Philosophy Weekend: Explaining Osama Bin Laden

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.

29 Responses

  1. After reading this
    After reading this well-written piece, Levi, I find myself asking if this should be a psychology subject rather than a philosophical subject…? You gave, IMO, more psychological insights than philosophical ones… not that there is anything wrong with that, mind you.

    Personally, I viewed OBL as primarily a fanatic. As you wrote, “There’s plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden’s devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.” I’m positive you are correct. If he had any Islamic beliefs that he held personally there is little to no indication in the life he revealed that he practiced it unless it was in the public arena where his encampments of lemmings were sent to become good Al Qaeda jihadists.

    The why(s) of OBL’s motives to prove to others, including his family, that he hated all his family stood for or who they associated with doesn’t answer why he felt compelled to kill fellow Muslims along with any other people that got in his way. What was his way, i.e. what was the endgame all about? Surely not to become Islam strong for the sake of Allah. Like you, I don’t believe he was strong enough (is at all!) in his religiosity to waste life as he did.

    Good article. I hope you get some great responses.

  2. Levi, I find your argument
    Levi, I find your argument really compelling and well formulated and am fully persuaded by your political analysis. As far as the psychological analysis goes, predictably, I still think Bin Laden is option a) on your list: an evil sociopath. I agree with you that he was perfectly sane (knew what he was doing, was in control, and was very calculated). I also agree with you that he was not a religious fanatic (like you say, he probably wasn’t religious at all). But, in partial agreement with mtmynd’s comment, I also think he used religious fanaticism as a cause to rile up genuine religious fanatics around him. This was a big part of his attraction and mystique, the way communist ideology was for Stalin.

    As for treating those close to him well, however, I don’t believe that. I think he established dominance bonds and used everyone around him for his destructive purposes. Plus, he used one of his latest wives as a human shield. That’s not very loving or nice. I wonder what you think of Aubrey Himmelman’s article from a few years back, which argues that Osama bin Laden is a narcissistic sociopath (which is somewhat redundant, since all sociopaths are fundamentally narcissistic).

  3. I think whatever he may be,
    I think whatever he may be, people like Osama Bin Laden get more and more followers even among those who aren’t either sociopathic or religious fanatics when we bomb innocent civilians in countries largely unrelated to the terrorist attacks, in retaliation.

  4. Levi, you write: “When Osama
    Levi, you write: “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.”

    Do you know something the FBI doesn’t? Not even on Osama’s FBI “wanted” poster is there a link to 9/11. He’s never been charged with those crimes nor listed as a suspect. In other words, what we’re being sold is the alleged (no body, no photos) extrajudicial execution of a former CIA employee never officially linked to 9/11.

    I know this isn’t the point of your post but without that link, well…what’s really the point?

  5. This is a very interesting
    This is a very interesting essay, if I may use that term, reflecting a thoughtful mind and and intelligent one. It caused me to reflect on the Oedipus complex and what it must be like to try to get your father’s attention when you are one of scores of his children. It also caused me to think about the puzzle of OBL, terrorism, the current war, etc. and all the pieces that are missing in favor of propaganda and manipulative news media. Was OBL killed by Navy Seals 10 years ago? Was he killed at all? If he was spending his time watching himself on tv confined to what has been called a “mansion” (really? I’ve seen the pictures), then I’m just reminded of a nursing home. Many thoughts were provoked by your piece. Thanks for writing it.

  6. Dick Cheney made the
    Dick Cheney made the statement in 2006 that there was no evidence that Osama bin Laden was the master mind of 911.

    Is there evidence that he was a CIA operative?

  7. I think I have a pretty open
    I think I have a pretty open mind, but I can’t take the theory that Osama bin Laden didn’t arrange the 9/11 attacks seriously. I’ve paid attention to the “evidence”, but it’s very slight, whereas the evidence of Al Qaeda’s actual existence is extremely strong.

