I subscribed to the Washington Post for most of my 14 years in Washington on the theory that you should “know your enemy,” or at least your adversary. I generally thought it useful to see what the other side had to say about the issues of the day. And 35 cents a day wasn’t going to break the bank. The Post was, for a time, reasonable on issues of national security–it supported the president’s ousting of the Taliban and was behind the war effort in Iraq. So I thought it useful to keep track of its news and analysis, even when those two things were one.
But sometime in the last year, I decided that I knew my enemy just fine, and in fact, had had it with its social commentary disguised as news. Not a day went by without some front-page “human interest” story on gay marriage, adoption, or the general oppression suffered at the hands of the average American. Stories that were once fodder for the artsy Style section were suddenly driving the news coverage. The national “pro-choice” marches on Washington were above-the-fold stories, complete with exaggerated head counts and half-page photos, while coverage of the annual March for Life was buried, if it was lucky, in the Metro section. An editorial page that had been as out front in supporting the liberation of Iraq as any mainstream media outlet washed its hands of the matter, and continued its march to the left on social issues, crying foul at President Bush’s selection of judges and praising the courage of Democratic stalling tactics. Unable to take it anymore, I pulled the plug on my subscription. “Know your enemy” was no longer a sufficient justification for suffering through the pages of the Post.
“Know your enemy” has its limitations as a theory. I wouldn’t, for instance, drop a dime on the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or The Nation, since I already have a pretty good idea about what the far-left elements of the media have to say and wouldn’t wish to stomach them on a daily basis. And I say that recognizing fully that none of those media outlets is really an enemy of American conservatives, just political adversaries.
But “know your enemy” is a favorite theory of the Left in our current war on terrorism. The theory goes something like this: If we try to understand the conditions that have bred modern Muslim fundamentalism, that understanding will eventually lead to peace. A new book to be published by Doubleday next year may take that theory to an extreme. According to Reuters, Doubleday will release, sometime in 2006, an English-language version of The Al Qaeda Reader, a virtual manifesto of Osama bin Laden. Reuters reports that the book “offers a history of the radical Muslim group, with interviews with bid Laden and his associates and a tract on Islamic struggle by his right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahri.” Doubleday is justifying the publication of the book on the theory that it is important to “educated Americans” on the mind of the enemy. “This gives a direct perspective on their philosophy,” a spokesman for the publisher said.
While Doubleday says that it will donate any profits to charity, here’s hoping there are none. The notion that the publication of Osama bin Laden’s inner thoughts is going to help end our nearly four-year-old battle with al Qaeda is naïve at best, harmful at worst. Even setting aside the offensiveness of the book’s publication to the victims of al Qaeda’s worldwide campaign of terror, the proliferation of radical Islamist thought by a mainstream American publisher threatens to offer a “how to”–or at least a “why to”–to the enemies of freedom throughout the world. As Jack Lynch, the father of a firefighter slain on September 11 told Reuters: “I fear this book could ignite the lunatic fringe in this country who are sympathetic to al Qaeda.”
In thinking about radical Islamic terrorism, the “know your enemy” calculus is only half right. Our government and military leaders should develop their best understanding of al Qaeda and other Islamic fascist movements. Realistically, that understanding is not going to lead to peace of the olive-branch variety, as Doubleday would have it. If it helps us capture or kill al Qaeda, though, that knowledge is a beautiful thing.
–Shannen W. Coffin is a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.