In remarkably symmetrical fashion, George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden delivered roughly simultaneous declarations of war on Sunday, with each one presumably not knowing what the other one said.
In certain obvious ways the statements could not have been more different. The clean-shaven US president sat in the elegance of the White House in suit and tie, with nary a gun around. The bearded leader of al-Qaida sat in what appeared to be cave, in a turban, with a gun close by his side. The president spoke calmly and generously; the terrorist leader spoke angrily and vengefully.
They disagree on substance, of course. Those individuals Bush disparages as "terrorists," bin Laden praises as "vanguard Muslims." Likewise, the American's "barbaric criminals who profane a great religion by committing murder in its name" are for the Saudi a sanctified lot, "the group that resorted to God." What Bush portrays as a righteous "campaign against terrorism," bin Laden mocks as "falsehoods."
They also differ on how this war came about. Bush refers to the "sudden terror" that descended on the United States just 27 days earlier. In contrast, bin Laden sees it resulting from more than 80 years of "humiliation and disgrace" at American hands, through which the Muslim world's sons have been killed and its sanctities desecrated.
But in many other ways, the two talks surprisingly resemble each other. Both are crisp and short (under a thousand words). Both invoke God (Bush only once, bin Laden 10 times). Interestingly, Islam is the only religion either of them ever mentions (Bush refers to it once, bin Laden four times), and both do so in order to praise it.
The two leaders each dwell on the fact that the US government has managed to find wide support among Muslim governments, tacitly agreeing on the importance of this development. Bush alludes to it with pride, drawing from it the conclusion that the US military strikes on Afghanistan "are supported by the collective will of the world." Conversely, bin Laden evinces great anger at this "treachery," devoting a large part of his talk to the "hypocrites" ruling Muslim countries, whom he accuses of "toying with the blood, honor, and sanctities of Muslims." He even deems them apostates and reads them out of the Islamic faith.
Each divides the world in a binary fashion into two camps, denying the possibility of neutrality. For Bush, "every nation has a choice to make" - fight terrorism or be part of the problem. For bin Laden, there are two sides, "the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels," and each person has a choice to make. (For bin Laden, it bears note, the "faithful" do not include all Muslims, just those who agree with his outlook.) Both refer to oppressed people, but different ones. Bush points to the inhabitants of Afghanistan, suffering under the Taliban regime. Bin Laden focuses instead on those of Iraq, whose plight he blames entirely on Bush, the "head of international infidels."
These two declarations of war do accurately convey the vast gap between the sides in outlook and morality. Note the contrast between sudden terror 27 days earlier and 80 years of humiliation; the contrast could not be starker between the stunned American sense of ruptured innocence versus the brooding militant Islamic feeling of betrayal and trauma. Americans see themselves minding their own business, going to work in the office or going on a plane, and suddenly being barbarically attacked. Islamists see themselves under the Western heel for generations, and consider the September 11 attack as a major step in defending themselves.
Finally, the statements point to the fact that this war is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash between civilization and barbarism. George W. Bush promises airborne food, medicine, and supplies to the "starving and suffering" Afghan people, but Osama bin Laden sneeringly delights that "America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west." The strategy for fighting this war will be novel, but bin Laden resembles prior American enemies such as Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein in that he represents as close to absolute evil as can be found among humans.