Bin Laden’s Basement Tape

Not long after President Bush finished his live White House speech announcing the strikes on Afghanistan, the networks began broadcasting the homemade concert video by Osama bin Laden and his terrorist supergroup. The whole thing was so perfectly timed that I half expected one of those little graphics to pop onscreen: "Battle of the Trust Fund Leaders." After all, the War on Terrorism is, among other things, a war of images.

Since September 11, Bush’s handlers have grown more skillful at portraying him as a wartime president. For Sunday’s speech, they put him in the Treaty Room, a symbol of peace, and sat him before a window, the Free World behind him all sunny and green; knowing that he’s uneasy with his hands, they quickly moved the camera in on his face. Over the last few weeks, Bush has learned to display some gravitas, even if he still lacks Tony Blair’s soothing lucidity. Where the British prime minister transforms an unwanted campaign against terrorism into a positive vision of the future, our president always seems to be dealing in negatives, from his routine use of "make no mistake" to Sunday’s deliberately Churchillian litany: "We will not waver, we will not tire," and so forth. Even when launching an assault by the world’s mightiest military power, Bush is on the defensive.

Not so his foe, who in sheer movie terms is far better at playing Dr. No than Bush is at playing James Bond. Like millions of others, I felt a slight frisson when, during a lengthy diatribe by al Qaeda’s PR man, the camera panned to the right, revealing bin Laden posed quietly in front of a rifle. Gaunt and ethereal in his camouflage jacket, he gazed downward, as if saddened by the barbarity of American bomber attacks, though what’s spooky is that he was obviously acting — the cave-tape was made before the American bombs started falling. Although bin Laden does know what to do with his hands — he holds up his long index finger like an ancient prophet in a painting — his manner is unnervingly droopy, fraught with a rich kid’s spoiled languor. He possesses an ominous black-hole charisma that reminds me of the sociopath, in the recent Japanese thriller Cure, whose mere presence induces the people he meets to murder others and then commit suicide.

Bin Laden delivered his message with absolute conviction, yet CNN’s simultaneous translation was so inept that he seemed to be stumbling over his words. The effect was oddly disconcerting, as if the guy you felt sure was the Godfather suddenly turned out to be Fredo. (Naturally, that impression evaporated when you read the translated text of his speech in Monday’s New York Times, which reprinted it on the opposite page from Bush’s.) Bin Laden played on decades-old Islamic grievances (many of them justified), 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 worthy of Hannibal Lecter, he calmly took a sip of water, to assure the world that he faces the prospect of mass death with divine equanimity.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Watching Bush and bin Laden back to back, I realized that this war demands that we all become first-rate. We must grasp that it’s necessary to uproot bin Laden and other genocidal terrorists, yet we can’t let ourselves forget why bin Laden’s resentment of America resonates so powerfully in so much of the poor, brutally governed world. If we fail to do the former, our inaction could kill us; if we fail to do the latter, Osama bin Laden could be just the beginning.


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