Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Mad Man's Dreams, Doused

One of Many Things That Osama bin Laden Did Not Like
I had just jumped in the car on Sunday evening, at MacArthur BART in Oakland, when Elizabeth told me that she’d heard over the radio that President Obama was about to announce that Osama bin Laden was dead.

As we watched the president, his voice thick with an uncharacteristic case of nerves, make his announcement, I raised a cold beer and enjoyed a sweet swell of triumph.  No, I am by no means a pacifist and even support the death penalty under stringent and extraordinary circumstances. Still,
the swell quickly sank away as I considered, along with pundits and people everywhere, what unintended crooks in the
river might await us.  Evil’s always there, never sleeps, eyes wide for its next chance.

Since September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden has been called, and likened to, many things, some of them too rude for even this microdot of cyberspace. Among the favorite comparisons have been the monsters of the last century: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tojo, Pol Pot, and others. Let’s call them the Hitlers. It
makes for a convenient family unit.

For a short stretch, this comparison is apt. Like those monsters, bin Laden was a visionary, his mind blazing with its own special and spectral light. Like the Hitlers, it was all about him and no one else. That would make him a perfect sociopath. Not clinically insane, but morally insane, a
pitiless romantic nihilist, uncaring of the consequences of his actions on anyone but his Great Me. Like a vampire, he fed on the neediness, emptiness and violent tendencies of his mostly young followers.

Like the Hitlers his vision—and that of his band of misery-makers, al-Qaeda and their Taliban collaborators--was whole: It encompassed everyone and left no room for nuances or wrinkles, exceptions or surprises.

What an awful world he wanted, like all idealized worlds. A world where women would be wrapped in chadors, locked behind doors. driven from the world into a foul musty darkness; a world without music and constant prayer, as oppressive as anything cooked up by Stalin’s bureaucracy and as
murderously paranoid and gray. 

(And those beards . . . Lord, my face breaks out when I think about having to grow one.) 

I have little doubt bin Laden identified with the Hitlers, more so than the Allah whose principles he so glibly stated and easily betrayed.

Yet, in important ways, next to those twentieth-century visionaries, bin Laden was really a midget. The Hitlers managed to entrap whole societies under their hypnotic stare. Geniuses of organization, masters of imagery, they played virtuoso riffs on the keyboards of power. 

They fielded gigantic armies to heedlessly hurl themselves against friend and neighbor. They manufactured death on a massive industrial scale, employed hundreds, thousands, even millions of allies by poisoned carrot and by bloody stick. Put together, their regimes likely killed close to a hundred million people, without shedding a tear, only rivers of blood.

Osama bin Laden never even got within a muezzin’s call to prayer. By structuring al-Qaeda the way he did—a network of independent, mostly isolated, cells--he made himself and his “army” small targets that would be absolutely impossible to ever entirely defeat in the way we’re conditioned to think
of. His program of asymmetric warfare helped him win a few battles, in the way that outlaws like Jesse James pulled off a few raids.

 Someone Much Nicer to Know

But he lost his war. Cells of his kind don’t make a conquering army. Despite the cold cape of fear he dragged across the globe, he made no progress toward his goals, except maybe make our societies more oppressive, persuade us to sacrifice more of our freedoms than need be. He awakened the universal tyrant that lies within.

Without a whole nation, without its people and resources, under his command, a few spectacular bloody raids was all bin Laden was ever going to pull off. He was never going to raise the old Caliphate from the ash heap of history or get his bony fingers on Saudi oil or those nukes he always said he was hustling real hard for. Maybe he thought his mass army would raise itself, or the Hand of Allah would wave it into existence, a fundamentalist child’s notion of God, much too popular and
inefficient at best.

His biggest, fiercest dreams never came true. To me, Osama bin Laden may have been no more than a serial killer with a unique delusion of grandeur that he hid behind a great and ancient faith.

Meanwhile, a different kind of revolt seems to be sweeping the Arab and Muslim World, one not borne out of reactionism or nihilism, but maybe, just maybe, borne of decent hope and generous spirit, the Face of God that we want to see. The neo-Cons whine about how America is not controlling events in
the Middle East like we’re supposed to, but what is so much better about this is that al-Qaeda is having no say in it at all. 

(And I love it when bastards like al-Qaeda get their precious little visions smashed to bits, don’t you? Especially one that made an utter loathing of life into its central tenet.)

My last point in comparing bin Laden and the Hitlers is that his passing could mean that species of visionary world-striding tyrant may be devolving out of existence. Our populations have become too huge, too multitudinous and too individualized to rule as a mass. New technology creates more of this individuation, making the goal of swaying the masses even more remote. We’re all little atoms now. There is so much more to do on a Saturday night nowadays than to listen to Hitler shplutter over the radio or watch bin Laden drone from his . . . mansion. People can better make their own worlds now and while this leads to its own kind of trouble—say gathering a quorum to tackle climate change and other emergencies—it may, in the long run, be for the best. 

I hope we can put the Hitler nightmares to rest. There are bigger, more urgent ones, coming our way.

Re-edited 5/7/11; 5/9/11

Photos by author

Copyright 2011 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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