What does Osama bin Laden’s reading list have to tell us? Made public Wednesday morning by the office of the director of national intelligence, it lists 103 documents, from U.S. government reports to published works of nonfiction that reveal Bin Laden to be a smart and educated adversary, as we have always understood.
Since the 9/11 attacks, we as a culture have resisted complex readings of Bin Laden, choosing to deride him as a fanatic, which, of course, he was. But that assessment also underestimates his considerable talents, operational and otherwise, his understanding not only of how to enact terror, but also what that terror meant. His reading list suggests just how deep that understanding, that sense of inquiry, went.
Sept. 11, after all, was so disturbing, so effective because of its metaphoric value, as much as the death and devastation that it caused. Think about it: two citadels of American political and economic hegemony — the Pentagon and the World Trade Center (with a third, possibly the White House, targeted by the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania) — destroyed by turning our technology and mobility against us. If a jetliner can become a weapon, and an office tower a killing ground, how can anyone be safe?
This is why “The 9/11 Commission Report” became a national bestseller upon its release in 2004 — because in the wake of the disaster, we needed a sense of context to reassure us that the pillars by which we understand the world were still in place. The product of a bipartisan federal commission, the report began with a minute-by-minute re-creation of the catastrophe, before moving into a series of extended considerations: of the rise of Bin Laden, the development of American counterterrorism efforts and the escalation of the conflict between Al Qaeda and the United States.
“The 9/11 Commission Report” is one of the documents discovered on Bin Laden’s bookshelf — no surprise there. What better way to understand one’s enemy than to understand the narratives we hold dear?
Something similar might be said about the dozens of other federal reports in his possession, which range from the practical (applications for both new and reissued passports, instructions on how to register the birth of a U.S. citizen abroad) to the analytical (a 2009 Senate assessment of “the Evolving Al-Qaeda Threat to the Homeland,” a 2005 National Security Council “Strategy for Victory in Iraq”). It makes sense that Bin Laden would find such materials useful, for the insights they offer into our way of thinking, of strategizing, if nothing else.
And yet, I find myself compelled — and in a perverse way, cheered — by another aspect of these holdings, which is what they have to say about American transparency. This has been an essential, and ongoing, source of debate since the Patriot Act first asked us to sacrifice freedom for security, a discussion kicked into overdrive by Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations about the National Security Agency. Still, the fact that bin Laden, of all people, could have such information on his bookshelf suggests the degree of transparency that is still in place.
If you think transparency is a threat to national security, you’ll likely see this as evidence for further restricting public access to the workings of government. For me, though, it represents a kind of victory, over precisely the sort of theocratic autocracy Bin Laden and his successors represent.
What is the best way to defeat authoritarians? Make information available. For proof of this, let’s remember that Bin Laden did not destroy American culture, although he did reveal some of its fissures — yet even this may work to our benefit if we use it as a lens through which to look at ourselves more closely, in the reflection of our ideals.
As far as the rest of bin Laden’s reading list, it, too, is as we might imagine. We find the work of government critics such as Greg Palast (“The Best Democracy Money Can Buy”) and Noam Chomsky (“Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance”), as well as popular histories like Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Superpowers” and Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars.”
Monomania? Yes, and a bit of self-absorption. But what else would we expect from a figure of such single-minded purpose, who in these titles is revealed?
Indeed, looking through the list is a reminder, finally, of his humanity, dangerous and misguided though he was. This is something we don’t like to think about, that we share with our adversaries a common human core. But for me, what resonates about this list is how mundane parts of it are, how recognizable — not specialized but common, titles we might discover on our own shelves.