I’ve written several times — including yesterday — about how it was to stand outside my office on 9/11, watching the World Trade Center towers burn across the street. I spent last night watching documentaries about that day and realized that every time I saw an image of the buildings collapsing, I tasted the smoke and dust again, the way we tasted it for weeks after the attacks. But on the tenth anniversary, I want to write about the failure of Osama bin Laden.
For a long time, I wondered if he succeeded. We have war, debt, airport molesters, government wiretaps, religious strife, conspiracy theorists, Jersey Shore … the list of horrors goes on and on. But I took comfort in the amusing perspective provided by the late historian Barbara Tuchman. In her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, she addressed the miseries of medieval times and the late 1970s:
“Disaster is rarely as pervasive as it seems from recorded accounts. The fact of being on the record makes it appear continuous and ubiquitous whereas it is more likely to have been sporadic both in time and place. Besides, persistence of the normal is usually greater than the effect of disturbance, as we know from our own times. After absorbing the news of today, one expects to face a world consisting entirely of strikes, crimes, power failures, broken water mains, stalled trains, school shutdowns, muggers, drug addicts, neo-Nazis, and rapists. The fact is that one can come home in the evening — on a lucky day — without having encountered more than one or two of these phenomena.”
After bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, people lined up to say that he’d failed. Romesh Ratnesar said so in a Time story called “Bin Laden’s Great Mistake: What Osama Never Understood About the American Spirit.” While he acknowledged our wasteful war on terror and idiotic economic decisions, Ratnesar praised America as a land of continued opportunity and resilience despite bin Laden’s efforts. He wrote:
“What bin Laden never understood is that, whatever the body blows suffered over the past decade, American society retained its capacity to renew itself.”
Similarly, in a New York Times op-ed piece called “Death of a Failure,” Ross Douthat said of bin Laden and his “rabble”:
“They’ve taught us … that whatever blunders we make (and we have made many), however many advantages we squander (and there has been much squandering), and whatever quagmires we find ourselves lured into, our civilization is not fundamentally threatened by the utopian fantasy politics embodied by groups like Al Qaeda, or the mix of thugs, fools and pseudointellectuals who rally around their banner.”
He then recalled bin Laden’s comparison of the United States and Al Qaeda to racehorses. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse,” bin Laden said after 9/11, “by nature, they will like the strong horse.” Douthat concluded, “In life as well as death, Osama bin Laden was always the weak horse.”
Hindsight is 20/20, ain’t it! I don’t fault anyone for writing that kind of story, mind you. Obviously, the news of bin Laden’s death requires a review and analysis of his actions. But I wasn’t as affected by any of the post-death stories the way I was by an article in the January issue of Vanity Fair. Peter Bergen, a journalist and author who met bin Laden in 1997, was bold enough to call out bin Laden while he was still alive. Months before anyone else, Bergen’s story, “Bin Laden’s Lonely Crusade,” named bin Laden the weak horse and declared he hadn’t and wouldn’t achieve his goals.
I had always wondered exactly what those goals were. For someone who convinced people to do his dirty work, bin Laden didn’t seem very eloquent to me. In October 2004 — when bin Laden finally said on video that he was responsible for 9/11 — he said he’d gotten the idea to attack the towers because “we saw the injustice and inflexibility of the American-Israeli alliance toward our people in Palestine and Lebanon.” What? What benefits did the Palestinians and Lebanese get from bin Laden between 9/11 and that tape? Bin Laden also said, “We fought you because we are free and want to regain freedom for our nation.” Again, what? He’s free yet needs to regain freedom? Which nation? I don’t know what he was talking about. The Family Guy version of bin Laden makes more sense than that.
Then he said, “We are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah.” His personal assistant clearly did a little Googling on his behalf because bin Laden threw around some numbers about the U.S. national debt to prove that he was on the right track. Oh, honey, please! I worked at big corporations for 16 years. I’ve spent quality time with plenty of opportunists with sociopathic tendencies, not to mention sociopaths with opportunistic tendencies. People like that see something happening and pretend like it was their plan all along: “I meant to do that!” We fucked ourselves over financially, thank you very much, but don’t try to tell me it was part of your scheme, bin Laden. I believe that like I believe that the guy whom we nicknamed “Facetime” at Lehman Brothers was actually doing something constructive during all those hours he was in the office.
Anyway, by 2009, bin Laden was again focused his Palestinian rationale: “The Palestinian cause has been the main factor that, since my early childhood, fueled my desire, and that of the 19 freemen (Sept. 11 bombers), to stand by the oppressed, and punish the oppressive Jews and their allies.”
Because bin Laden’s statements weren’t clear to me, I was interested to see what Bergen said of bin Laden’s goals. Bergen wrote, “One … is to bring about regime change in the Middle East and to replace the House of Saud and the Mubarak family of Egypt with Taliban-style rule. He believes that the way to accomplish this is to attack the ‘far enemy’ (the United States and its Western allies), then watch as America recoils and the U.S.-backed Muslim regimes regarded as the ‘near enemy’ collapse. The attacks on Washington and New York resulted in the direct opposite of his hopes.”
