Magazine | June 6, 2011, Issue

Better Off Dead

Osama bin Laden was a has-been

The test of a true friend is whether he’ll come to your house, moments or hours after your death, and quickly dispose of the embarrassing or potentially humiliating bric-à-brac we all collect over the course of the years.

Get your head out of the gutter: I’m not thinking specifically about pornographic or otherwise dicey material. I’m thinking about nasty letters never sent, notes in book margins, diaries written during bleak years, bottles of unseemly medications, incongruous record albums, childish photographs, hair dye, dunning notices from credit-card companies, online-dating material, ludicrously fashionable garments, and half-finished “Success Journals” from the Tony Robbins series “Awaken the Giant Within.”

I mean, I’m thinking about that type of stuff. Just pulling things out of the air, here.

We can all use a little life-airbrushing when the time comes, for our peace of mind in the afterlife and to keep things simple and clean for our survivors. Nobody wants any surprises at a time like that. No one wants to remember a deceased loved one and think, “I had no idea he needed that kind of ointment.”

Or, you know, whatever.

Alas for Osama bin Laden, he died friendless. Or, at least, he died without that kind of friend. Only hours after the spectacular mission by SEAL Team Six, the unsavory details and the depressing photographs began to appear.

Osama in his old-man shawl and homeless-guy cap, watching a couple of his own videos while sitting on a dirty floor. Osama on video, flubbing his lines and looking confused. Pallets of Coke and Pepsi. Towering stacks of pornography. Rebar sticking up all over the place. Beauty products. Cinderblock bookcases. The only thing the photographs didn’t capture was the smell. But if you let your imagination run wild, you’ll probably get pretty close.

The image this all conjures up is of those poor souls on the A&E channel’s show Hoarders who live in squalor among their piled-up possessions, unable to let anything go, unable to move on with their lives. Or, maybe more accurately, of the documentary film (and later Broadway musical and HBO movie) Grey Gardens, in which the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Onassis slowly descend into poverty, madness, squalor, and irrelevance.

Seeing him there, in the world’s most filthy day room in the worst rest home ever, surrounded by outmoded home-entertainment appliances, dirty little cap on his head — it almost makes you feel sorry for him, doesn’t it?

Yeah, me neither.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but like Hitler in his bunker, there’s a full-stop quality to the death of Osama. It’s the final moment in a long movie we’ve all been watching since Sept. 11, 2001. Of course there are going to be sequels, and of course, as in any film, the evil lives on, but it’s all been leading up to this moment, to the raid, the shots, and the splash of water as his decrepit body slid into the sea.

#page#We did him a favor. Already he seemed like a figure from another era, a star from the days of the silents. Like Norma Desmond, the nutty and out-of-place star in Sunset Boulevard, Osama just ran his own clips all day, watching his earlier work in his robe, wondering how to recapture the world’s attention when the world seemed to be riveted on other things.

Like Tunisia, and Egypt, and Libya. Trouble in Bahrain and Syria. The giant unruly mess of the Arab Spring. What possible connection did that ancient bag of bones, huddling in his Abbottabad hideout, have to the young people in the streets of Cairo? Or, for that matter, to the young people in the streets of Syria, facing bullets from their own Arab leader? What message did he send to them?

The people thronging the streets in tottering Arab countries aren’t demanding a renewal of the Atlantic–to–Indian Ocean caliphate. They’re demanding Facebook and Twitter. Say what you like about the Arab Spring — and it may eventually make things worse for America and her interests — but it has nothing to do with, and nothing to say to, the old man in Abbottabad. And he had nothing to say to them.

He was lucky to get that midnight visit from SEAL Team Six. There’s nothing more depressing than an old star who won’t get off the stage.

Without a quick airbrushing of his nasty-looking compound, it’s hard not to think of Osama bin Laden’s death as the final humiliation for the man. The Arab culture is deeply sensitive to the requirements of protocol and the trappings of luxury. The public’s seeing Osama bin Laden in his hideout can’t have burnished his image. But deeper than the stash of pornography or the moth-eaten blanket or the smell, it’s his irrelevance that resonates.

How quickly the game has changed. Since 1993’s attack on the World Trade Center, it’s been Them vs. Us, an epic clash of civilizations. But for the past six months, anyway, it’s been Them vs. Them, in capitals all over the Middle East.

Them vs. Them is a big improvement. But there’s no place in that game for Osama bin Laden.

We forget, I think, just how far back 2001 really is. Before Facebook and Twitter. Before the iPod and iPhone. Before Obamacare and the Prius and yoga studios on every corner. Before JetBlue or Glenn Beck got big. Before Nancy Pelosi, the Tea Party, or American Idol.

Imagine, then, if the troubled young Egyptian, Mohamed Atta, who went on to fly a plane into the World Trade Center, had been born ten years later.

He wouldn’t be taking lessons at a Florida flight school. He’d be rioting in the streets of Cairo.

A big improvement.

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