Looked at realistically, Osama bin Laden’s intervention in our presidential election was undoubtedly an act of immediate organizational weakness, not strength. Had he had been capable of orchestrating the bringing down of another American tower or its equivalent, he certainly would have done so, but it was no less ingenious for that. His last major intervention, his self-scripted action-adventure film in real time, The Humiliation of America, cost his organization hundreds of thousands of planning dollars and 19 suicidal believers (plus the price of airplane tickets, box-cutters, and mace). Still, those 19 followers and the almost 3,000 dead from the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93, which never made it to Washington thanks to the heroic action of its passengers, was clearly a cheap enough price to pay in his eyes for the notoriety he instantly achieved.
On the other hand, his new intervention — the video seen ’round the world — must have cost but a few riyals. All that was needed, after all, was home-video equipment, a lectern, a brown cloth for a backdrop, and Osama’s elegant Halloween costume, described in the New York Times as “traditional white robes, a golden cloak and a turban.” (“I’ll take the sheik outfit for $39.95!”) In terms of price, impact, and horrific effect, however, it’s already the real-world equivalent of that bargain-basement horror-film success The Blair Witch Project, and it was even released on the eve of Halloween. In this video are echoes of so many other horror films in which the dead return to life, the vampire is not slain, the zombies walk yet again. Remarkable.
Let no one say that Osama isn’t a thoroughly modern man. His timing was TV perfect. He has, as they might say in Hollywood, a golden gut and the purest instincts of a network programmer. And he’s an incredible ham — or at least a man willing to change roles as well as costumes as the opportunity arises. In this video, to judge from the transcript, he’s abandoned the role of Islamic true believer (and of course mass murderer) to take up the bloodless role of rational critic. As a friend of mine said, he’s joined the Capital Gang — or is it the Peshawar Gang? Osama as pundit.
He offers a reasonably detached assessment of our President’s actions and his own, suggesting that the Bush administration learned its ways from the corrupt Middle Eastern regimes with which the Bush family was long associated. (“We have not found it difficult to deal with the Bush administration in light of the resemblance it bears to the regimes in our countries, half of which are ruled by the military and the other half of which are ruled by the sons of kings and presidents. Our experience with them is lengthy and both types are replete with those who are characterized by pride, arrogance, greed and misappropriation of wealth.”) He considers the Patriot Act and election fraud in Florida like any TV talking head. (“So he took dictatorship and suppression of freedoms to his son and they named it the Patriot Act under the pretences of fighting terrorism. In addition, Bush sanctioned the installing of sons as state governors and did not forget to import expertise in election fraud from the regions presidents to Florida to be made use of in moments of difficulty.”) He analyzes why the President acted as he did. (“All that we have mentioned has made it easy for us to provoke and bait this administration.”)
Then, like any good TV critic, like, say, Tom Shales of the Washington Post, or perhaps like one of those generals from some recent American war brought in to analyze the way the present one is being fought, he offers his critique of how the President played his role on September 11, 2001: “It never occurred to us that the Commander in Chief of the armed forces would abandon 50,000 of his citizens in the twin towers to face those great horrors alone at a time when they most needed him. But because it seemed to him that occupying himself by talking to the little girl about the goat and its butting was more important than occupying himself with the planes and their butting of the skyscrapers we were given three times the period required to execute the operations.”
Calm as he appears, he might as well be a global shock jock. (“Stay tuned — from Karachi, Jerry Springer interviews Satanic worshippers directly after the local news.”) What a bizarre way to complete a three-year cycle of global madness. This single figure off in the middle of nowhere has once again managed, like the Wizard of Oz, to magnify himself until he fills every screen in sight and drives events, as he has for three years. After all, he was the one, as he puts it, who “provoked” George Bush into becoming the “war president” of both men’s dreams on 9/11/2001.
Now, as the clock ticks down to the last moments of the President’s first term, Osama has reappeared in a way that will prove unforgettable. If you remember, there was much speculation on the Internet, but also in the mainstream press not so many months ago about whether the Bush administration had Osama in the bag for a pre-election trick-or-treat. Top American officials were shuttling in and out of Pakistan with increasing regularity; intense pressure was reportedly being exerted on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border where he was reported to be hiding out; rumors flew that the Americans were closing in on the perfect October Surprise.
Well, they were right — after a fashion. His two-bit video is indeed the October Surprise of the campaign and, whether Bush is elected or defeated, no one will ever be able to prove that Osama wasn’t responsible. He certainly won’t regret seeing George Bush win the election, but he may not care either way. What he undoubtedly does care about — in true shock-jock fashion — is the attention he gains by the surprise of what he says.
So now we can claim we lived through those endless orange alerts and the rest of the homeland security hysteria all for a home video in which the man who loved the Taliban to death has suddenly decided that he, too, will join the sweepstakes contest our President started after 9/11 to spread “freedom” around the world by force of arms. (“We want to restore freedom to our Nation and just as you lay waste to our Nation so shall we lay waste to yours.”) Once again, as with al-Qaeda in 2001, as with the most extreme elements in Iraq this year, we see the dance of the fundamentalists, Islamist and American, which has mesmerized the world; and once again Osama bin Laden has stepped onto the dance floor and put his hand out for a partner.
Perhaps the only bright side of our most recent Osama moment — to speak purely personally — is that all those conspiracy theorists out there will finally stop writing in every time anybody connects Osama to 9/11, demanding to know what the “proof” for this could possibly be. Now it has been offered on a platter by the man himself. As we edge up to this presidential election, we can only say: What a tawdry spectacle is our world.
Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] is editor of TomDispatch.com, a project of the Nation Institute. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel and The End of Victory Culture.