Obligatory bin Laden Post

The blogosphere overlords threatened to pull my blogging privileges if I didn’t join in the chorus of bloggers commenting on the passing phenomenon of bin Laden’s death. Herewith, some fairly random thoughts.

When I first heard the news I thought it was about ScienceBlogs’ Greg Laden, and I though, “holy shit, what’d he do to piss off Obama so much?”

D.A. Ridgely nominated Radley Balko for best post-bin Laden post. Out of all two that I’ve read, I’d have to agree. Here’s his punchline:

Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.

I give credit to Obama for sending in a special ops team instead of bombing bin Laden’s residence. That was a good call, and not necessarily an easy one.

The question of al Qaeda’s future is a tough one to predict. Obviously it’s not going to crumble away soon, both because the grievances (whether perceived or real) of its supporters aren’t going away soon and because there are people ready to step into the leadership positions. But it strikes me as an organization that functions in large part on charismatic leadership, and that’s not necessarily easy to replace, so the loss of bin Laden could–potentially–diminish, although not eliminate, them as an organization.

Obama’s had a great week, perhaps the best of his presidency. But this, too, shall pass, and by next fall it will matter little, if at all. Still, he’s justified in basking in the moment.

The decision to deliver his announcement over the end of Donald Trump’s show was brilliant political symbolism. The contrast between what he is right now and what Trump is right now could hardly be missed. Whichever adviser thought of that–I would bet it was an adviser, although it’s not impossible Obama thought of it himself–deserves an all-expense paid trip to the Bahamas for a few days.

I’m glad bin Laden’s gone. It’s a bad enough thing when our troops in Afghanistan accidentally kill civilians, but purposely targeting civilians is the worst thing anyone can do.

Addendum: Some of my blogospheric friends hope this means we’ll be coming home from Afghanistan soon. But Afghanistan hasn’t been about bin Laden for years. Whatever the arguments for either staying or leaving, bin Laden’s death is not logically related to any of them.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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14 Responses to Obligatory bin Laden Post

  1. Dr X says:

    Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved ALL HE OUT TO ACHIEVE, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.” (caps mine)

    Let me offer a different point of view. Sorry if this comes out as less than tight, but I’m writing on the fly here, and there are some points that I think are worth making.

    I believe that Radley goes too far in his assertion that bin Laden got all he wanted. I think Radley is confusing the central concerns for Radley (and for many of us), with the motives of a human being operating within a very different, considerably more primitive psychological framework.

    Bin Laden certainly got some of what he wanted, but fell far short of getting all that he wanted. I think that, first and foremost, the man wanted to experience the primitive sense of omnipotence that comes with inflicting terror and death. He wanted bodies piled up across the Middle East and throughout the world as a means to experiencing this sense of omnipotent power. Sociopaths can’t feel anything except the exhilaration of power or rage-filled humiliation. They want only the former experience and they need it constantly. They thrive on sadism, the pain and fear of their victims and the sense of awesome importance that comes with destructive power. Bin Laden certainly got plenty of that. But as a sociopath from another cultural and political world, I think that the elevated niceties of our political ideals were of only secondary concern to him. Most important to him was the need to continuously feed more primitive, personal appetites that maintained his sense of vitality.

    Did you ever see Neil LaBute’s, In The Company of Men? It’s a difficult film to watch, but worth seeing if you haven’t seen it already. The sadistic protagonist needs to constantly humiliate others, breaking his victims down and reducing them to utter despair and inability to function. Then he repeatedly asks: How does it feel? He needs to know because it makes him feel alive. A secondary aim is to seduce others to join in his corruption, as a sort of defeat of virtue. Bin Laden got some of that within his own world through al Qaeda volunteers who became murderers, completely loosing themselves in bin Laden’s moral corruption. And he saw Americans submit, partially, to corruption.

    But the bigger picture of bin Laden’s aims with respect to American wasn’t our ideals. The bigger picture was the omnipotent power over life, death and suffering.

    The fantasy fulfillment of Bin Laden’s raw need for omnipotence was enlarged within the context of apocalyptic fantasies of remaking the world with himself as the protagonist in the biggest story in history. These fantasies were useful to experiencing a sense of power, and they were also a basis for his charismatic power. His apocalyptic fantasies drew other people into his world to meet his needs.

