The Abyss Gazes Back


The most gripping portion of Steve Coll's stellar piece in The New Yorker comes at the very end. Coll has spent the article explaining how Bin Laden minted Terrorism 2.0, using media and spectacle to prosecute a war on the West. 

And then we get this:

Omar bin Laden, a younger son of Osama, left his father in Afghanistan in 1999 and later co-wrote a memoir with his mother, Najwa, a cousin whom Osama had married when he was seventeen and she was fifteen. In the book, Omar wrote that he had lost faith in his father as a young adult in war-ravaged Afghanistan when Osama suggested that he had his brothers consider taking up suicide bombing in the Taliban's cause. The boys demurred; Omar never got over the request. "My father," he wrote "hated his enemies more than he loved his sons."

There's been a lively debate going on across the net about the legality of killing Osama Bin Laden, in terms of both American and international law. The debate is necessary, intelligent and important. And I do not care.

I write a lot about the problem of stripping humanity, of othering, and of making monsters of men. I loved The Looming Tower because Lawrence Wright refused to other Al Qaeda. Instead he chronicled all of the group's evil acts, detailed American complicity, and did it so well that you were in the head of the terrorist. You could, all at once, condemn the evil and see how you might come to be its perpetrator. Yet now I find myself conjuring monsters and rejecting the mask--I am unable to consider Bin Laden as part of the human family. 

This is dangerous.

When I read that paragraph in Coll's piece, all I could think was, "What kind of human would tell his own son to give his life for the murder of innocents?" The fact is that Bin Laden is not the first man who's hated "his enemies more than he loved his sons." But that quote put it all in stark relief for me.

One of the motivating beliefs behind this blog is that people are people, that tags like "madman," "evil" and even "terrorist" are, very often, escape hatches which allow us to avoid the hard work of understanding the evil encoded in all of us. Often I argue that slaveholders\Confederates\whoever must be seen as humans. And yet here I am reading a manifestly true sentence like this...

We can all agree that killing bin Laden was the right and just thing to do. But it's well past time the U.S. government had a serious conversation about exactly when and where assassination is an appropriate tactic.  

...and weighing against a list like this, and finding that I really don't care how they shot Bin Laden, that I am fucking giddy they shot Bin Laden. 

It is such a scary thing when it happens to you, when your principles become alleged and incidental, when you lose interest in the debate. It is so very dangerous to make exceptions. It is so very dangerous to go cold.

*Douglas Sidialo, who lost his sight in Osama bin Laden's 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, prays at the memorial remembering the victims in Nairobi, Kenya, on Monday, May 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi) More world reaction assembled by The Atlantic here.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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