Idea Of The Day

The Man in the Desert

Osama Bin Laden, who is believed to be behind Tuesday’s thousands of deaths and massive destruction, was not always a man with such violent ambitions, even if he was, it seems, a man of some violence. As Judith Miller writes in today’s New York Times, “Mr. bin Laden, who graduated from King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda in 1979 with a degree in civil engineering, was not always interested in religious politics. Associates portrayed him as a frequent visitor with Saudi royalty to Beirut, where he drank heavily at night clubs and wound up in bar brawls.” Bin Laden’s fanaticism seems to have begun not as a result of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan or the Gulf War but with the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel in 1978. When he came to mythologize himself, as Mary Anne Weaver discussed in the New Yorker, is less clear, though as a cousin of Bin Laden told me in 1998, he’s keen on his mystique. Think of T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, she said, and his campaign of sabotage against the occupying Turks in World War I; that’s the kind of man he considers himself. Like Lawrence, Bin Laden identifies with those he considers oppressed, angry, and disunited, even if his own background is one of wealth, privilege, and night clubs. He may in some way wish for a united Arabia. But unlike Lawrence, Bin Laden is no scholar. Nor does he seem to have Lawrence’s self doubt, which expressed itself through a sense of remorse and a capability to understand human suffering.