Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Osama bin Laden: Painfully shy, gentle and soft

New York Times columnist David Brooks (and his editors) thought the occasion of Osama bin Laden's death would be the perfect time for an image makeover for the world's most famous terrorist.   While most news outlets and pundits were (rightly) recalling the evil deeds of the mass murderer, Brooks recalled bin Laden's childhood in a column called "What Drives History": 
"Osama revered the father he rarely got to see and adored his mother. As a teenager, he “would lie at her feet and caress her,” a family friend told Steve Coll, for his definitive biography “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.”
Like many people who go on to alter history, for good and evil, Bin Laden lost his father when he was about 9. The family patriarch was killed in a plane crash caused by an American pilot in the Saudi province of Asir. (Five of the Sept. 11 hijackers would come from that province. His brother was later killed in a plane crash on American soil.)
Osama was an extremely shy child, Coll writes. He was an outsider in his new family but also the golden goose. His allowance and inheritance was the source of his family’s wealth."
Father killed by an American pilot. Brother killed on American soil.  Is Brooks trying to justify or excuse bin Laden's mass murder on 9/11? 

Brooks continues building the case that bin Laden had some admirable qualities:
"As a family man, Bin Laden was interested in sex, cars and work but was otherwise devout. He did not permit photography in his presence. He banned “Sesame Street,” Tabasco sauce and straws from his home. He covered his eyes if an unveiled woman entered the room. He liked to watch the news, but he had his children stand by the set and turn down the volume whenever music came on. 
As Coll emphasized in an interview on Monday, this sort of devoutness, while not everybody’s cup of tea, was utterly orthodox in his society. He was not a rebel as a young man."
 A family man and devout Muslim.  And, it turns out, he had something in common with President Obama:
"After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he organized jihadi tourism: helping young, idealistic Arab fighters who wanted to spend some time fighting the invaders. He was not a fighter himself, more of a courier and organizer, though after he survived one Soviet bombardment, he began to fashion a self-glorifying mythology."
In other words, bin Laden was a community organizer!  
 "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."
He was gentle and soft and embraced diversity.  How can you not love this guy?  Meeting him was a "spiritual experience"?  If true, those spirits were demonic. 
"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."
 Really, he wasn't evil.  The murder business was just a side job to raise cash and enhance the "brand."  It reminds me of a line from The Princess Bride.  Westley, disguised as the Dread Pirate Roberts explains why he must keep up his menacing image:
"I mean once word leaks out that a pirate has gone soft, people begin to disobey you and it's nothing but work, work, work all the time.'"

You know, once word leaks out a terrorist has gone soft, the "brand" is completely worthless.  Brooks has completely jumped the shark here.  And "manipulate meaning"?  What does that even mean?  Brooks concludes:
"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."
So there we have it.  If bin Laden could have just channeled all that evil and treachery into the right kind of community organizing,  this Saudi Messiah could have brought peace to the Arab world. He was just misguided, a victim of his difficult childhood and failures as a young man.  

David Brooks, allegedly the conservative voice on the New York Times staff,  sounds like a rank and file bleeding heart liberal.  Rather than placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of bin Laden and saying plainly that the man was evil, Brooks attempts to understand and find a reasonable explanation for such hate and vengeance.  In doing so, he fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of human beings on the earth who have difficult childhoods do not turn to lives of terror and mass murder.   All the psychobabble in the world cannot explain away this evil in the human heart. 

Human reason alone cannot give us answers for the bin Laden's of the world, but God tells us that it begins in the heart:
"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).
Though we all have desperately wicked hearts, some act on that wickedness and commit heinous crimes against humanity.  There is no excuse. 

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