The Banality of bin Laden

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Osama bin Laden on a videotape released by the Department of Defense

There was a kind of Super Bowl pre-game atmosphere on TV Thursday morning, as the networks counted down to the 11 a.m. ET broadcast of the much-anticipated "smoking gun" tape, on which, we were told, Osama bin Laden would essentially confess to coordinating the Sept. 11 attacks. The on-screen graphics gave the countdown; commentators weighed in with predictions. On CNN, a reporter interviewed workers at a lunch counter near Ground Zero in Manhattan about why they were anxious to see the tapes — the grimmest twist imaginable on the traditional tailgate-party interview.

Maybe the game day analogy is distasteful, but it turned out to be more appropriate than you'd think. One of the first things we heard, or rather read in the transcript of the morbid al Qaeda dinner party, was Osama bin Laden comparing the suicide hijackings to a soccer game. A supporter, he says, told him a year ago of a dream he had: "We were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots!" So, bin Laden went on, "I wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game?"

Um, a "pilot game"? I suppose you might attribute this clumsy turn of phrase to translation. But there was a bigger, inadvertent point being made here: al Qaeda's essential misunderstanding of the culture, mind and strategy of its enemy. Mia Hamm notwithstanding, soccer is not yet the American pastime. And as proved by the American insistence on fighting a punishing air war rather than the bloody, dangerous ground invasion al Qaeda and the Taliban were hoping for, America generally declines to play games it stands a chance of losing. Bin Laden wanted to get us on the soccer field. Instead, we — preferring as always our own style of football — threw the bomb. In the end, maybe it did turn out to be a pilot game. Just not perhaps the one its instigator was expecting.

Haven't we been here before?

You could argue that, smoking gun or no, there was really nothing for anyone to learn from this tape. There were hardly any Americans, or their sympathizers, who needed further proof of bin Laden's responsibility for the terror attacks. And the concrete revelations — that al-Qaeda duped its own stooges into going onto suicide missions, that bin Laden had not anticipated the crashes would destroy the World Trade Towers — were leaked to the press days ago.

As for those who doubted his guilt, sure, some minds might be changed. But then again, anyone who found it more plausible that the Israeli Mossad service destroyed the World Trade Center to discredit Islam is probably not going to have much trouble finding a conspiracy theory to explain this one away. The capacity of the human mind to disbelieve is astonishing. People can say that the disjointed order of the tape proves it was a fraud. They'll say it was far too convenient a find for the U.S. to recover it amid the wreckage of war. That it's suspicious that the government held onto the tape for so long. That OK, maybe it is Osama bin Laden, but he's clearly just falsely taking credit for the attack, weeks after the fact. Eventually, someone will post an "authoritative" report on the Internet that the Mossad, working in collaboration with Hollywood Jews and the producers of The Blair Witch Project, produced the tape as an elaborate hoax, using a CIA bin Laden lookalike.

But the tape turned out to be surprisingly enlightening for American viewers in other ways, less because of any facts it revealed than what it showed us about the minds of al Qaeda. We had been prepped, of course, for the evil — in the words of several U.S. officials — of bin Laden's boasting. And the news anchors were glad to help us to that conclusion: "Turns your stomach," offered CNN's Bill Hemmer as the tape played. Mind you, there is nothing wrong with a news anchor feeling this sentiment. But there's no news-reporting reason for him to deliberately share it with us — and it was clearly not a spontaneous blurt — except to prove he's really on our side, lest we all switch over to Fox. It's an ever-thinning line between patriotism and marketing.

Anyway, the evil of this conversation was less news than — to borrow an overused phrase — its banality. We could see at first hand bin Laden's overweening smugness, as he describes killing innocents and his own unwitting followers through a laconic, Snoop Dogg-like grin. The video also showed what a bunch of sycophants Bin Laden surrounds himself with. Bin Laden's guest, an unidentified sheik, showers him with compliments on the "operation," whose callousness ("everybody praises what you did, the great action you did") is overshadowed only by their obsequiousness. America's Most Wanted, it seems, likes yes men.

Heavenly mandate

Perhaps most enlightening for American viewers, the tape is a firsthand look at the absolute religious certainty of bin Laden and his followers. Repeatedly, he and the sheik talk about visions and dreams that associates had, before the attack, about planes crashing into buildings. This, perhaps, is something that Americans do not yet fully appreciate: these people live in another millennium, another mental universe. These are people who think magically, who see the world in terms of visions and fate, who honestly feel they have a divine mandate. We can say all we want, however truthfully, that Sept. 11 does not represent true Islam. But we will never fully understand it until we understand, as this video graphically showed, that their entire world is defined by their belief in their divine sanction.

Conversely, the tape also shows America's enemies' basic naivete about the country they targeted. "The Americans were frightened," says the sheik, "thinking there was a coup." There was plenty of fear in America the morning of Sept. 11, of course, but a coup? As if. We knew we were looking at terrorism the second the second plane hit — coups are so far from our experience, we don't even entertain their possibility. Likewise, bin Laden brags that the attacks sent thousands of Westerners to buy books about Islam, either unable or unwilling to recognize that they did so to confirm that his actions had little to do with its teachings. These are a small but telling slips. Fixate on America though they might, when it comes to American culture and society, these are still essentially hayseeds, incapable of looking at America without seeing themselves.

One last lesson of the smoking-gun tape: In retrospect, it would have been even more powerful if the networks had also broadcast al Qaeda's earlier propaganda videotapes, which they declined to do at the behest of the U.S. government. (Even administration officials acknowledged that there was little security reason to do so — there are plenty easier ways of getting "secret codes" out.) All of al Qaeda's earlier posturing — of confidence, bravery, omniscience — seems all the more phony in the light of this one.

In his own words at his celebration dinner, bin Laden laid out bluntly his theory of power: "When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Maybe so. But when they see a supposedly strong horse later show himself to be weak, they will want all the more strongly to send it to the glue factory.