A video captured from Osama bin Laden’s final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden’s acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:
- He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
- He was a nutjob.
- He was a religious fanatic.
I’m quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It’s comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.
Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.
A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for “jihad” were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a “religion” when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn’t mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There’s plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden’s devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.
What did drive his horrific acts, then? Well, years ago Jacob Weisberg wrote an excellent book called The Bush Tragedy proposing that George W. Bush’s primary motivation in becoming President (and, later, in invading Iraq) was to compete with and morally defeat his own father, the more practical, less decisive and less charismatic President George H. W. Bush. I never understood why Jacob Weisberg didn’t follow this book up with the obvious sequel, because Osama Bin Laden’s dramatic rejection of his wealthy, famous father Mohammad bin Awad bin Laden fits the same exact pattern.
The elder Bin Laden was a close associate of the corrupt, money-drenched royal family of Saudi Arabia. The younger Bin Laden declared war on the royal family of Saudi Arabia. The elder Bin Laden was comfortable with Western-style government and with modern capitalism. The younger Bin Laden emphatically rejected nearly every aspect of his father’s lifestyle, and was ostracized from the wealthier side of the large Bin Laden family after he founded Al Qaeda.
It’s strange that some less-informed commentators believed Osama Bin Laden to have been implicitly allied with the governments of corrupt and wealthy Arab nations like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Iraq. Anybody who believes this is missing the point completely: these corrupt and wealthy circles were his father’s world. This was the world he declared war against, and its unlikely that he ever saw any other face than his father’s when he imagined this world.
When Osama Bin Laden’s terrorist group attacked the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, I imagine that Osama Bin Laden gave very little thought to the reaction in the United States of America, or to the people he killed there. He was attacking the allies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and he would have been primarily interested in the reaction he got among the Arab nations, especially among those closest to himself or his family. The thousands of Americans were collateral damage.
When I try to picture the mind of Osama bin Laden, I see an insecure man fighting to the death with the invincible ghost of his own father. For all the damage he caused, Bin Laden was playing out an eerily familiar script.
I’m also sure that Osama Bin Laden was obsessed with his own celebrity, and I’m not at all surprised to see the videos that have just been released today, showing the holy warrior flicking the buttons of a remote control, staring at himself on television. I bet he hit rewind over and over and over. And I bet he never liked what he saw.