of how evil men justify their evil. Taking them off the internet isn’t going to make Islamist extremism or any other variety of evil go away.