The Breakfast Table

Mean, Treacherous, Cowardly

Dear Anne,

Boredom may well be a major cause of terrorism. It sometimes threatens to turn me into a terrorist. But Osama Bin Laden seems to have had a pretty interesting life, with holidays in Oxford and in Sweden as a young man and the chance to pursue an interesting career as a civil engineer. Who knows what made him such a monster? I think we tend to overlook in our emphasis on his hatred of America that he and people like him hate their Islamic rulers even more. They think they pay only lip service to Islam and disregard the teachings of the Prophet, and that America’s chief crime is to keep them going. One can’t exactly blame them for thinking this when one sees the way Arab princes carry on in the West. That apart, it must be very difficult to find an outlet for youthful idealism in a country like Saudi Arabia. The only opportunity it seems to offer is to make money, and Osama Bin Laden clearly didn’t find money satisfying enough.

He reminds me in an immeasurably more monstrous way of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the millionaire Milanese publisher, who killed himself in 1969 while planting a bomb at the foot of an electricity pylon outside Milan. Feltrinelli was a middle-class Communist who shuddered at the thought of bloodshed. His idea of a revolutionary act was to plunge Milan into darkness in the middle of the rush hour. Bin Laden, of course, not only doesn’t mind killing people but actually wants to kill as many Americans as possible. But there is something even about the unspeakable attacks on the Twin Towers that has an unreal and immature quality to it, that bears the stamp of a middle-class person playing revolutionary games. Bin Laden said in one of his videos that he didn’t actually expect the towers to be destroyed, and I tend to believe him. Not that that makes the outrage in any way easier to forgive. Bin Laden remains a force for evil that needs to be eradicated. And it doesn’t get one anywhere knowing that he is also a crazy, mixed-up person.

This morning’s Guardian reports on the squalid misuse of e-mail by London office workers. According to a survey, 55 percent of them confess to using e-mail to stab their colleagues in the back and promote their own careers. A large percentage also admits to sending sexist, racist, or pornographic messages at work. This is a depressing picture that follows on other reports suggesting that e-mail has become more of a burden than a boon to many people, who feel swamped and tyrannised by it. The most notorious e-mail ever sent in this country was on 9/11, when Jo Moore, a political adviser to the minister of transport, circulated her colleagues with a message suggesting this would be a good day on which to “bury” some bad news about the railways. Amazingly, she wasn’t sacked for what Tony Blair called “this very serious mistake”—she is a committed party activist much beloved of her boss, Transport Secretary Steve Byers. But she survived long enough to try to “bury” some more bad news (or so it has been alleged) on the day of the funeral of Princess Margaret. The consequence of all this e-mailing within the Department of Transport, which generates enough bad news to overflow all the graveyards of Britain, has been a full-blown political scandal in which heads are now rolling all over the place. The cause would appear to be a breakdown in office relations caused by the electronic back-stabbing referred to by the Guardian.A lot of people interviewed in the survey complained about the way e-mail was being used to avoid face-to-face confrontations on sensitive issues. It seems to be generating a mean, treacherous, and cowardly culture.