By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Twenty-four hours after Osama bin Laden told the world that the American people should read the work of a little-known Washington historian, William Blum was still adjusting.
Blum, who at 72 is accustomed to laboring in relative left-wing obscurity, checked his emotions and pronounced himself shocked and, well, pleased.
"This is almost as good as being an Oprah book," he said yesterday between telephone calls from the world media and bites of a bagel. "I'm glad." Overnight, his 2000 work, "Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower," had become an Osama book.
In gray slacks, plaid shirt and black slippers, Blum padded around his one-bedroom apartment on Connecticut Avenue. A portrait of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '50s hung on his kitchen wall. Bookshelves bowed under the weight of secret histories of the CIA. The cord on his prehistoric phone let him roam across the living room. He'd already done CNN and MSNBC. A guy from the New York Post knocked on the door to take pictures. The BBC rang, then Reuters and Pacifica Radio stations on both coasts.
From Blum's end of the conversations, you could tell the reporters were expecting him to express some kind of discomfort, remorse, maybe even shame. Blum refused to acknowledge feelings he did not have.
"I was not turned off by such an endorsement," he informed a New York radio station. "I'm not repulsed, and I'm not going to pretend I am." He patiently reiterated the thesis of his foreign-policy critique -- that American interventions abroad create enemies.
You could almost hear the ticking of a stopwatch. These were Blum's 15 American minutes, brought to him by a murderous zealot on the other side of the world who had named him to a kind of Terrorists Book-of-the-Month Club. The CIA duly verified the audiotape from bin Laden, and there it was: Blum had a bona fide book blurb from the evil one.
Now it was time for the soft-spoken, bespectacled radical son of Brooklyn to look thoughtful for the cameras -- "I don't have a good smile" -- and sound pithy for the microphones. Better known in radical circles and on the college lecture circuit than he is among most readers of American history, Blum is a former underground journalist who specializes in sharp critiques of foreign policy. Published by a small outfit in Maine, he also sells his books over the Internet and issues a free monthly e-mail newsletter called the Anti-Empire Report.
What bin Laden said was this, as translated from Arabic by the Associated Press:
"And if Bush decides to carry on with his lies and oppression, then it would be useful for you to read the book 'Rogue State,' which states in its introduction: 'If I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States: First, I would give an apology to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended once and for all.' "
By last night, "Rogue State" shot up from 205,763 to 26 on Amazon.com's index of the most-ordered books.
"I'm calling it the book review of the decade," said Sam Smith, editor of the Progressive Review in Washington and a fan of Blum's work. Smith, too, has blurbed the book ("an especially well-documented encyclopedia of malfeasance") as has Gore Vidal.
Chortled Smith yesterday, "Neither Vidal nor Smith came close to lifting 'Rogue State' into the double digits" on Amazon.
Since Amazon's delivery service, while comprehensive, would not seem to extend to faraway caves, how might bin Laden have gotten his hands on Blum's work?
The author noted "Rogue State" had been published in Arabic in Egypt and Lebanon. And perhaps bin Laden owns the entire Blum canon, because the quote he cited actually is not in "Rogue State," but on the back cover of a collection of Blum essays, "Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire." (That book is languishing on Amazon, while two other books titled "Rogue State" have enjoyed a spike in ranking.)
Blum's exact words? "If I were the president, I could stop terrorist attacks against the United States in a few days. Permanently. I would first apologize -- very publicly and very sincerely -- to all the widows and orphans, the impoverished and the tortured, and all the many millions of other victims of American imperialism."
Yesterday, he made clear that he deplores the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But he argues, as many other essayists have, that they were an understandable retaliation against U.S. foreign policy. "The thesis in my books and my writing is that anti-American terrorism arises from the behavior of U.S. foreign policy," he said. "It is what the U.S. government does which angers people all over the world."
"I am totally against what they did. But we cannot view that as totally the acts of a bunch of madmen. If we do . . . we will continue making the same mistakes, and the so-called war on terror will be as doomed to fail as the war on drugs."
In a chapter called "Why Do Terrorists Keep Picking on the United States?" Blum lists as possible reasons everything from support of Middle East dictators, including the Shah of Iran and Saudi rulers, to occupying military bases in the region, to favoring the Israelis over the Palestinians.
"I think bin Laden shares that view, and that is why I'm not repulsed by his embrace of my book, because that is one of my major themes," Blum said.
When it is pointed out that terrorists target innocent civilians, which is not U.S. policy, he replies that U.S. tactics in Iraq have led to the deaths of thousands of civilians. "We bomb homes and these people have families, and the U.S. refuses to apologize for these civilian deaths," Blum said. "The absence of concern makes their actions almost equal to a deliberate targeting of civilians."
Until now, the mainstream media have paid virtually no attention to Blum. His books rarely are reviewed. But Noam Chomsky has praised his work, and Blum is right there along with Steve Earle, Jane Fonda and Barbara Ehrenreich as a signer of a full-page ad in the New York Times in the fall of 2002 against the military buildup for war in Iraq.
His publisher, Common Courage Press, yesterday could not provide estimates of his sales. Blum says "Rogue State" and "Killing Hope" together have sold more than 100,000 copies, plus an additional 50,000 in a dozen foreign languages. He said he supports himself with his writing and speaking engagements on college campuses.
The son of Polish immigrants, Blum said he studied accounting in college, then landed a low-level computer-related position at the State Department in the mid-1960s. An anti-communist with dreams of becoming a foreign service officer, he said he became disillusioned by the Vietnam War, so he resigned from State and helped found the Washington Free Press, an underground paper. Separated from his German wife, with whom he said he is on good terms, and the father of a 24-year-old son, he lives alone and writes at home.
"He's an alternative journalist, a researcher type," said Smith, who uses Blum's work as a reference when he wants to find, say, a list of dictators the United States has supported in Latin America and the Middle East. "What Bill Blum has basically done is what a historian does, which is to compile the available record and organize it in a way that is useful."
Blum said his life's mission has been this: "If not ending, at least slowing down the American Empire. At least injuring the beast. It's causing so much suffering around the world."
And if he is happy to accept bin Laden's plug, he certainly doesn't want to meet his terrorist fan.
"If he would contact me," said Blum, "then I would be scared."