For a large part of the Western world, bin Laden invented what it meant to be Arab. He gave us a caricature, but the flip side of fear turned out to be intimacy, a passionate need to know the art and culture of The Other. Would the Kennedy Center’s 2009 “Arabesque” festival, devoted to the arts of the Arab world, have happened without Osama bin Laden?
Bin Laden was very good for book clubs, too, as readers sought out voices from the Arab world and beyond. Many of the voices that flourished in the age of Osama — Khaled Hosseini, Orhan Pamuk, Azar Nafisi — weren’t even Arab, but Aghan, Turkish and Iranian. It didn’t matter. Bin Laden had shifted the horizons of our curiosity.
And then he faded from view. War moved on to Iraq and then Libya. The shame of not finding bin Laden led politicians to minimize the importance of his death or capture. The world’s Most Wanted Man disappeared down an Orwellian sinkhole. He went from influencing American elections to being the subject of idle speculation about the Mother of All October Surprises.
Even his absence, compelled by American drones and operatives, seemed to have something uncanny about it. My work here is done, he might have said, chastising by example all the myriad politicians and celebrities who outstay their welcome.
In the end, bin Laden was taken down by unnamed agents, using technology that is the product of centuries of collective endeavor. The greater weight of power in this asymmetrical contest finally came crushing down upon him.
One critic of President Obama has already suggested that the announcement of bin Laden’s death should have been made “by whatever lowest-level official was manning the night desk at the Department of Nondescript Bureaucrats.” Why did the president dignify the sordid death of a murderous man with an East Room announcement?
Because bin Laden had imperiled the very idea of the nation-state.
The president gave credit to the anonymous forces who staged the raid, but he also asserted presidential power, used the first person, emphasized the phrase “at my direction.” It was a striking end to the drama, a one-man show of another sort. What had begun with some of the most spectacular and terrifying images of destruction ever captured on film ended with a lone man speaking against the backdrop of a long and empty hallway.
To assert order and reclaim the power of the state, Obama had to embody it in a way that recalled the regal precedents on which the American presidency is based. A primitive story line required a primitive ending, one great man taking down another.