    Also, it requires a gigantic suspension of common sense and logic to believe that any organization is capable of manufacturing and manipulating evidence at this level and this scale.

    I never want to shut my mind to any possibility, but it seems to me that the evidence that the 9/11 attacks were fake is as weak as the evidence that Obama’s birth certificate was fake.

  8. I’m not arguing the “truther”
    I’m not arguing the “truther” point, Levi. I’m presenting a simple fact: Osama was never linked to 9/11 by the US justice system.

    Make of it what you wish but the fact remains a fact.

  9. Very interesting and
    Very interesting and thoughtful post that differs in a very nice way from most of the commentary concerning recent events in Pakistan. Overall, a detailed analysis of bin Laden and his comrades, who helped drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan and were once aided by the Reagan administration might be in order, especially since the US has now become so involved in the region.

  10. Pre-Reagan.
    Carter and


    Carter and Brzezinski aligned themselves with staunch anti-Communists in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to exploit Islam as a method to arouse the Afghani populace to action. With the CIA coordinating the effort, some $40 billion in US taxpayer dollars were used to recruit “freedom fighters” like Osama bin Laden. The rest, as they say, is history. Mostly (intentionally) forgotten history.

  11. osama was right to bomb the
    osama was right to bomb the twin towers, the americans deserved it!
    After all they tried to display Islam as a religion of terrorism

  12. Mickey Z — we all know the
    Mickey Z — we all know the history of USA involvement in the Middle East from WWII to today is a clusterfuck. Probably the worst example of all was the Eisenhower-era overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected government … orchestrated by the CIA. And Americans wonder why Iran hates the USA.

    However, I feel sure that Barack Obama’s attempt at cooling the fires with moderate decisions (while retaining continuity with past USA policies) is the best path for the future of American involvement the Middle East. I wasn’t down with that Libya decision — I don’t always agree with Obama — but I do have hope for a better future, and the overthrow of Mubarak gives me hope too.

    To “9 11” who says “osama was right” … I’ll leave your comment here but that’s pretty offensive. We’re talking about human beings.

  13. Moderate decisions? Levi,
    Moderate decisions? Levi, what will it take before you recognize Obama as nothing more than the latest face of Empire?

  14. P.S. When you say you’re not
    P.S. When you say you’re not “down” with the Libya “decision,” you might want to heed your own warning: We’re talking about human beings.

  15. That’s very true, Mickey
    That’s very true, Mickey (about human beings).

  16. Although I have no regrets
    Although I have no regrets that Osama himself is no longer a threat, I wonder if such political assassinations are a good idea. I thought there was an international law (or understanding) in place that forbid them. Will the U.S. assassinate next heads of state that go against our national interest? But aside from that, I think that the Nuremberg trials were useful and am glad that Eichmann, for instance, was put on a public trial for his crimes against humanity. That way the whole world found out about all the horrific things he and other Nazi leaders did. I wonder why the U.S. didn’t take that route with Osama bin Laden…

  17. Would you please list 7
    Would you please list 7 international laws President Obama diregarded this past week? Thank you in advance.

  18. Your sarcastic tone is a
    Your sarcastic tone is a shame, mtmynd.

    It’s also a shame you and so many other can’t recognize that bombing civilians and utilizing torture (to name but two examples) are not only violations of international law but also further proof that Obama is just another American president, read: corporate-owned war criminal.

    I weep for the future as the liberals of today cling to their dead beliefs.

  19. Mickey, is there really so
    Mickey, is there really so much difference between your position and mine (and mtmynd’s)? I don’t think so. We’re all against bombing of civilians. We’re all against the practice of torture. Barack Obama didn’t invent this stuff, you know.

    I think the main difference between your position and mine (and, I think, mtmynd’s) is that, even though I see that Barack Obama’s presidency is highly flawed and highly compromised, I think it represents a positive shift in direction that gives me hope for the future. I am pretty sure that the world will become more peaceful through gradual change, and it seems to me that Obama’s presidency is pushing in the right direction (though, I agree, not nearly quickly enough).

