Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Going Deep on Bin Laden

I’d expect to see this kind of deep introspective look at the childhood and family history of Osama bin Laden from some way-left explainer, not David Brooks.

We think of terrorism leaders as hard and intimidating. Bin Laden was gentle and soft, with a flaccid handshake. Yet his soldiers have told researchers such as Peter Bergen, the author of “The Longest War,” that meeting him was a deeply spiritual experience. They would tell stories of his ability to avoid giving offense and forgive transgressors.

We think of terrorists as trying to build cells and organizations, but Bin Laden created an anti-organization — an open-source set of networks with some top-down control but much decentralization and a willingness to embrace all recruits, regardless of race, sect or nationality.

We think of war fighters as using violence to seize property and power, but Bin Laden seemed to regard murder as a subdivision of brand management. It was a way to inspire the fund-raising networks, dominate the news and manipulate meaning.

In short, Osama Bin Laden seemed to live in an ethereal, postmodern world of symbols and signifiers and also a cruel murderous world of rage and humiliation. Even the most brilliant intelligence analyst could not anticipate such an odd premodern and postglobalized creature, or could imagine that such a creature would gain such power.

I just wish there were a democratic Bin Laden, that amid all the Arab hunger for dignity and freedom there was another inexplicable person with the ability to frame narratives and propel action — for good, not evil.

He makes it sound as if he hadn’t grown up in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden would have owned a couple of Starbucks and driven an old Volvo station wagon.

I’m all in favor of looking beyond the surface of some of the people in this world in order to make sense of what it is that they do and why. But in some cases you just have to accept the fact that there are some really evil people out there — the same kind who demonize whole swaths of society for being gay or who use religion to justify murder — and leave it at that.