Bin Laden's Tape Cuts Him Down to Size

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Monday, Dec. 24, 2001 The videotaped bin Laden coffee klatch has the distinctive atmosphere of evil with its feet up — sated, self-satisfied, laughing. It's a disturbing impression.

When evil performs in public, it usually comes onstage in full makeup, with lurid lighting and horrid effects, riding a horse backward. Here we see evil backstage, with its makeup off — the smirking, kicked-back thuggishness, say, of gangsters twirling pasta and gloating over the success of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Mafiosi, of course, do not punctuate their conversation with "Allah is great!" and "Praise Allah!" The bin Laden home movie mixes ejaculations of piety with postgame Islamic towel snapping and a chillingly cynical amusement at the sucker martyrs. Combine the piety and the thug's mirth, and you get something of that lounging insolence with which Satan, at the opening of the Book of Job, answers God's "Whence comest thou?" with: "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it." A sneering theological swagger. Evil usually feels comfortable with itself. If it had doubts, it would not be evil.

You cannot watch the tape without thinking of Hannah Arendt's famous phrase "the banality of evil." Because 9/11 has caused such reverberations in the world, people have subconsciously endowed bin Laden with the size and force, the diabolical cunning, of a supervillain or, in some parts of the world, of a superhero. The video produces a severely diminishing effect — something like listening to the Nixon Oval Office tapes (though radically different orders of crime are under discussion). The grainy video brings down the image of bin Laden in something of the way that the Taliban blew up the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan.

Arendt coined the term banality of evil in order to try to define the (terrifying) ordinariness of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who helped manage Hitler's killing machine. Each age, it may be, gets its own appropriate evil. A centerless bureaucrat, for example, to run the Nazi regime's program of industrial extermination. In the videotape, bin Laden seems to radiate — if that is the word — a different sort of banality: the unexpected ordinariness of his awfulness.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Is it the conversation of a madman? No. An evil genius? Part of the deflation is an atmosphere of ineffable near-stupidity. The recollected premonitions in dreams about soccer teams made up of airplane pilots, for example. Stupidity is evil's dimwit half-brother. It dawns on you as you watch the tape that bin Laden may be like one of those not quite bright real-life hoods who strut around with the Godfather movies unreeling in their minds, the theme music playing in their inner ears; Al Pacino has given them the dialogue, a myth of themselves. Bin Laden is the John Gotti of jihad.

There's also a kind of vicious innocence at work. The evildoers in the video seem to ask themselves, Who would have thunk??!! They are like nasty children who set a fire in the basement of the school...and cannot believe their luck when they succeed in burning the entire building down. Allahu akbar! The jihadniks burble about it in a wide-eyed way. To the evil imagination, this great, unlooked-for destruction is a miracle — all the more astonishing because it seems to accomplish, in this violent and profane world, a transformation of the same amazing order as that dream of paradise, with its 72 virgins, that existed only in the faith or dirty fantasies of the saps with the box cutters.

More than a half-century ago, in the shadow of Stalin and Auschwitz, the critic Lionel Trilling spoke of "the fatuity that does not know the evil of the world." The other night in Boston, a group of American college students declared that 9/11 and all that has followed are "media hype." Such sinister obtuseness is not typical of their age group, even on college campuses. Still, anytime before Sept. 11, most 19- or 20-year-old students, if asked to name the most dramatic-traumatic public event of their lives, invariably remembered the explosion of the Challenger. Evil, in the prosperous and peaceful America they grew up in under Reagan and Clinton, was a mechanical failure — something wrong with the O rings.

What will be the consequence of such innocence? Baudelaire said evil's shrewdest trick is to persuade us that it does not exist. Does bin Laden confirm the existence of evil? Or the stupid ordinariness of awfulness? Both, I'd say. One of the consequences of 9/11 has been to revive, so to speak, the belief in evil. Evil is hard to define, but it's there all right. It's like pornography: you know it when you see it.