    You, I think, do not have hope for gradual change in the USA, and therefore have no enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s modest improvements over, say, the Bush presidency. Fine, you think that way and I think this way. I believe, though, that our ideals are similar, and mtmynd’s too. The main difference seems to be whether we prefer gradual change to revolutionary change in the USA. I keep my mind open to possibilities for revolutionary change, but nothing I have seen about current revolutionary movements in the USA gives me any reason to believe that there is real momentum towards any revolutionary movement that will make a difference in the world anytime soon. Until I see a revolutionary movement that has real substance and leadership behind it, I’ll cast my lot with evolution.

  20. As I see it, the initial
    As I see it, the initial difference between us is that you see an improvement thanks to Obama.

    And saying he “didn’t invent” atrocities is an excuse a Nazi could use for Hitler. I’m astonished.

    If you started beating your wife tomorrow, should I shrug it off because spousal abuse pre-dates you?

    If her first husband beat her 25 times a day and you beat her 24 3/4 times a day, should we label that “hope and change”?

    As for gradual change, 90% of the large fish are already gone from the ocean. 80% of the world’s forests? Gone. 80% of the planet’s rivers cannot sustain life. How much time do you guys think we have?

  21. Re: “Your sarcastic tone is a
    Re: “Your sarcastic tone is a shame, mtmynd.”

    There was nothing sarcastic in my question, Mickey, other than what you see in it. A cursory look at the various posts you have made regarding the politics of today clearly (to me, anyway) reveal a tremendous dislike and even suspicion that anything and everything that the government does is an affront to your own ideas of what a government should be… and that has never been clearly pointed out by you. I’m sure you have sensible and reasonable talking points that you could bring to ‘the table’ other that lumping every little political move you see as a further unraveling of the threads of liberty for you.

    If there is a real danger in our political system it surely is the GOP’s reliance on the payoffs by the 2%’ers in this country whose agenda is becoming more and more clear – financially bankrupt government so Corporate interests may have complete domination over the populace and Treasury of the Nation. They are unscrupulous in their advancement of this goal.

    But please don’t assume that everybody involved in the political arena moves at the bidding of Corporate interests. There are people of wisdom (far too few) that clearly see the Corporate unraveling of our basic rights and freedoms and need support from like-minded people. So far in any political discussion I have failed to see your support for the good things our government does and can do for it’s citizens in the future. Am I wrong?

  22. Mickey, I think about this
    Mickey, I think about this question a lot: what can possibly bring about real change? It’s a very serious question.

    I have come to this answer: real change in the USA requires better leadership, and it also requires a better (more rational, more well informed) populace. It can’t be one or the other — it has to be both. The reason I don’t share your disdain for the current President is that I would never expect the President to be able to move the country more than a couple steps beyond what the voting base will support. My estimation of Barack Obama is that he is a highly moderate progressive — he’ll move us a couple of steps in the right direction, but he won’t go far beyond what the majority will support. So, in domestic policy, pushing this health care reform package through was a moderately progressive step. Not progressive enough? Sure, but it was more than any other President in the last 50 years was able to do. In foreign policy, where a George Bush or John McCain would play cowboy with guns blazing, Barack Obama takes the advice of military leadership but makes sure we move carefully and work within broad UN coalitions. Again, not as progressive as I’d like — but, here’s the key thing, moderate enough that he doesn’t lose the support of the voters.

    If what we’re looking for is actual practical change, I believe Barack Obama’s tiny-steps approach has a better chance of making a long-term difference than any other approach. Mickey, I share your frustration with the state of the world. But I blame the voters, not the President. This President doesn’t have a strong poker hand to play, and so far he’s playing his cards very well.

