Osama: a frail, pathetic poser
For nearly a decade, the question of what Osama bin Laden might look like ran a close second to where he might be located.
Do years of murderous terrorism escalate the hair greying process? Would he be with beard or without? And what are the dress regulations for 21st Century villainy? Semi-criminal or smart homicidal?
In the long years between the September 11 terrorist attacks and Operation Assassination, these were key questions faced by US authorities as they tried to keep the visuals on their wanted posters and card decks up to date.
Using digital enhancing software, the FBI produced a steady drip-feed of bin Laden mug shots featuring the terrorist with a range of looks including variations in hair and headdress stylings.
Yet despite these elaborate know-your-enemy measures, the candid “home videos” of bin Laden now released by the Pentagon have left the free world reeling. Our shock is not because they show the über bomber up to unspeakable dastardliness. It’s because they depict him looking so desperately ordinary.
This is particularly true of the short, soundless clip of bin Laden flicking obsessively between ancient news footage of himself on a clunky, old-school television. Apart from a spot of nyeh-heh-heh beard stroking, al-Qaeda’s terrorist-in-chief looks more like a custard-slurping superannuate than a sinister mastermind.
His “lair” – which reportedly contained beard dye and virility enhancers – is a chaotic mess of power adaptors, dangling cables, unmatching furniture and what looks like a large, embroidered salami. Then there are his bedwear-as-daywear wardrobe choices: a lumpy wool hat and a draped shoulder blanket the colour of cow manure.
Forgive the age-ism, but it’s amazing those US navy Seals didn’t mistake him for some crusty old grand-dude and storm straight past.
Of course bin Laden’s embarrassingly doddery look is in start contrast with the juvenile nature of his chosen activity in that he’s bewitched by images of himself on television. Ah yes, this epitome of anti-Western cultural values actually had the fame whorism of a delinquent red carpet starlet.
Presumably the old “don’t you know who I am?” line was a no-go in local Abbottabad restaurants, but how long before the Pentagon releases covert footage of this repugnant prima donna Googling himself?
And how tragic that he couldn’t have screamed “me, me, look at me” via more socially acceptable Western celebritisation methods such as starring in a weight loss reality television program or storming off the set of Two and a Half Men during a cocaine bender…
Anyway, as the world watches the founder of al-Qaeda watching himself, many punters are expressing amazement and perverse delight at the extraordinary disconnect between this frail poncho-wearer and the evil genius image of Osama that has circulated up until now.
A few, dirt-keen commentators are scrabbling to frame bin Laden’s television viewing habits as evidence of diabolical media savvy, but most are seeing it as A-grade pathetic-ness.
It is tempting to indulge in schadenfreude and superiority complexes. Yet it’s also important to remember that bin Laden is not alone in attempting to spin and glorify himself in the media. From Hollywood to houses of parliament, stretch marks are airbrushed out, pecs are painted on, and lies are repackaged as non-gospel truths, non-core promises and inoperative statements.
Civilians have also become adept at hyperbolic self-promotion thanks to social media platforms such as Facebook – which ensures that everyone with an internet connection suffers from low-level micro-fame.
Few net-dwellers advertise their enjoyment of ironing or going to bed early, just as no-one posts recent, non-polished photos of themselves on dating sites. Like bin Laden, we don’t want the drabness of our actual existences circulating in the wider world.
So what are the ramifications of this widening gulf between real life humanity and the shiny shiny renditions circulating in the media and the cybersphere?
The most optimistic conclusion is that we can fully integrate these two conflicting versions of ourselves; that we accept, with good humour, the lumpy thighs, unmanicured body hair and unremitting ordinariness of real life, rather than feeling disappointed that they fall short of perfection.
A more pessimistic (and patronising) take is that we the punters are too stupid or too naïve to deconstruct media tricks – even those of our own making.
Here, it is worth pointing out that debates about representations of reality and its influence on the masses go back a long way. Plato disses mimetic poets who fashion “phantoms far removed from reality”, expressing angst about the “senseless element” that cannot tell reality and truth from dim imitations of these things.
Don DeLillo’s book, White Noise, also captures concern about what is real and what is not. In this cult novel, a simulated evacuation team arrives to assist townsfolk fleeing an airborne toxic event. “But this evacuation isn’t simulated,” complains the protagonist. “It’s for real.”
“We know that,” a SIMUVAC chief replies. “But we thought we could use it as a model.”
Reality, as it turns out, is no match for a high-quality simulations of reality and the SIMUVAC chap complains that victims aren’t laid out where the team would want them to be if this had been an actual simulation.
Oh what tangled webs we complect when first we practice to represent.
My position on these debates is that modern newspaper readers, TV viewers and internet surfers have extraordinary media savvy and are aware of the tension between what is shown and what is. But the messy business of being human has always been hard to accept – and I suspect that the proliferation of hyper-polished presentations is making this task even harder.
With a figure such as bin Laden, one of the risks of believing the hype is a privileging of grand ideology at the expense of quotidian psychology and criminality. Thus we create a worldwide war between Islam and the west, rather than concentrating on the prosecution of one sociopathic narcissist and his flunkies.
Away from international terrorism, the danger for the rest of us is that we become overly attached to the posing and polishing permitted by DIY media spin doctoring. The risk here is that the dishevelled business of relating to the world in an unmediated form feels increasingly undoable.
Instead of (or at least in addition to) getting our gloat on over these non-glam shots of bin Laden, we should remember that we’re all vulnerable to exposure via the equivalent of a “celebrity caught without make-up” moment in which our carefully coiffed and cultivated images clash with our circadian realities.
The unguarded moment is not automatically a shameful one.
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