Before the Pentagon released footage culled from a video that was reportedly recovered from Osama bin Laden’s foxhole on the night of his killing, few in the Western world outside of the CIA would have cared to envision the Al Qaeda chief in any kind of personal circumstance. Did he, for instance, prefer any particular brand of toothpaste? Did he like to pick his nose? Was he or was he not a neat freak? How was he in bed?
The most intriguing of the silent documentary clips being aired features a tired-looking bin Laden in a ski-cap, wrapped in a dark shawl instead of the messianic golden robes we were accustomed to seeing in his savvy propaganda releases, the instantly recognizable beard streaked by an unfamiliar gray. Apparently – and we are denied any further explanatory context for this hypothesis – bin Laden liked watching news coverage of himself on Arab television.
Just as it did in the days after Saddam Hussein’s capture, the American broadcast media have sought to unify under the banner of patriotism. It has lately taken to making the point that in addition to being the most hunted man in the world, a mass murderer and all-around fiend, bin Laden was also a narcissist; a man given to dyeing his beard and seeking to project a fake virility in the video messages he recorded for his supporters, a man who got off on the knowledge that he could stop the world press by sending an audio tape to any obscurely local radio station.
Yet, far from confirming bin Laden’s reputation as a murderous megalomaniac, the Pentagon video I cite humanizes him in ways that make me – personally speaking -- uncomfortable. It almost portrays bin Laden as a mere curmudgeon, a misanthropic recluse looking back sentimentally on ‘better’ days, if that is what one calls blowing up planes and warships, and murdering thousands of innocent civilians in the name of some incoherent political project to reshape the world order. The footage makes him look ill and weak from disease, and not unlike my own grandfather whose final days were marked by a courageous battle against both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
You could also turn this argument around and say, narcissism when coupled with power is a far more dangerous beast. If self-reflexive images were sufficient indicators of megalomania, then we need look no further than 82 pictures from the night of the 2008 Presidential election that the Obama White House itself later posted on Flickr. Shorn of its positive context, the image of Obama watching the drama of his accession unfold on television is nothing if not symbolic of grotesque self-love.
How might history, with its distancing perspective, judge this episode? Bin Laden may be dead but it seems inevitable Western culture must relinquish its grasp on the world’s imagination within the next century and begin to decline; and with that, history will change course.
Bin Laden’s legend was burnished by his having evaded detection for nearly a decade. In some ways he was an anachronism, more fit for the Crusades than hyperreal warfare; a throwback to Hannibal, the Carthinagian military leader who fought Rome, or Boadicea, the queen who led her tribe into battle against the forces of Emperor Nero, and other ruthless rebel leaders like these from millennia past when it was far more acceptable to kill non-combatants. And yet, in other ways, he was as invested in the notion of the modern as the most astute propagandist.
Albert Camus predicted that future historians would have two things to say of the modern man – that he fornicated and read the papers. Even if that were to prove true, I like to think they would be prepared to make an exception and say something insightful about complex characters like Osama bin Laden.
Theirs is not an easy job, however. Scholars will need to sift through all the disinformation spread by both sides over a period of three decades before they can address the question, who was bin Laden, really? It is fascinating to think that in this age of information surplus, we might never learn the answer.