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The Napoleon of Terror

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 Project but 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 did know 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 Cure whose 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 before one 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.)

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 and the antiglobalizers. Now, that was 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.