In what must be his most bizarre column ever and certainly the weirdest reflection on the killing of Osama bin Laden, David Brooks takes an obvious point (individuals matter in history) and winds up writing a grotesquely sympathetic portrait of the mass murderer.
Osama bin Laden’s mother was about 15 at the time of his birth. Nicknamed “The Slave” inside the family, she was soon discarded and sent off to be married to a middle manager in the bin Laden construction firm. Osama revered the father he rarely got to see and adored his mother. As a teenager, he “would lie at her feet and caress her,” a family friend told Steve Coll, for his definitive biography “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.”
Like many people who go on to alter history, for good and evil, Bin Laden lost his father when he was about 9. The family patriarch was killed in a plane crash caused by an American pilot in the Saudi province of Asir. (Five of the Sept. 11 hijackers would come from that province. His brother was later killed in a plane crash on American soil.)
Osama was an extremely shy child, Coll writes. He was an outsider in his new family but also the golden goose. His allowance and inheritance was the source of his family’s wealth.
What’s important to know here is just how shy Osama bin Laden was. Oh, and he had career disappointments:
After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he organized jihadi tourism: helping young, idealistic Arab fighters who wanted to spend some time fighting the invaders. He was not a fighter himself, more of a courier and organizer, though after he survived one Soviet bombardment, he began to fashion a self-glorifying mythology.
He was still painfully shy but returned with an enormous sense of entitlement. In 1990, he wanted to run the Saudi response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He also thought he should run the family business. After he was shot down for both roles, the radicalism grew.
If you are waiting for some conclusion about the banality of evil, or more important, the evil ideology of Islamic jihadism that twists hearts and minds, you’ll be disappointed. He was, you see, sort of misunderstood:
We think of terrorism leaders as hard and intimidating. Bin Laden was gentle and soft, with a flaccid handshake. Yet his soldiers have told researchers such as Peter Bergen, the author of “The Longest War,” that meeting him was a deeply spiritual experience. They would tell stories of his ability to avoid giving offense and forgive transgressors.
The transgressors would not, presumably, include those whom he slaughtered. Brooks ends his column with a plea for a “good” bin Laden. (“I just wish there were a democratic Bin Laden, that amid all the Arab hunger for dignity and freedom there was another inexplicable person with the ability to frame narratives and propel action — for good, not evil.”)
Even some of the New York Times readers were appalled. One commentor wrote:
Finally. Osama as a sympathetic individual. Oprah should have had him on, and he could have explained how he really needed to be hugged more as a child. Yes, we are all human, but he sure didn’t have much for empathy toward others. Oh, and he did kill three thousand Americans and we Americans have killed upwards of five hundred thousand, for purposes that will forever be debated.
Bin Laden was a sociopath, not a leader. He was like Jim Jones. There is no mirror construct to Bin Laden — there is no “ability to frame constructs and propel action for the good.” There is no parallel universe where a sociopathic person sweeps people along for the good. There is no sociopath for the good. A sociopath seeks to control and dominate and control and destroy. You cannot ever lead a people to democracy with that personality. Sociopathy, even in its most beguiling, sophisticated and seductive guise, is the most lethal poison to civilization.
Brooks’s column highlights the propensity of elites to over-intellectualize and to under-observe. It wasn’t bin Laden’s childhood or his father’s death that was significant. He was, as we simple folk like to say, evil. The ideology that motivated him is a cancerous scourge that claims Muslim and non-Muslim victims. Let’s start worrying about what to do about that, how to loosen its grip in the Muslim world and what non-homicidal forces now evident in the Arab Spring we can foster. And, for heaven’s sakes, let’s discard the pop psychology and social-science mumbo jumbo that suggest their practitioners are suffering from lack of common sense and contact with the real world.