Aday before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it was still possible to believe in the future, like a religion of infinite promise. With the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade before, history had supposedly come to an end. The age of great ideological conflict was over. Technology, prosperity and global connectedness were leading us to an evolutionary leap in consciousness. Perhaps prosperity and politics weren’t cyclical and erratic, perhaps a new global consensus on capitalism and democracy would knit the fractious world together into unities unimaginable in the bygone ages of heroes, kings and other autocrats.
One man dispelled all of that, casting the world simultaneously backward and forward with a single morning of destruction. He refreshed old ideas about history, religion and the role of epic players in the course of human events. The concept of evil had a new lease on life, and suddenly, for better and for worse, larger-than-life actors again bestrode the stage of history. He made so many atavistic ideas once again respectable that the world felt new and different, engulfed in a fresh age of apocalypse.
The life and death of Osama bin Laden
No man has had a greater impact on American culture in the 21st century than Osama bin Laden. It’s hard to remember how frighteningly smart bin Laden seemed at first. He embodied precisely the kind of intellect that corporate America craves: a man who thought outside the box, who made no small plans, a man who knew how to harness the power of teamwork, a big-picture leader and a details guy at the same time.
He drew upon Stone Age tribalism and Iron Age tropes of battle, but he had also mastered personal mythmaking in the wired world of networks and video imagery. He knew the modern PR playbook, releasing videos filled with a horrifying mix of rationalism and phantasmagoria. A few months after the attacks, he starred in the dreams video, a compendium of nocturnal visions and prognostications that built a weird Jungian subtext for the attack.
But in the same video, he spoke like an engineer: “We calculated in advance the number of casualties from the enemy, who would be killed based on the position of the tower.”
A second-anniversary video showed bin Laden in a dreamlike landscape of green hills and trees. He wasn’t in a cave, he was in the clouds, above the fray, almost transcendent. Had any American nemesis been quite so good at pushing our buttons? Bin Laden reprised his one-man show at election times, overshadowing even the narcissism of American politics. He made tin-pot dictators and genuine tyrants, such as Saddam Hussein, seem small by comparison.
The fears unleashed by bin Laden reached deep into daily life, changing our urban design and architecture, closing down streets, requiring bollards and barricades, forcing us to forgo the front doors of some of our most iconic public buildings, in favor of the side entrance with the ubiquitous magnetometer. Airports changed forever, and with subsequent bombings, in Spain and London, so did trains and buses. We let him haunt public space.