By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
An epic War on Terror demands a nemesis, and when most Americans first heard about Osama bin Laden in the hours following the 9/11 attacks, they found one startling in his grandiosity. With that beard and those robes and the soulful eyes, he grabbed your attention, which is one reason why TV instantly treated him as a malevolent new star. His presence could “open” a Sunday news show the way Tom Cruise could Mission: Impossible. For, as the recent 9/11 Commission report serves to remind us, bin Laden wasn’t merely the source of the terror visited on America, he was its mythic personification — Charles Manson to the nth power, a divinely inspired madman preaching a helter-skelter sermon of mass death and virgin-stocked paradise. And his diabolism was obviously infectious:
The networks never tired of replaying those al Qaeda training films, which had the same lousy production values as The Blair Witch Projectbut felt much, much scarier. Osama could show you fear in a handful of videotape.
Bin Laden burst into our consciousness like some pulp-fiction supervillain, but his actual life story smacks of the dilettante. The seventh son among 50 brothers and sisters, he was born into a mega-rich Saudi family whose values he rejected even as he took his cut of their dough. His Islamic faith carried him to Afghanistan, where he helped fight the Soviet occupiers, an activity that clearly gave him a taste for jihad. A delicate line separates the terrorist who fights for practicable changes from those who fall into the kind of right- and left-wing utopianism that made 20th-century Europe such an abattoir; bin Laden crossed that line at some point, perhaps during the early 1990s. He moved from wanting to chase U.S. troops off sacred soil and topple the sullied Saudi government (“Arab leaders worship the God of the White House” was his verdict) to declaring holy war against the West, singling out America, and vowing to prepare the world for the true faith of Islam. And he backed up this dream with his money. He wasn’t just a high priest of holy war, he was a princely financier.
As bin Laden’s story became known, I half-expected to see a network banner, “Battle of the Trust-Fund Leaders.” In so many ways, bin Laden was the Arabian alter ego of George W. Bush. Both came from rich, powerful families — which did business together — in communities built on oil. Both put in time as party boys (Bush topped bin Laden) yet eventually discovered deep religious devotion (here, bin Laden was the winner). Most important, perhaps, both thought in terms of theological absolutes, the glossy black-and-white of the faithful and the damned. Yet for all these disconcerting similarities, bin Laden clearly felt far more comfortable in his historical role than did Bush, especially in the weeks after September 11. Where the president seemed physically uncomfortable, bin Laden’s fey smile was the perfect riposte to Bush’s cowboy scowl. While he’s nearly 6 and a half feet tall and profusely bearded, his affect is feminine, refined, with “delicate Yemeni features” (as Fouad Ajami once described them) and a creepy air of preternatural calm. Unlike Bush, bin Laden didknow what to do with his hands when speaking — holding up his long index finger like an ancient prophet — but his manner was unnervingly droopy, fraught with a rich kid’s spoiled languor. He possessed an ominous black-hole charisma that recalled the sociopath in the recent Japanese thriller Curewhose mere presence induces those he meets to commit murder and then kill themselves.
Yet if his aura was otherworldly, he was grounded enough to recognize that his war against the West would be partly a battle of images, which is why his dispatches were constantly being handed to Al-Jazeera. Never was this clearer than on the day that President Bush announced the beginning of war against the Taliban. Shortly after that speech, a bin Laden basement tape made it to the world’s TV screens. Gaunt and ethereal in his camouflage jacket, he gazed downward as if saddened by the barbarity of American air attacks on Afghanistan, although the cave tape was made beforeone American bomb fell. No matter. Bin Laden acted the martyr, playing on decades-old Islamic grievances (some of them very real), specifically linked his “holy” mission to Iraq and the Palestinians, and finished by reaffirming his ultimate goal — a doomsday showdown between “the camp of the faithful” and “the camp of the infidels.” In a final fillip, he calmly took a sip of water, to assure the world that he faced the prospect of mass death with divine equanimity.
Perhaps sensing bin Laden’s power to inspire terror, the Bush administration did everything it could to chop him verbally down to size. The president spoke of him in dehumanized terms: Osama was the vermin we had to “smoke out of his hole,” the annoying mosquito that forced us to “drain the swamp.” For his part, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld blithely mispronounced Osama’s surname as bin Layden, and continues to do so to this day. (Had Bush done that, we’d have thought he didn’t know the correct way to say it; with Rumsfeld, it just sounded like exuberant contempt.)