“After 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two, acknowledged in a polemical political memoir that the most important strategic goal of al-Qaeda was to seize control of a state somewhere in the Muslim world, explaining that ‘without achieving this goal our actions will mean nothing.’ But after 9/11, al-Qaeda lost its safe base in Afghanistan, and its attempt in Iraq to set up a sympathetic Sunni-dominated state dramatically backfired. Iraq today may be dysfunctional, but it is a country where the Sunnis are marginalized. The country’s ties with the Shiite government of Iran are close. A decade after 9/11, by Zawahiri’s own standard, al-Qaeda has achieved ‘nothing.'”
It made sense to me that bin Laden would pine for his very own country so he could be like all the other crazy dictator types. Because you know how it is at a terrorist pool party. The bad guys hang out and brag to each other over their burgers and beer: “Oh, I’ve got Cuba,” and “I’ve got Libya!” and “I have North Korea!” Then there’s that awkward moment when someone asks, “What country do you have, Osama?” And he has to admit that his Taliban buddies lost control in Afghanistan and he doesn’t have any country to terrorize full-time, or even a permanent address at which to receive pool-party invitations. Loser!
Still, I wonder if bin Laden deep down had no goal beyond creating chaos, like a high-school shooter who takes a gun into the cafeteria, thinking, “Now they’ll pay attention to me!” Bergen wrote that terrorists love a good panic:
“…although terrorist attacks, including attacks by al-Qaeda, will continue to happen, the real damage is done by the panic and lashing out that follows. This is the reaction that al-Qaeda craves — and it is why terrorism works. It’s easy to understand the emergence of a culture of paranoia coupled with a rhetoric of vengeance. Prudence, calmness, and patience seem almost pusillanimous by comparison. But they work. Rare is the threat that can be defeated in large measure simply by deciding that we will not unduly fear it. Terrorism is one such threat.”
In other words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” This time, we let fear get the best of us and got ourselves into a big mess. I don’t disagree with what Ted Koppel wrote here about our stupidity, though I disagree with his saying that because we screwed up, bin Laden succeeded. We failed, but bin Laden failed more. I look around and see we’re still doing our thing here in the U.S. People who want a chance at a better life try to get to the U.S., not Afghanistan. Americans still invent things that change the world, like Twitter and Facebook. Bin Laden wanted to see regime change in Egypt? He got it, but not the kind he was looking for. I’m glad he lived long enough to witness the Arab Spring, when people all over the Middle East rebelled against bin Laden’s terrorist pool-party pals, aided by … Twitter and Facebook. Ha. Meanwhile, we in the U.S. can complain about how terrible our government is, often in shamefully misspelled and racist comments on news sites, without being arrested, tortured or killed for it. That’s not true in other countries. Ask Pakistani journalist Waqar Kiani, who was beaten up this year for reporting on an earlier torture experience. We can protest the intrusive PATRIOT Act and the intrusive Transportation Security Administration agents. Women here don’t have to hide behind black shrouds, but can wear whatever they want, whether that’s a black shroud, a fake penis or this:
(Like Voltaire, I may disapprove of what you wear, but I will defend to the death your right to wear it. Besides, it amuses me.)
We can make and listen to whatever music we want; write and read all kinds of books; produce and view art; direct, act in and watch any sort of movie or TV show, including Jersey Shore, which I happen to love. So there. We can write blog posts about serious topics that have three references to a frequently offensive animated TV show in them. We can vote … or not vote. Voting is a privilege but not voting is a privilege too, because opting out of voting for the favorite candidate isn’t possible in places like Syria. We like to wallow in despair, but in reality we still have hope. What did bin Laden have to look forward before he was taken out in May? More hiding. You know he wanted to delay death as long as possible because he didn’t want to bump into all those disappointed suicide bombers in the afterlife.
Despite our many freedoms, human nature is imperfect and frequently hateful, meaning the world in general and the U.S. specifically are imperfect and frequently hateful too. Some people think that means there is no good anywhere, especially in the U.S. I’m not interested in debating them because I’m not going to change their minds. But I will say to people who think that the U.S. these days is the worst place IN HISTORY and we’re experiencing the worst things IN HISTORY, that they’re provably wrong and they would know it themselves if they knew anything at all about history. I encourage everyone to read the Tuchman book I mentioned above — A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century — to gain some understanding. If you can’t manage reading the book, you can read my summary of the book:
- Introduction to A Distant Mirror
- A Distant Mirror, Part II
- A Distant Mirror, Part III
- A Distant Mirror, the Finale
If you think we have the worst government IN HISTORY, you should read Tuchman’s The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam. (Yes, Tuchman has the answers to everything.) The first sentence of The March of Folly is, “A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.” She covers Troy, the Renaissance Popes, Britain’s loss of America (the Americans failed a lot, but the British failed more … sound familiar?), and the Vietnam War. I promise you, this time and place isn’t an all-time low. To believe so is a kind of perverse narcissism that deprives people of hope and potentially inhibits them from trying to make positive change. The terrorist lost; don’t give him credit for a win.
My previous posts on 9/11:
- September 11 Is Here Again
- Laughing While Crying
- The Prodigal Bumpe Returns
- Three Old Posts and a Little Story (aka The Other Wendy Brandes)
- Thoughts on 9/11: The Devil Is in the Details
- “I Thought Everybody Else Was Lost.”
- 10 Years Later: Essential Acts of Witness