  23. i’m not convinced that obama
    i’m not convinced that obama is anywhere near “progressive” in his foreign policy. to me, that’s fairly obvious already. and now, with the mastermind bin laden gone, if this unending adventure in afghanistan drags on much longer, it should become increasingly obvious to all.

    and though obama is closer to “progressive” in domestic policy, i still think he falls considerably short. are his politics the main problem? or is the system just too far gone? too whored out to corporate money? the electorate too brainwashed by FAUX media? or all of the above? if you read that list of “244 accomplishments by obama” from last fall, you’ll see that he made decent progress on the lighter-weight, no-brainer type changes, but on the heavyweight items, such as health care and financial industry reform, progress has been slim at best. but the president’s power is not unlimited, of course. so again, is the man, or the system to blame?

  24. Levi,
    I believe thoughtful


    I believe thoughtful people will appreciate that you are simply trying to look deeper into this miasma than the news media in all its silliness is wont to do; but I have to object. There really is no finer point to be made here–and certainly not on the basis of (armchair) psychology–yours or Osama’s or Weisberg’s. To say that this has been, essentially, a psycho-drama (as much Bush’s fault as bin Laden’s) misses the point. Few care why he did it, and certainly not by way of rationale or excuse making. What he did was wrong It was evil, it was hateful (expressive of murderous intent against innocents), it was unforgivable.

    Simply put: lots of kids rebel against their daddies. They don’t kill thousands to make the point. To suggest that this is the deep understanding we should glean from this tragedy and its aftermath is ridiculous to say the least. And it smacks of neurotic ambivalence to say so.

    Osama bin Laden didn’t threaten, attack and then gloat at his ‘Da-da.’ Your assertion that he wasn’t thinking (much) about the American casualties is completely unfounded and recklessly dismissive. This amounts to saying, “Don’t take it personally, He was just trying to get his dad’s attention. We, i.e. those feckless victims, just got in the way, is all. Give him some slack.” Why would you do this? (Shall we then forgive G.W.B. for Iraq, because it was an oedipal thing?)

    Armchair psychology is as helpful as “the devil made him do it”, or “God commanded me.” Speculate away, if you will, but please don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a valid critique of the public’s righteous scorn of poor ObL. (And please don’t trot out the strawmen: But people are saying Osama was crazy, etc. etc. So what? You are psychologizing too, aren’t you?)

    Remember: all human behavior (even Liberal hand-wringing) has its psychological underpinnings.

    Sorry to be so tough (I enjoyed the exchange, anyway.) I’m sure you can handle it.


  25. Hi Kevin — sure, I can
    Hi Kevin — sure, I can handle it, thanks. In fact, I don’t even think I disagree with anything you’re saying.

    A psychological analysis of Osama bin Laden doesn’t let him off the hook or absolve his responsibilities for his actions. Of course what he did was wrong, evil and unacceptable. I was very happy to hear about the bullet in his head, and I would have happily pulled that trigger myself.

    But my points are important too. I guess I’m trying to emphasize the triviality of evil. There’s something in human nature that makes us grant tremendous authenticity and authority to anybody who commits an act of violence. I don’t believe Osama bin Laden was authentic in the image he tried to portray. I’m not trying to forgive him — I’m trying to debunk him.

  26. Sorry, Levi, but this barely
    Sorry, Levi, but this barely explains your essay’s INtent and almost none of its CONtent. You might have gone with H. Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil and left it at that. But that wouldn’t explain your essay.

    I can likewise agree with you that ObL had a personal psychology as well as a political agenda–though I wouldn’t hazard such at this distance, not on so little evidence. But how is that more insightful than the received wisdom: (‘he was nuts’, ‘he was a religious fanatic’, etc)? Granted, these explanations are vague, but so what? They stand on firmer ground (=received wisdom) and they serve a purpose.