    In this respect, he got some of what he wanted, but he also ended up seeing his organization’s efforts thwarted repeatedly, and he spent much of the last ten years in hiding, communicating through occasional videotapes and through couriers. His power became a double-edged sword, exacting costs that were anything but a fulfillment of all his grandiose fantasies. Instead of the omnipotence he sought, he became a powerful man trapped in a hell of his own making–more crassly, the thinnest kid at fat camp.

    As part of his fantasies of unlimited power, he wanted his version of strict Islamic rule to prevail across the Middle East. This he did not get. He was booted from Afghanistan. He saw al Qaeda flourish then collapse in Iraq. I don’t think he had any illusions about seeing Islamic rule across the globe in the near term. Again, he didn’t even come close to complete fulfillment of his greatest wishes, and what he did achieve, was achieved at an enormous cost that undermined his central aims. It was the United States that inflicted many of those costs.

    So I don’t disagree that bin Laden got a great deal of what he wanted, but he did fall far short of getting all he wanted. And as much as we partially fulfilled his secondary aim to corrupt virtue, we also curtailed, to a great extent, the fulfillment of his primary aims.

    Were there much better ways to do this? Sure. We gave him far too much. But still, we stopped him from getting much of what he wanted.

  2. James Hanley says:

    Knowing that long-distance diagnoses are risky, but knowing also that you have far greater expertise in psychology than I, can I ask what specific evidence you use to define bin Laden as truly psychopathic?

  3. AMW says:

    Afghanistan hasn’t been about bin Laden for years. Whatever the arguments for either staying or leaving, bin Laden’s death is not logically related to any of them.

    Ah, but Dr. Hanley, since when did reality start swaying the American mind? I predict the war in Afghanistan will become less popular now that it’s initial casus belli is gone. “What are we still doing over there?” will be a common argument against it.

    I’m not so sure Dr. X is right about Bin Laden’s psychological state. But I will agree that Balko’s post – while accurate in many respects – probably assumes too much about Bin Laden’s motivations. I suspect he cared a lot less about the daily lives of Americans and a lot more about how his actions would affect the Muslim world.

  4. Scott Hanley says:

    One thing that bothers me is that they seem to have announced Bin Laden’s death right away, so that everyone in contact with him knows that their own whereabouts are compromised because the Americans are scouring all those papers and hard drives they seized. When KSM was announced, with those miserable-looking pictures of him, it was obvious that he’d been secretly held and interrogated for quite some before the announcement. It seems like an intelligence blunder, unless the fact that they cut the Pakistanis out of the loop while making a raid next door to their military school means it would have been impossible to maintain the secret anyway.

  5. Dr X says:

    The sheer scope of bin Laden’s indifference to suffering and death and his very active role in spreading death and havoc anywhere he could, even inflicting incredible brutality on fellow Muslims, makes me think sociopathy as a serious issue for consideration. Moreover, his was a cultist, personality-driven movement. When I see these features, coupled with the incredible scope of indiscriminate violence, it leaves little doubt about the man’s character/make-up. If it swims like a duck, walks a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

    I don’t thing bin Laden was a man caught up in the banal evil of the little man in a larger movement that degrades conscience, as we see in genocidal movements that everyday people participate in. He made this movement what it is. He was the architect. He made himself the icon of the movement.

    There are cultist leaders and architects of grandiose movements who are not sociopaths. You can see a few things that differentiate them from the sociopathic movement leader. For one thing, conscience is more in evidence. There is no impulse to corrupt others or to corrupt virtue itself. Sadism is absent. There isn’t evident pleasure in the ability to inflict massive destruction. There is pleasure in power, but there is also clear evidence of a desire to also be loved. You could say that the distinction between the narcissistic cult leader and the sociopathic cult leader is that the former shows a great need to feel loved and a great need to be seen as benevolent; the latter shows no evidence of these needs.

    Things can go awry with narcissistic types; they can become messianic and do great harm, but doing harm and being feared is not their primary driver. They can be seduced and corrupted, becoming abusive because they feel entitled to things based on their belief in their own goodness. But they want to be loved more than feared.

