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.
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.
He became the hidden impresario of cultural life. Almost overnight, our movie villains changed complexion. The old exotica of Orientalism, operas about villainous Turks or magnanimous sultans, ballets about renegade pirates, were suddenly relevant in a way they hadn’t been for centuries. He reanimated the age-old bugaboos of history.
Some changes were quantifiable. Between 1998 and 2009, according to the Modern Language Association, the number of college students studying Arabic rose more than 500 percent. According to the MLA’s executive director, Rosemary Feal, the events of 9/11 didn’t just increase enrollments in Arabic, but in languages such as biblical Hebrew and ancient Greek. There was a need to get back to the basic texts that underlie what some were calling the “clash of civilizations.” Americans were having another Sputnik moment, jolted out of hereditary complacency into a muscular need to know.
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.