    If this were your only point, still I have to wonder: Why MINIMIZE focus of his hatred? And why distort the actual history? You say that his anger was mis-directed, but nothing in his history or actions supports this. He did what he wanted to do against the intended target victims–those being determined not by name, but by nationality, association and location. There was nothing mis-directed about it. Your suggestion to the contrary simply muddies the waters. And, more importantly, it seriously displaces–read: fundamentally alters– both the victims and the perpetrator in our moral assessment of what happened. It makes the victims “collateral damage”, not targets; It makes bin Laden, at worst, a reckless kid. Hence, their deaths are not outrageous, just unfortunate. And his actions are not vicious, just misguided. (And let’s not even question what this makes his own death: a war crime against a virtual child?)

    The crux seems (to me) to be here:

    “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.”

    He didn’t die fighting, Levi; not in Tora Bora (he ran), nor in Abottabad (possibly, hid behind his teenage wife), and, and it wasn’t a ghost what shot him. Yes, I get the psychological angle; still, yours is a romanticized image based on a willfully false account of the facts– a distortion of history, not an explanation. Why? Is it simply to set a stage for analogy to the “Bush tragedy” (another fanciful speculation) and the implication of a presumed moral equivalence between the two men? (G.W.B. didn’t go looking for 9/11.) Is his story really “eerily familiar”? To whom?

    It’s beginning to look a lot like whitewash, everywhere I look.[Cue music!] Isn’t this really just a left handed slap at Bush, motivated by . . .what? liberal guilt? political opportunism? Frankly, that effort is beneath you. I hope I mistake the case.

    We can all agree: It would be helpful if folks were less glib, generally, in their assessment of events and actors on the world stage. It would be helpful if the media stopped stuffing straw men. It would be helpful if, once, a political partisan could witness the demise of a bad guy without wishing out loud that it was one of his enemies. (Lacking that, simply admitting as much would be more honest than wrapping it in the cloak of ‘impartial’ understanding.) Osama bin Laden was human, the way Hitler, not Hamlet, was human. His victims were human too. Particularly so, like mothers and brothers; not generally so, like “infidels”, or inadvertently so, like “collateral damage”.

    Levi, you’re a good man. You are not less so because bin Laden is dead. And neither are the people who celebrate his demise.

  27. i would like to know why
    i would like to know why people can’t have a discussion anymore without some political sludgery creeping into the dialogue. sorry kevin, but what’s with the “liberal guilt” comment? on this issue, of all issues. seriously? i mean, jeez, in light of recent events, do we even have much confidence that g. w. bush & co. made much of a serious effort to get bin laden? you know, given the fact that george himself told the media that “he (didn’t) spend much time on him?”

    so should i take a disparaging political shot in return? something to the effect of, “conservatives should feel some guilt.” (?) after all, it took that despised “ultra-liberal” obama to finally get the job done. yeah, that same guy who’s been trashed six ways to sunday by the corporate-directed media and its various arms. the guy who was even called “more dangerous than al qaeda” by some g.o.p. rep. who (thank god) was bounced from congress. gah..

  28. “so should i take a
    “so should i take a disparaging political shot in return?”

    Sounds like you did, mnaz, and why not? Turn around is fair play. But, to answer your question:

    I’ve been responding to Levi’s essay ‘as a political statement’. That’s my point. It’s hard to avoid doing politics to politics, obviously and admittedly.

    The reference to liberal guilt is to the general, all-purpose kind which apologizes for everything from perceived failures of Western culture, historical and modern, to its very existence. (Perhaps I should have put it in quotes to be clearer.) It took over for, or supplemented, Original Sin in the psyche of Western intellectuals some time in the last century. Very effectively, as it turns out!

    Not wishing to prolong the debate, I’ll simply reiterate:

    ‘It would be helpful if, once, a political partisan could witness the demise of a bad guy without wishing out loud that it was one of his enemies. (Lacking that, simply admitting as much would be more honest than wrapping it in the cloak of ‘impartial’ understanding.)’

    We must all read, and write, with some will to understand if we are going to have a dialogue at all. Yes?

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