Of all the misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies about terrorism put forth by the Bush Administration, none is as pernicious as the one repeated by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer last Friday during his talk at Bowdoin College on "Iraq and the War on Terrorism." Echoing a claim Bush has frequently made since the attacks on September 11, 2001, Bremer asserted, with all the authority his 14 months as special envoy to Iraq confers, that Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. because they "hate freedom."

However reprehensible the attacks on September 11 were, responding effectively to the threat they represent requires the courage to confront the situation truthfully. Seeking to comprehend Islamist Jihadists by facilely asserting that they simply hate freedom is about as sensible as, well, invading a non-Islamist state such as Iraq in the hopes of destroying Islamist terrorism. It does not serve the truth, nor the security of the American people, but only the short-sighted and misguided political aims of those in power.

Even before the attacks on September 11, bin Laden repeatedly sought to state his motives. In 1996, he explained that the attacks of that year on U.S. embassies in Africa were meant "to kick the Americans out of Saudi Arabia," which he claimed had become "an American colony." Later the same year he cited the U.S. embargo of Iraq and Israeli killings of Palestinians as further justification for terrorist attacks. In 1998, bin Laden again set forth his reasons for taking up arms against the U.S., this time citing U.S. intervention in Saudi Arabia, the site of Islam's two holiest places.

In the aftermath of September 11 bin Laden has explained himself on numerous occasions, though U.S. media seldom relate the substance of his missives. In a videotaped speech released last October, bin Laden accused Bush, Sr. of perpetrating "the greatest mass slaughter of children mankind has ever known" in the First Gulf War, and Bush, Jr. of using the Second Gulf War "to remove an old agent and replace him with a new puppet to assist in the pilfering of Iraq's oil and other outrages."

While few may agree with bin Laden's analysis of the U.S. role in the Middle East, it cannot be said that he has no clear argument. Rather, he has consistently pointed to three factors in justifying his actions: the presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, U.N. sanctions against Iraq, and Israel's policy toward its Arab neighbors.

Bin Laden has even directly addressed Bremer's claim that he hates freedom. To the contrary, bin Laden believes he is acting on behalf of freedom. Were we actually to listen to bin Laden, we would hear him employing the same rhetoric of liberty as does Bush. "We fight because we are free men who don't sleep under oppression," bin Laden has said. "We want to restore freedom to our nation, just as you lay waste to our nation." Last December, bin Laden said that Bush was wrong to claim that al-Qaeda hated freedom. "If so, then let him explain to us why we don't strike, for example, Sweden."

If you don't believe bin Laden's own words, consider those of the Defense Science Board, a federal advisory committee that issued a report on "the war on terror" last November:

Muslims do not hate our freedom, but rather they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the long-standing, even increasing, support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies....Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy.

The critical point is that there is no single, objective ideal of "freedom" over which one party may claim a monopoly. Rather, as historian Eric Foner argues in The Story of American Freedom, freedom is a contestable notion, open to a wide range of interpretations. Islamist Jihadists are, at the least, every bit as committed to their vision of freedom as we are to ours.

So why do they hate us? They hate us because they believe, not without cause, that the U.S. has long acted against the freedoms of everyday people in the Arab and Muslim worlds. What do they want? They want to pursue their vision of freedom by liberating Saudi Arabia and the Arab and Muslim worlds from U.S. influence.

No one should give bin Laden what he wants, because the order that would result would be at least as unjust as the one that currently reigns throughout much of the Middle East and Islamic world. It would also foreclose the possibility of constructive cooperation with the developed world.

Yet as misguided as we believe al-Qaeda's notions of freedom to be, we would do well to remember that those on the "Arab street" who support the Jihadists believe our rhetoric of freedom to be just as specious as we believe bin Laden's to be. The only purpose served by the "they hate freedom" claim is to tar those who attacked us with the brush of irrationality. As Bremer stated, it is impossible to give or concede anything to those who hate our guts on principle. How can one negotiate with evil madmen? Extermination can be the only option.

In perpetuating the falsehood that bin Laden and the terrorists have no specific grievances, Bremer did this community a disservice. Bin Laden may be wrong and cruel, but he is not crazy. For reasons it is imperative for us to figure out, he makes a tremendous amount of sense to many people in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Bremer's approach cannot further the cause of understanding the disaffection that leads to terrorism, because it is simply not the case that we face insane and irrational foes with inscrutable motives. But by granting some small measure of legitimacy to the grievances of the dispossessed rank-and-file to whom al-Qaeda appeals, we may open a doorway into a safer future for all.

Instead, the myth of Islamist irrationality has caused us to pursue an unwise and dangerous course. It may be that U.S. forces can simply exterminate those who oppose us in the Islamic world, but given the course of events in Afghanistan and Iraq it doesn't seem likely. And such a policy doesn't sound very much like the "freedom" we hope to champion throughout the world. If it is true that we cannot completely eradicate "terror"?that instead we must somehow learn to live with those who presently hate us?then treating them as madmen may not be such a good way to start.

Patrick Rael is Associate Professor of History at Bowdoin.