The Smile

How we memorialize Osama bin Laden


in Archive


The scariest thing about Osama bin Laden was his quietness and his calm. He spoke softly. His face was soft, too. His gestures were never harsh or abrupt. He seemed to be a gentle man. Osama bin Laden was, of course, an extremely violent man. He was so obsessed with violence that, at times, it seemed the purpose of al-Qaeda was violence for violence’s sake. I suspect (though cannot prove) that his obsession with violence stemmed from an overdeveloped sense of vengeance and punishment. He said it himself, one time. He explained that his experience of watching Israel invade Lebanon in 1982 with the help of the American 6th Fleet changed him.

In these tough moments, many things raged inside me that are hard to describe, but they resulted in a strong feeling against injustice and a strong determination to punish the unjust. While I was looking at these destroyed towers in Lebanon, it sparked in my mind that the tyrant should be punished with the same and that we should destroy towers in America, so that it tastes what we taste and would be deterred from killing our children and women.

We will never exactly know what feelings raged inside the man: The strong perception of injustice does different things to different people. In bin Laden, it grew a terrible need to punish, a feeling that no punishment would be too strong, a passionate conviction that he was a divine tool of punishment placed upon this Earth for that purpose alone.

He put away the rage, though. He locked it up. He decided that he would be a more effective tool of punishment if he did not speak the rage inside him, did not attempt to describe it, to verbalize the rage itself. Bin Laden never ranted or raved as other men of great violence do. The speeches of Adolf Hitler are always a touching point. Hitler would whip himself into a frenzy as he spoke, driving himself into heights of outrage that spilled over and into the audience. The point was to unleash those demons of violence in himself and therefore let everyone listening know that they, too, could unleash those demons. Hitler wanted to sculpt a German public that was comfortable with the angry and dark passions of violence. He wanted them to feel that rage was appropriate and that the actions resulting from rage were the natural next step. Hitler never found it difficult to express his rage. He gloried in expressing it. He lived to express it. He became one of the acknowledged masters of expressing rage.

Osama bin Laden went the opposite route. His was the calm and deliberate side of violence. But it was fearsome. I often like to pretend — for my own sense of sanity and well-being — that it takes a great disruption of a man’s normal feelings and emotions to get him to the point of killing. I like to pretend that great violence cannot be acted out within a state of dispassion. At least, then, we would always know when it was coming. We would witness the fit of rage and be prepared for the forthcoming storm of violence. The way the 9/11 attackers spent their lives as everyday members of American society in the months leading up to that day, the way they boarded the planes as normal men, the way they flew the planes deliberately into those towers — they are an outgrowth of the calm, the almost Zen-like violence that bin Laden personified.

If nothing else, the life of Osama bin Laden was a testimony to the varieties of violence that can be encountered within the human being. He discovered a ruthlessness where it was least expected. He discovered that a capacity for killing could be found within a state of repose, that anger — cooled and pushed deep into the recesses of the soul — could be a terrifying weapon precisely because it was so cold. He discovered that gentle speech and a warm smile could be a vehicle for punishment and a tool for violence. It is a lesson, I suppose, in human capacity.

The most surprising thing about the death of Osama bin Laden was his funeral. Islamic law declares that a person must be buried within 24 hours of death. “We are ensuring that it is handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition,” Time reported a U.S. official as saying, “This is something that we take very seriously. And so therefore, this is being handled in an appropriate manner.”

Bin Laden was buried at sea, presumably so that there will be no burial site, no country that owns him, no place on Earth could be associated with him ever after. The sea gets him, being the only place capacious enough to take on the burden. There is dignity in having done it this way. Not dignity for him, but dignity for us. It is understandable that people want to celebrate the death of a man who scared us, who was the author of a traumatizing act of violence, who plotted the deaths of thousands and dreamed of the deaths of thousands upon thousands more. But I am not sure that celebrating death ever does anything very good for the one who celebrates.

I shuddered for the souls of the men at Saddam Hussein’s execution. The footage is, now, widely available on the Internet. It was captured surreptitiously on a cell phone video camera. Saddam is brought into a dingy room in what looks like a basement. He is bustled toward a noose and begins praying. Some of the people standing below begin to shout. They are calling out, “Muqtada,” in reference to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia religious and political leader. Saddam says the name Muqtada back to them and then asks, “Do you call this courage?” Another person yells at Saddam to go to hell. He replies, “the hell that is Iraq?” Then he goes back to praying. All of a sudden, the trap door beneath Saddam opens and he plummets. He is gone. It is impossible to watch that footage without feeling that Saddam stole his dignity back in those final moments. The people in the room gave Saddam the opportunity to do it. They gave him a moment to be the honorable one in death. It lessened those men, those witnesses. They became small in the face of the ultimate thing, the death of a human being.

The last few days have seen a lot of talk about whether or not it is appropriate to celebrate the killing of Osama bin Laden. I would phrase the question in a different way. What does it do to one human being to celebrate the killing of another human being, whatever the circumstances? What happens inside you, how does it make you feel? Is that something you want to feel? Is it a way you want to be? I think of the witnesses at Saddam Hussein’s funeral, the ones who cried out. I imagine them walking out into the sunlight of the bright day outside and feeling exposed, thinned out, cheated of the euphoria they had hoped to feel. Maybe they wished, in retrospect, that they would have had the strength to stay silent and serious for the final act of a long tragedy in which no one emerged unscathed.

The gently smiling face of Osama bin Laden will be an image that stays with us for a long time, anyway. It was proper to let go of it, down into the ocean’s depths. It will be an accomplishment just to let it go. • 4 May 2011