    Perhaps Stalin and Castro serve to illustrate of the difference between the sociopathic and the narcissistic leader. Castro inflicted a great deal of harm, but he showed evidence of positive ideals and a desire to be loved and admired. Though he caused great harm and his aspirations were deeply misguided in many respects, I think he cared about creating better lives for Cubans. I think Castro he enjoys being important, but he shows evidence of conscience, albeit a flawed conscience, and I believe his desire to be important is rooted in a desire to be loved. If what I know of Stalin is correct, the Soviet leader was incredibly sadistic, power-hungry and quite happy to commit mass murder of his own citizens. And he didn’t give a rat’s ass about whether the citizenry loved him.

    James, I don’t know if that was helpful or not. Diagnosing at a distance has it’s limits, but the truth any clinician will tell you is that there are certain patterns you see that are so emblematic of character that the diagnosis isn’t difficult, even at a distance.

  6. James Hanley says:

    If it swims like a duck, walks a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.

    So he’s everything he’s quacked up to be?

    More seriously, thanks.

    Yet more seriously, perhaps sometime I could pitch you some patterns of behavior I’ve observed in someone and you might be able to tell me if they seem consonant with narcissism?

  7. Dr X says:

    There is a much longer and more nuanced discussion to be had about psychopathic personality as a subtype of narcissism, which has some strong merits. I thought I’d mention that, just to say that when I’m talking about sociopaths/psychopaths, I’m not suggesting that they aren’t fundamentally narcissistic. But their narcissism entails a greatly diminished/absent conscience, and pleasure in destroying and humiliating. Most narcissists are not psychopaths.

  8. BSK says:

    Dr. X-

    “The sheer scope of bin Laden’s indifference to suffering and death and his very active role in spreading death and havoc anywhere he could, even inflicting incredible brutality on fellow Muslims, makes me think sociopathy as a serious issue for consideration.”

    I know this was a long-distance diagnosis, but couldn’t this same diagnosis be applied to the leader of any group or nation that inflicts death on it’s enemy? I mean, Bush stood idly by and/or directly advocated for the torture of prisoners and the deaths of hundreds (if not more) of civilians. Maybe you’d characterize Bush the same way (and I’m not picking on Bush, but he seems the most immediate example). Maybe there is something inherently psychopathic about those who seek such levels of leadership and power. I dunno. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

  9. Dr X says:

    Again on the fly, a few quick observations of what I think are some critical differences.

    Much as I disliked Bush, I think he showed evidence of conscience and capacity for empathy. Having these capacities doesn’t mean that a person is incapable of doing very wrong things, but the absence of evidence of these capacities points toward psychopathy. I look at bin Laden and can’t see evidence that the man was concerned at all with the well-being of other people. There was nothing benevolent about him. He was absolutely undaunted by anything resembling conscience or empathy.

    There are criminals who are not psychopaths. They can do very wrong things, but have a conscience, have ideals that still genuinely take into account feelings and well-being of others. They don’t actually take pleasure in their victim’s suffering.

    As wrong as I think Bush was, I don’t think he got a mental boner about the thought of people being tortured–I don’t believe he enjoyed it. He would not be proud to make a video and show the world a prisoner in agony or boast about humiliating them. I think bin Laden was deeply proud of the suffering and humiliation inflicted on innocent people. He wanted everyone to see what he did, in all it’s gruesome detail.

    I think Bush had ideals Bush that often showed evidence of rootedness in a capacity for goodwill (Muslims and Islam are not the enemy, I don’t care to condemn homosexuality–we’re all sinners–hardly the types of sentiments we heard from bin Laden). Bush was not a guy that wanted everyone in the world to fear him. I think he generally wanted people to like him and that he wanted to like people. That doesn’t mean he can’t see some people as enemies or he’s incapable of very wrong conduct.

    For bin Laden, everyone but those who adhered very tightly to his own very narrow expectations were his enemies and his adherents were expendable. There were no limits or virtually no limits to his willingness to see the lives of others snuffed out.

  10. James Hanley says:

    Dr. X,

    Actually I was thinking of someone I know who seems to my unlearned mind to exhibit narcissistic behavior. I don’t mean just self-centered, but truly narcissistic. I’ve been kind of curious to maybe ask someone who actually knows something about the subject (as opposed to my mere on-line reading).

  11. Lance says:

    I think dismissing bin Laden as a psychopath is a bit too easy and misses the fact that he was very dedicated to a vision of Islam that is not particularly uncommon.

    His fundamentalist view of Islam was the core of his personal philosophy and he viewed the westernization and secularization of the Arab and Muslim world as an existential threat. This was a man that despite his most recent, and perhaps rational, reclusive existence was a fearless soldier and a charismatic leader in battles with the Soviets and other forces he viewed as “infidels”.

