With apologies to Hannah Arendt; crossposted at SamPratt.com... This diary starts out tongue-in-cheek, but moves to a broader and more philosophical point.
Though it was initially called a mansion, Osama Bin Laden's safe house decor might better be described as Meth Lab Chic. (Not that I'm too familiar with meth lab interiors.) Rather than a set from 24
, it's more the kind of place that only Vibe
magazine would choose for a shoot -- no pun intended.
In recently-released videos and stills, is particleboard furniture looks like it was salvaged from a rural roadside free pile; a power strip is bolted arbitrarily to the wall; wires are strung higgledy-piggeldy, as if by an adolescent hobbyist; and this former heir to a multimillion Saudi fortune was relegated to watching standard def video on a TV you couldn't get $5 for on Craigslist. It's surely only a matter of time before we hear they found porn on his computer.
All joking aside: Our mythologies about the super-powerful, insanely-devious OBL stem from the very real trauma of the 9/11 attacks. It just wouldn't do for the culprits to be mere mortal miscreants; we had to build them up into a hydra-headed syndicate. But from the first moment I heard that Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist group called Al-Qaida had been fingered, my gut instinct was that the devastation of those attacks was a stroke of grotesque luck on their part, not proof of ingenious planning, or of massive financial resources. These attacks were simply asymmetrical, and run on a shoestring. For OBL and his very small group, it was like going into a poker hand with a weak pair and winding up with a full house: it'll only happen maybe once in 100 tries.
From the attackers' perspective, everything went far more smoothly and perfectly than it should have: their agents got into the country without any trouble, though some were on watch lists; they were not detected taking flight classes, or the authorities missed the warnings; they wired funds around without detection; they all boarded their planes without incident; with one notable exception their hijackings were not disrupted; they were not shot down; all but one plane hit its target; and the luckiest strike of all, the crashes evidently caused both of the Towers to collapse in spectacularly macabre and scarifying fashion.
The hijackers pulled the casino lever and hit their jackpot -- nothing but cherries.
I do not believe, despite this long series of catastrophic missed chances to stop them, that 9/11 was an inside job (though the staggering incompetence and negligence of the Bush administration gives plenty of ammunition to those believing this was a case of LIHOP, or Letting It Happen On Purpose). I believe, rather, that Bin Laden's network was far more of an ad hoc, improvised, half-baked group than we thought, one which got damnably lucky one horrible September day.
That luck turned, in the public mind, a really rather half-assed and plodding wannabe organization into a vast international web of criminal masterminds.
But now when you see the recent videos and still photos, and consider how totally unprepared for last Sunday's assault this supposed mastermind was, you're reminded of how shabby and improvisational and yes, banal these "evildoers" were, to use W's cartoonish and hamfisted phrase.
OBL's bland lair would have been far more impressive if it had proven to be a cave in the mountains, as we'd been conditioned to expect. At least then he would live up to our need to imagine him as a demonic but ingenius survivalist, of the high caliber necessary to evade our vaunted, all-seeing intelligence apparatus for so many years in the wilderness. As it turned out, he wasn't living on mountain goats he had strangled with his own bare hands, or on even nuts and berries; instead, he had his own private FreshDirect service...
And where were the booby traps, the tunnels, the bodyguards, the surveillance equipment, and the safe rooms which are the staple of Hollywood thrillers and Jack Bauer missions? Instead of sophisticated sensors and triggers, an outdated Playstation, a bag of Cheet-Os, and a spilled dimestore spittoon would not be out of place in Osama's real-world hidey-hole (to again appropriate the juvenile language of our previous President). Among other details which have emerged is that the Grand Enemy of Western Imperialism had vast quantities of Pepsi and Coke delivered every week... Your average locavore/foodie has more ideological discipline than that.
The only impressive thing is that Bin Laden managed to remain undetected for so long. Again, one now tends to attribute that more to the Elmer Fudd-like efforts to find him than the cleverness of his arrangements. Probably OBL woke up every day thinking, "I simply cannot believe that those Keystone Kops haven't burst in here yet. I must be the luckiest bastard on Earth." His lack of real preparedness for that day, coupled with the hiding-in-plain-sight choice of location in Abbotabad, suggest either strong assurances from the Pakistani ISI that he wouldn't be bothered, or a complacency developed from 10 years of extended life, or just an absence of competence and resources. Or maybe all of the above.
In the end, the crumminess of his final surroundings and feebleness of his ultimate demise were out of all proportion to the overreaction and misdirection of the U.S.'s response to 9/11. Inciting such a response was one of Osama's stated central goals, and economist Joseph Stiglitz has pegged its cost to our nation alone at something like $3 trillion.
To that extent, Bin Laden may have felt he had already succeeded, and was resting on his stale laurels. The only thing he could still kill was time: watching tube, smoking weed, drinking American soft drinks, having a few more kids, and keeping up public appearances as best he could with crappy quarterly video releases. He probably knew that he would never pull off something like 9/11 again (and the half-baked followup ideas found on thumbdrives point to both a lack of original new ideas for AQ, and a serious lack of organizational capacity). The operation to get him was dramatic, but nothing else about Bin Laden had been for several thousand days, ever since Bush lost his trail at Tora Bora.
A sudden end, with no long imprisonment or Milosevic-style trial harangues or other humiliations may have been a relief to him -- a denouement swifter, easier, and more strangely elevating of his importance than he deserved.