Bin Laden's Obscene Equivalency

The terrorist justifies his massacres by citing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It's time for Japan's leaders to set him straight

By Brian Bremner

In the rhetorical war on terrorism, it's interesting how often Japan's actions during World War II have been pulled into the fray. Early on in the crisis, one couldn't pick up a newspaper without seeing references to Pearl Harbor and kamikaze pilots. Pearl Harbor is one of the first things I uttered to my wife, Yuki, as we watched CNN's coverage of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

She and plenty of my Japanese friends didn't much care for the comparison -- and they have a point. Japan's Imperial army primarily went after military targets on Oahu in a preemptive strike intended to cripple U.S. naval reach in the Pacific. On the scale of villainy, Pearl Harbor doesn't approach the premeditated slaughter of more than 5,000 defenseless civilians in New York.

That point has finally sunk in, it would seem, that the U.S. and its allies confront an entirely different sort of enemy. This war will be marked by sneak attacks aimed at finding Osama bin Laden and other terrorists while keeping civilian casualties low.


  More intriguing and unsettling to me, though, have been the Japanese references bin Laden has dropped into his diatribes in recent years and repeated in his videotaped warning released after the bombing of Afghanistan began. As part of his indictment of U.S. imperialism in the Muslim world and alleged human-rights abuses, he has on at least two occasions mentioned the U.S. decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan in the final phase of the Pacific War.

Why? It's true that many Japanese still think the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have and should have been avoided. But it's hard to imagine that bin Laden is stupid enough to think he can dislodge a newly assertive Japan from the coalition arrayed against him. (He may be a lot of things, but he's clearly not daft.)

Japan is a modern democracy. Its economy has a huge stake in preserving free trade, capital movement, secure oil flows, air travel, and so on. Newspaper polls show tremendous support for U.S. aims in this war. And Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has made sure Japan's self-defense forces will play a meaningful logistical role and do everything possible to help within the bounds of the nation's war-renouncing Constitution.

I think bin Laden is up to something else. Japan is the only country ever to be struck by atomic bombs, which certainly fall under the category of weapons of mass destruction. I fear he's trying to use Japan to make the point that if the U.S. can use such weapons, then the al Qaeda terrorist organization and its allies in the Middle East and Asia are morally justified to do the same.


  Bin Laden's logic: Since the U.S. was the first to unleash such mayhem, now it's fair game for terrorists to use nukes, anthrax, bubonic plague, or anything else they can get their hands on to pursue the jihad against American citizens and their friends in the monarchies of the gulf states.

This line of thinking needs to be engaged in the rhetorical wars. And Japan's leaders are perhaps the best advocates against such warped views. Even if one assumes bin Laden isn't long for this world, a whole generation of angry Islamic extremists still think as he does. Count on weapons of mass destruction to be high on their acquisition list as they pursue their strategic and religious aims.

Bin Laden and his gang aren't really looking out for the interests of any particular state. They have some broad aims -- a return to an austere form of Islam, the destruction of Israel, and the expulsion of U.S. troops from the Arab world. His master plan allows for the further destruction of war-torn Afghanistan and the Taliban that has harbored him.

He certainly doesn't represent the majority of devout Muslims or their governments, democracies or dictatorships, in the gulf states or Central Asia. What he does represent is a transnational network of terrorists who answer to no one else and live by a morality under which any means, including the physical destruction of the civilized world, justify their ends.


  To be sure, plenty of innocent Japanese were killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands of Japanese civilians were killed in the saturation bombing of Tokyo at the end of the war, aimed at destroying Japan's will to fight. Still, the Pacific War was primarily a conflict between the armed forces of Japan and the U.S. The aim of America and its allies was to win that war and bring peace.

In the war for the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, bin Laden needs to be denounced convincingly for his attempted justification of the use of weapons of mass destruction. Since bin Laden fancies himself to be an ethicist on the question of the atomic bombing of Japan, maybe the task of denouncing him should fall to Premier Koizumi, his diplomats, and Japanese intellectuals. Japan isn't widely despised in Islam and, by dint of its history, it has a kind of moral authority as the only nation to come under a nuclear attack.

Who better than the Japanese to undercut bin Laden's moral equivalency of Hiroshima with his aims of employing horrible weapons to kill Americans, Europeans, Israelis, and any others that stand in his way? It will be fascinating to see whether Japan weighs in.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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