New Yorkers were shocked and appalled when some social media personalities rediscovered a 2002 “Letter to America” in which Osama Bin Laden, dripping with antisemitism, criticized U.S. foreign policy, suggesting it painted a more compelling picture of the terrorist. While the rehabilitation of the dead jihadist behind 9/11 may have been overstated, the Guardian, which had hosted a version of the letter, pulled it from its site.
We’ve defended the principles of free speech many times here, including several in the past several weeks as some institutions have turned towards speech restrictionism in response to widespread public discourse and high tensions in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attack on Israel and its subsequent military response.
It is crucial to note, though, that this isn’t a principle for its own sake. There is a practical purpose to having robust public discussion, in particular around contentious social and political topics and including unpopular or controversial ideas. Exposure to ideas, even bad ones, is the only way for people, especially young people, to develop antibodies against extremism. We should know by now that little is as enticing as the forbidden; to hide ideas is to all but beg those casting about for political identity to ask “what are they trying to hide?”
Stalin, Hitler and Mao are all worthy of study, as is another blood-soaked fiend, Bin Laden. To the ignorant and ahistorical who do their scholarly research on TikTok, some of these monsters’ rhetoric may sound intriguing. But what is needed is education to what they really stood for and what they really did. Shutting down access is a great way to generate sympathy and additional cachet for seemingly forbidden ideas.
We can practically guarantee that scrubbing the Bin Laden letter from the Guardian’s site has just driven more people to go looking for it, perhaps in places where there won’t be quite as much contextualization or where it’ll be an entrypoint to more dangerous calls to action.
This is in no way an entreaty to reevaluate Bin Laden nor a call to disseminate his letter. Any ideas the man might have are but a footnote to his campaign of murder and terrorism — a campaign led, by the way, by a former billionaire business school student who chose to reinvent himself as a revolutionary.
It’s not a call for all speech to be tolerated everywhere; it makes sense to have some social media moderation of harmful medical misinformation around vaccines and eating disorders, for example, and no institution, university or otherwise, should tolerate members calling for violence against or harassment of others.
We are pointing out that efforts to hide what is ultimately a historically significant document, or to tamp down on expressions of political opinion, are not only anti-democratic but most often backfire. Students who have valid criticisms of Israel’s policies and the country’s military campaign against Hamas are not going to soften their stance by having their campus groups banned and job prospects threatened; they’ll turn towards extreme versions of those positions.
Young people must be able to read and discuss disputed or outright bad ideas without risking their futures. You can’t keep someone in a clean room and be shocked that the first contact with the flu is almost fatal.
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