By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Still, bin Laden was no mere despot like Saddam Hussein, the Middle East’s reigning exemplar of conventional wickedness. Saddam’s was the crude, greedy evil that’s easy to grasp. Any child can understand why a man might want to be so powerful that he could grab all the treasure, bed any woman he fancies, and build monuments to himself.
Such lavish selfishness is comprehensible because it’s an extension of our everyday desires. In contrast, bin Laden’s curdled fundamentalism (not so far from the extremist Christian, Jewish and Hindu variants) was America’s worst nightmare — the enraged, murderous underbelly of Enlightenment ideas of progress and rationality. Where the West was materialistic, he devoted himself to the spiritual; where the West sought creature comforts, he proudly chose to be ascetic; where the West embraced sweet reason, he followed the lodestar of faith; where the West tolerated pluralistic points of view, he saw only one Islamic truth; where the West rejected death, he embraced it as a higher calling.
Even his language rebuked ours: President Bush took pride in his homespun Texas vernacular, but bin Laden spoke a literary Arabic whose florid eloquence offered his followers proof that he’d been touched by the divine. You cannot buy off such a man, one who wants an Islamic paradise on earth; nor, it turned out, can you easily capture him. He proved so elusive, in fact, that the Bush administration began to find it embarrassing. The president went months at a time without mentioning his name.
Just as bin Laden was the antithesis of Western values, so his terrorist network was the decentered shadow of Western social organizations. Al Qaeda knew that you could fight great nations or huge corporations only by shattering their self-confidence with the tools of asymmetrical warfare — suicide bombings, hijacked jetliners, and the fear of such things that proves more crippling than the deeds themselves. While both globalizing capitalists and anti-WTO demonstrators believed you could create a just, modern, secular society, bin Laden and al Qaeda wanted to tear down modernity itself. They would destroy both the globalizers andthe antiglobalizers. Now, thatwas being radical.
Redolent of death and destruction, Osama bin Laden came to symbolize uncontrollable madnesses, Third World contagions, and incomprehensible cruelties done in the name of the divine. That’s why, in the first days of the October 2001 anthrax attack on the U.S. mail, most people figured al Qaeda must be behind it. For Osama’s brand of symbolic fear was also engendered by the deadly bacteria Bacillus anthracis, which could enter your body and lay you low without your ever knowing it happened. Who among us didn’t open letters more warily in those days? In a society based on luminous ideas of rationality and control, the notion of an unseen disease striking the body may be even more terrifying than the sight of planes striking skyscrapers. You can refuse to fly, but you can’t stop breathing.
Anthrax was the incarnation of our unconscious fears, and the ensuing run-amok paranoia about biochemical weapons (gas masks, Cipro, unopened mail in the dustbin) erupted into people’s lives just as unbearable sexual fantasies once invaded the bottled-up psyches of Freud’s patients. In bin Laden’s demonic fundamentalism, so much of what we have repressed — chaos, madness, the drive toward death — returned with a literal vengeance.