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Published on Saturday, November 17, 2001
“The O’Sama Factor”: Bin Laden Mimics Fox's Bill O’Reilly
by Dennis Hans
The few Americans still not persuaded that Osama bin Laden is certifiably mad should read the interview he gave November 7 to Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir. Believe it or not, bin Laden actually claimed that U.S. citizens are responsible for the foreign policy of their government!

“The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president,” he said. “The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. The entire America [is responsible], because they elect the Congress.” (

As anyone who’s been around the block a time or two knows, this is a fairy-tale version of our political system at work. Bin Laden seems to be relying on some crude piece of propaganda -- most likely a middle school social studies text -- funneled to him, perhaps, by a U.S.-based al-Qaida operative.

This would not be the first time that government disinformation devised exclusively for an internal audience -- in this case, easily duped youngsters -- fell into the wrong hands and was taken at face value. In intelligence circles, this is called “blowout.” Whereas “blowback” refers to CIA disinformation planted in foreign media that is picked up by U.S. media and presented as the truth to our unsuspecting public, “blowout” is domestic-directed disinformation that finds its way to unsuspecting foreigners.

Until bin Laden came along, virtually every target of Uncle Sam’s wrath was careful to distinguish the “good American people” from the “bad American government.” Among many others, Vietnamese in the 1960s, East Timorese in the 1970s, Nicaraguans in the 1980s and Iraqis in the 1990s all insisted they harbored no ill will towards ordinary Americans, whom they saw as victims of official U.S. propaganda loyally distributed by news media that offered the appearance but not the substance of feisty independence. “If only Americans understood what their government is doing in their name” has been our targets’ constant refrain.

Johnson and Nixon lied about Vietnam. Ford and Carter lied about East Timor. Reagan lied about Nicaragua. Bush the Elder and Clinton lied about Iraq -- not about the wickedness of Saddam, but the catastrophic effects of economic sanctions that prevented the rebuilding of the power and water-treatment plants we demolished in the Gulf War. Respected human rights groups and U.N. agencies say the sanctions have killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children -- victims of water-borne diseases and malnutrition that weren’t much of a problem prior to the sanctions.

These presidents lied because they feared the American equivalent of the “Arab street” -- what we call “Main Street.” Deception is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, or, to translate for our current president, that evil-doers pay to people with good hearts.

In 1964 Johnson painted presidential rival Barry Goldwater as a warmonger when it was Johnson himself who secretly planned to escalate the Vietnam War. In 1968 Nixon won over Main Street with a crock claim that he had a “secret plan to end the war.” The Ford and Carter administrations misled Congress about their illegal arms aid to an Indonesia army occupying East Timor and slaughtering its inhabitants; both administrations kept quiet about the bloodbath when possible and lied about it when necessary. Reagan got seed money for the contras from Congress by falsely claiming its purpose was the interdiction of arms allegedly flowing from Nicaragua to El Salvador. He kept the aid flowing by hailing certified butchers as the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers.” Lies, lies and more lies.

If it’s crazy to hold deceived and manipulated Americans responsible for the actions of their government -- as bin Laden does -- what are we to make of Bill O’Reilly, who holds ordinary Afghans responsible for theirs? When it comes to pulling the wool over the citizenry’s eyes and squelching dissent, Uncle Sam is a piker compared to the Taliban. Yet listen to the Fox News Channel’s self-styled voice of the common man ranting away on September 17 -- that is, weeks before the Taliban’s victims acquired a superpower ally:

If the Taliban don’t extradite bin Laden to the U.S., “the U.S. should bomb the Afghan infrastructure to rubble -- the airport, the power plants, their water facilities, and the roads.... This is a very primitive country. And taking out their ability to exist day to day will not be hard. Remember, the people of any country are ultimately responsible for the government they have. The Germans were responsible for Hitler. The Afghans are responsible for the Taliban. We should not target civilians. But if they don’t rise up against this criminal government, they starve, period.”

Commenting on O’Reilly’s outburst, the left-leaning media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, or FAIR, said “It’s unclear how O’Reilly is able to reconcile his claim that ‘we should not target civilians’ with his calls for decimating the infrastructures of at least three countries [O’Reilly had tossed in Iraq and Libya for good measure] and starving their populations.”

Being sticklers for legality, FAIR noted that “The Geneva Conventions (Protocol 1, Part IV, Chapter III, Article 54) are very clear that ‘starvation of civilians as a method of warfare is prohibited.’ They specify that ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,’ including water and food supplies, are not legal military targets. Violating these strictures, which are legally binding on the U.S., would constitute a war crime, and might be considered a crime against humanity.”

We close with an urgent plea to al-Qaida and every other violent group or government throughout the world: Before you decide to punish the Arab, Israeli, Asian, African, South American or North American “street” for the real or imagined sin of a particular government or group, be absolutely certain that the street had prior access to complete and accurate information about the proposed sinful act, freely endorsed it in advance, was kept fully informed of the ongoing human impact of the sin, and never withdrew support.

Be aware that even if all those conditions are met, retaliation at the street level would still constitute a war crime. But at least you’d have a moral leg up on Fox’s “fair and balanced” Bill O’Reilly.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, National Post (Canada) and online at, Slate and The Black World Today (, among other outlets. He has taught courses in mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg, and can be reached at


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