    I think a better term for him is ruthless zealot. I doubt that he lost much sleep over the thousands of innocents that died as a result of Al Qaeda attacks but I have seen no evidence that these deaths satisfied some psychotic need for the suffering of innocents or as Dr X puts it, being “deeply proud of the suffering and humiliation inflicted on innocent people.”

    I think he would have been fine with defeating the US and all the other “infidels” on the field of battle but he knew that was impossible. I think his indifference to the death and suffering of innocents was as pedestrian and perhaps as understandable as the indifference of Harry Truman to the thousands of Japanese innocents that perished in the atomic bombings and the even larger number of people that died horrific fiery deaths in the massive and numerous incendiary bombings of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, as well as those of many large German cities like Dresden.

    Don’t forget that bin Laden openly declared war on the US long before the trade towers fell. He thought of it as a war for the very existence of his world. He envisioned an Arab renewal, a reinstitution of a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate. I think he was fine with the idea that there were going to be a vast number of casualties in this war and that, as in all wars, many of them would be innocents.

    I think a factor that must be considered in any psychological assessment of Osama bin Laden is the deep sense of humiliation and impotence that is felt by many fundamentalist Islamists, and other third world peoples, at the realization that their deeply held beliefs and mores are being threatened by the powerfully intrusive culture of the west.

    Add to that the fact that the US and other NATO countries are engaged in military interventions in the region and you have provided the fuel and the spark for this particular firestorm. A firestorm that I think bin Laden was eager to fan as it was from the ashes of this Armageddon that he imagined his new caliphate would rise.

    I think his mental illness is a very common one, religious delusion. I just think that unlike most people, who are content to pray and leave the outcome to “your favorite deity here”, Osama bin Laden saw himself as an agent of Allah in the defense of His kingdom.

    By all accounts he was solemn, and religiously introspective. He was not a classic narcissist in the image of Kim Jong Il, Kadafi or Saddam. There are no accounts of outlandish or sadistic personal behavior. Quite the opposite, almost all accounts indicate a passive and gentle person.

    That said he clearly lacked compassion for his many thousands of victims but I think that was a function of his single-minded religious fanaticism. There is a difference between feeling indifference to the suffering of others and delighting in it. I think that is the distinction here.

  12. BSK says:

    We are also judging bin Laden on a far smaller sample size, much of it intended to rally support from his followers and/or intimidate his enemies. I bet he loved his kids, or at least those who followed his ideology. I’m sure he laughed and got angry or sad about the deaths of his friends and loved ones. None of this is to defend the horrible actions he undertook. Not one bit. If we had regular press conferences with him and sound bites and photographers everywhere, we probably would have found a far more nuanced picture of bin Laden. Maybe not. But probably.

  13. BSK says:

    Note: I don’t know enough about psychology if anything I’ve offered in that previous post would negate Dr. X’s armchair diagnosis. One could very well be a sociopath and still enjoy puppies, ice cream, and slapstick comedy. But he wasn’t evil incarnate. He wasn’t soulless. He wasn’t a monster. Many have attempted to paint him in this, using potentially accurate psychological diagnoses as evidence of his inhumanity. From there, they justify the treatment of him (and others) as less than human. In no way am I attempting to insinuate that Dr. X is doing this, only that facile understanding most of us have of bin Laden color our reactions to his death.

  14. AMW says:

    I might come off as suffering from Bush Derangement Syndrome, but nevertheless…

    Let’s not forget that Bush and bin Laden operated under a very different set of constraints and resources. Even if Bush loved the idea of torturing Muslims just for the sake of torturing Muslims, he couldn’t very well say as much. He had to face re-election and worry about the goodwill of the broader international community. He also had lots of resources at his disposal to convince Americans of his goodwill (and he didn’t even manage that with the Democratic half of the country).

    On the other hand, bin Laden was an un-elected leader who depended on his charisma and stature to convince a group of zealots that he should remain leader indefinitely. Showing remorse in such a context would be a sign of weakness. He also had virtually no ability to broadcast a sense of humanity to Americans anyway. Whenever he released a statement or video virtually none of his words were actually transmitted to regular Americans via our media. One had to take initiative to look them up. And who the hell wants to spend good time looking up the statements of a murderer?

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